written by Paul Holewa
There’s a timeless quality to estate jewelry and antique-inspired designs that people appreciate and gravitate toward. That’s one of the main reasons JC Blackburn, based in South Florida, has built a successful Antique and Estate jewelry/Vintage-inspired manufacturing, jewelry business since 1996. From teenage apprentice to having the largest collection of vintage-inspired designs in the country, JC Blackburn’s story is one for the books.
For as long as JC and his two brothers can recall, they’ve been exposed to estate jewelry. “My father started dealing in antique and estate jewelry in the early 1970s,” says JC. “I started learning jewelry repair work when I was 14.”
After high school, the family business and interest in working with jewelry that helped JC earn some pocket money as a teenager, took an interesting turn. He decided to join the US Marine Corps (USMC). Camp Pendleton in California was his home from 1980 to 1983. During that time JC became a member of a Force Reconnaissance Unit (Force Recon/Airborne Scuba), an elite special operations team. JC says that this very intense mental and physical time in his life set the foundation for his code of conduct and work ethic.
After leaving the USMC, with the rank of Sergeant, JC decided to stay in the region to study sociology at Arizona State University, where he earned his degree. He then moved to Florida in 1990 and worked as youth counselor and school teacher for “at risk” kids. Four years later he took a job doing the bookkeeping for his father’s Antique and Estate jewelry business. In 1996, JC left his father’s business and started J.C. Blackburn.
Venturing out and running your own business is never an easy task. But JC is a Marine with training that constantly emphasizes to “improvise, adapt and overcome all obstacles in all situations”. After 25 years and counting it’s obvious this approach has worked.
JC has been traveling coast to coast sourcing antique jewelry, period pieces and pre-owned watches for 25 years. During that time JC has become good friends with many antique dealers throughout the country. This network of antique dealers has become more than collegial friends in the industry. Over time these relationships helped to build inventory, fill merchandise gaps with saleable goods and did so in many cases without cash.
“I’ve become a bit of a proverbial horse trader over the years,” says JC. “We all have a mental inventory and are aware of what we have, what we can sell and what we’re able to leverage in an out-of-market trade. I come across a pre-owned Rolex, for example, that I could sell but I know someone who has a better market for it. In that trade I could get some very good pieces for my company that perhaps they’re having a hard time selling. That’s kind of how it works for me and my network of antique and estate dealers.”
In 2001, JC decided to scale back the estate and antique jewelry portion of his business and do more with jewelry designing and manufacturing. With the antique and estate jewelry business in his blood, producing antique-inspired designs was a natural extension of his family’s history in the industry and his current business model.
Before making the leap into jewelry production official, JC made some trips to Southeast Asia. “In 1999, I took my brother Carl to Thailand to assist him in setting up a manufacturing operation,” says JC. “A year later my other brother Fletcher moved there and two jewelry making factories were up and running. They manufactured for me and other wholesalers who demanded high quality pieces at reasonable prices.”
Overseas production was a cost-efficient way to manufacture for his US retailers. Thailand was an easy choice given The Kingdom’s rich mineral resources as a global hub for colored stones and diamonds. Thailand also has a long history of creating magnificent art in different disciplines such as carving, painting and engraving so it’s no surprise that there are many highly skilled jewelers there as well to support gem and jewelry production.
JC started J.C. Blackburn’s finished antique jewelry with Art Deco platinum and white gold jewelry set with colored stones and diamonds. He focused mostly on the Bridal engagement rings, which had French cut color stones along with hand engraving and hand milgrain. This was a safe and prudent start for JC’s then budding manufacturing business. In time, other periods of design and influence were integrated into jewelry production. Currently, JC Blackburn has the largest collection of “true” antique style engagement rings in the US. JC states that just because a ring is made in a white metal, that doesn’t mean it is an antique/vintage style.
Then JC began producing his own designs based on influences of the past to create modern-day, Old World designs with an emphasis on quality materials and workmanship. “Antique styles are classy and very feminine,” says JC. “I don’t believe they will ever go out of style. This style [Art Deco] has been around for 100 years.” His focus is on design, finishing detail and creating sturdy rings to last a lifetime and more.
Although JC dedicates much of his day-to-day operations to the jewelry manufacturing portion of his business, the estate and antique jewelry side of company still accounts for a sizeable portion of his business.
“From time to time, as time permits, I do estate jewelry shows at stores,” says JC. “I show up and bring estate jewelry to show customers and the store sells them to their clients. There has been and continues to be a high demand for estate jewelry.”
COVID-19 and subsequent lock downs has resulted in a 20 percent drop in the estate event portion of his business. Still, in 2021 JC is hopeful that as retail restrictions lessen, business opportunities can return to pre-COVID levels.
As JC Blalckburn celebrates 25 years in business this year, he and his four sons, (JC Jr, Jonathan, Daniel and Christopher) who are all currently in college, are looking to expand the jewelry designs into more international markets. JC would also like to help his brothers in arms. “We’re in the process of creating a non-profit to gather funds to assist disabled vets, like myself,” says JC.