Armenian Jewelers Association in the Spotlight
The Armenian Jewelers Association has been working with jewelers around the community since 1998. Initially conceived as a professional organization gathering Armenian jewelers to help their counterparts in Armenia, the organization is now an integral part of the Armenian-American community and has branched out internationally. AJA’s West Coast president, Vatche Fronjian is optimistic that the organization has and will continue to impact the community, and Armenian jewelers, for many decades to come.
Asbarez Editor Ara Khachatourian met up with Fronjian at the Chatsworth, Calif. headquarters of Fronjian’s True Know manufacturing to discuss the organization’s mission and future activities. We present the interview below:
ARA KHACHATOURIAN: Please tell us about the Armenian Jewelers Association
VATCHE FRONJIAN: The Armenian Jewelers Association was established in 1998-1999. It started with a group of members putting together an association, with the intention of helping Armenian jewelers in Armenia. Sister branches were born. In the West Coast we started putting together members and we had over 300 members at the time, all motivated to help and support the association and of course the cause of helping Armenia at the time.
A lot of members did get involved. They opened up branches in Yerevan and started producing product and exporting it from there. Other members were able to purchase some of the products that were already produced in Yerevan, Until today, some of them still continue and I’m sure it’s helping both the jewelry industry abroad and jewelers in Armenia.
Over the years, the association evolved. As we see here on the West Coast, we started focusing more on the jewelers’the local jewelers. We’ve had our own problems, locally, and the association has always tried to help out and reach out to either the local’city’officials to help out the jewelers. Over the years we realized that our industry has prospered, and individuals are well off, companies are doing well, so we figured it’s time to give back to the community. As our duty’as Armenians and as jewelers’we starting thinking about ways to give back to the community. Of course giving back to the church to the schools was a priority. We converted the association into a non-profit with the mission of helping out educational [institutions] as well as the jewelers. We started generating funds for this purpose and we were able to help out four to five Armenian schools to assist students who are in need to pursue their education. This year, in particular, in regards to education, the Armenian Jewelers Association international board has created a scholarship fund to educate, each year, five young Armenian students who want to pursue jewelry as designers. They have created the fund educate them in Italy, and create young designers.
A.K.: I want to go back to the initial mission of the association, which you said was to help jewelers in Armenia. Was that to provide additional enforcement of the labor force or was it to use products that were in Armenia in order to promote that?
V.F.: This was a time when Armenia really needed help from outside. The burden was left on individuals to come up with ideas to either import or export product to and from Yerevan. Mostly, the manufacturers here found out that if they set up a factory in Armenia they would create jobs for local jewelers and the country will benefit from the trade. We also found out that jewelers in Armenia had product we could use and we started exporting them.
This year, the AJA, was finally able to set up a jewelry show’the first jewelry show in Yerevan. This was done under the new leadership of the international association, Mr. Gagik Gevorkyan. It was successful as a first step. I believe that in upcoming years it will be much more successful, with more members getting involved and exhibiting at the show. We believe that [the jewelry shows] will create more jobs, more trade than doing individual transactions.
A.K.: In September when the Diaspora Minister was here in Los Angeles, she singled out the jewelry show as one of the important projects that was done in Armenia. What was you expectation from the jewelry show and was it met you went to Armenia? And, what was their expectation?
V.F.: Sadly, I couldn’t attend this year’s show, especially since it coincided with the [20th] anniversary [of Armenia's Independence]. We set it up so the event would be on the day of the anniversary. Our president was there to do the opening and it was a pretty big event. It was a start with zero expectations from the jewelers who attended the show. The goal this year was not to do business there, rather it was to start a trend to inform the public that we’re going to be here. For the upcoming years we have different plans to create a prosperous show. In surrounding countries there is jewelry trading and there is not reason it cannot happen in Armenia. Armenian jewelers all over the world are very excited to participate, but we need some assistance from local officials. I believe by being persistent we will be able have a very prosperous show.
A.K.: I personally became acquainted with your organization some ten years ago when the Downtown [Los Angeles] redevelopment project was being proposed. There was talk of getting all of the jewelers out of downtown and other issues. What the experience like for the organization when it went from being a grouping of jewelers to becoming an advocate for jewelers?
V.F.: During that time, I, myself, was very involved with that project. I was on the Mayor’s committee and dedicated an entire year of attending meetings and discussions. We used our factory as a guinea pig to test the processes out. Eventually, we were able to pull through with the changes that the city required and we were able to relay all that to the other Armenian manufacturers. They all needed assistance. So through know-how, sharing information and educating each other we were able to move forward. We were able to survive through this. A lot of manufacturers are still there. Some of the buildings were shut down, because the landlords chose to do so, but the ones that followed the compliances were happy with them. I’m sure the jewelers benefitted from that. We were able to tweak a lot things’adjust them’and move forward.
A.K.: Let’s talk about the scholarship program you mentioned. Is it open to all Armenians around the world or are you focusing in just in Armenia?
V.F.: There are two programs. One of them is the scholarship funds that we have at the AJA West Coast, which we donate to the schools with minor restrictions and the school decided who benefits from that. As for the designers’ scholarship fund, that is being held by the international board and it’s open to any Armenian around the world who wants to pursue jewelry design. The information is on our Web site.
A.K.: Will you be announcing the application processes through the press?
V.F.: We are working through our circles. We believe we can choose, or pinpoint, the best candidates, because there are only five [slots]. We have not reached to the point where we turn to the press to get applicants. I believe, so far, we’re going to go through our Web site and through our circles. If we get to a point that we are unable to get the five candidates, then, yes, the press would be another option.
A.K.: How do you see the future of your industry? Some of the downsizing that has occurred has become permanent.
V.F.: We can look at it in a few different ways. If we look at it as Armenians and jewelry, the jewelry trade has been in our culture for centuries, if not a thousand years. On another note, I just want to say that the AJA has started a project of researching and putting together a book to preserve and maintain the Armenian heritage in jewelry. Being involved in this industry for thousands of years, we have survived. We are a creative people and we will stay in this industry. Overall, businesses have gone abroad from the United States, but some of it comes back. That’s the nature of business. Nothing stays static. There’s always change, but our responsibility, as AJA, is to help our members in order for them to evolve with the times and adjust so when things start getting better they’ll be ready for it.
A.K.: Do you see any differences of approach from young jewelers, be that creative or otherwise?
V.F.: For the past hundreds of years, if a young person wanted to pursue jewelry, he would apprentice, learn the trade and gradually move forward. Today, things have changed. In order to survive in the world, and make a brand, one needs to educate himself. We can’t stay uneducated, work as an apprentice and hope to make it big someday. That’s one of the reasons that we have this scholarship fund. We want people to go learn it as an art and then as a business.
A.K.: Do Armenians have something equivalent to the ‘crown jewels,’ where all that wealth is gathered in one place?
V.F.: Part of the research for the book is targeted at collecting information. They have hired a very good expert who has worked with National Geographic in the past and has experience in researching in this arena.
A.K.: Tell us about yourself. How did you get into the business?
V.F.: I learned it [jewelry] the old-fashioned way. I am a high school drop-out. Conditions were not the same in Lebanon so I had to work. I chose this industry because I enjoy it. I like it. I’ve studies some computer programming, but I chose to come back to this. I love this trade. I enjoy creating jewelry pieces. I started doing this when I was 19. I opened up my shop in Downtown LA when I was 21. That was 31 years ago! I stayed there for about 25 years and I’ve employed more than 150 people over the years as the business grew. When the economy hit us, we downsized and we decided to move out of Downtown LA to Chatsworth. We’ve been here for the past five years and we’re very happy. We’ve produced many different products according to the times. We have two brand names: True Knots and Vatche Designs that produce different products under different categories.
A.K.: As chairman of the AJA, where do you see your organization in the future?
V.F.: We have to remember that AJA is a jewelry organization first and our obligation is to serve jewelers. We want to network We want to help each other out, which creates more business for members. We would like to educate our members on new topics, new products and new equipment But, as far as being Armenian jewelers, we would like to help out the Armenian community as much as we can. It’s unfortunate that during the past three to four years, because of the economy, we haven’t been able to do a lot of it. We want to, but times are tough. I personally believe, the youth is the key to our success. If we educate them, we will be able to succeed. We have a new program for students who do not want to pursue higher education and want to learn trade. We want to create a program to help those students out.
We are also putting together young Armenian Jewelers club. We want to bring in the new generation of Armenian jewelers. We want to bring them together, create a club for them, so they start socializing and networking and grow together in the industry.
A.K.: We can’t talk about the young generation without talking about technology. How have technological advances impacted your industry?
V.F.: Technology has made great improvements. As far as equipment or software is concerned for our industry, there is tremendous impact there [of technological advances]. We have a lot of members who provide services to Armenian jewelers. As a matter of fact, a couple of months ago we held a seminar with one of our members, Logic Made in Pasadena. It was a technology seminar where different companies presented their products.