But the effortless cool-girl vibe almost seems an afterthought. In an industry relentlessly scrutinized for its sourcing of metals and gems, Bario and Neal care as much about their jewelry’s ingredients as they do the designs.
“It was the reason we started the business,” says Bario, 29. “We wanted to be designing and creative, but it’s such a destructive industry.”
Their gems are ethically sourced, their diamonds are “conflict-free” or recycled, and their metals are repurposed — a commitment that can be limiting as well as time-consuming. “So many things aren’t available to us,” says Neal, 30. “Rubies are an obvious example. The political situation in Burma creates a real problem ,and we don’t buy rubies from there. It’s constantly changing.”
They look for fairly traded gems that come from mines that adhere to environmental standards and offer healthy, safe, and fair conditions for workers. Their diamonds come from organizations or countries with governments that ensure the jewels are conflict-free (Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, highlighted how diamonds mined in African war zones are sold to finance the fighting). The pair also buy recycled diamonds, culled from old settings, cleaned, regraded, and resold.
The same standards are applied to metals. “Metals have no traceable history; they are eternally malleable,” says Bario. So they purchase sheet metal and wire from refineries that melt down metal from discarded electronics and cellphones, and even the metal dust that collects in rugs and sandpaper, separate out the alloys and end up with a good-as-new usable product.
While Bario and Neal’s outlook is global, their gratitude is local — especially because landing in Philadelphia was sort of dumb luck. After meeting at Oberlin College and reconnecting a few years later at a friend’s wedding, they discovered they were both making jewelry, but on opposite coasts. With their ethics and aesthetics in sync, they decided to open the business together in 2007 in neutral territory. (They moved the growing company from Spring Garden to Queen Village in 2010.)
They had friends in Philly, felt it was affordable, and it wasn’t too far from their families in Virginia and West Virginia. Plus, the vibe was appealing. “It’s a good place to start something,” says Neal.
They also credit the area’s resources. “Jeweler’s Row is one of the oldest and few remaining manufacturing communities,” says Neal, noting that much of the jewelry manufacturing industry has moved overseas. They work closely with stone setters, casters, enamelists, and engravers — old-school artisans, many within blocks of their studio. Besides not having the time and equipment to do some of these tasks in-house, Neal says “it makes more sense to support the people who have been doing it for years and years. It’s special to Philly.” They spend their time on the design, wax-model, and metal work, soldering, filling, shaping, and forming the pieces.
Although most of their custom-order patrons still find them online ( bario-neal.com ), their jaunty shop features their affordable Boutique line — think handcrafted earrings for as little as $58. In their shop, they can experiment with designs without having to commit to creating entire collections, and transform mess-ups into art. A caster once mistakenly flattened the braided pattern on a delicate rose-gold ring. Someone had the idea of putting a tiny diamond on the spot — and an error became a one-of-a-kind piece. A bracelet with a twiglike pattern emerged from a mold incorrectly, so the branches were turned into a whimsical asymmetrical necklace.
Like watching a chef cook dinner in a restaurant’s open kitchen, customers can observe the process — women in safety goggles hunched over delicate treasures to the tune of buzzing like a dentist’s drill — which adds a unique sense of drama and authenticity.
“I think it’s cool to show people how things are made,” says Neal. “You can understand and appreciate it more because you see it.”