Dan Lund, left, Rachel McCartney with daughter Violet Christy, 4 months, and her partner, J.C. Christy, at Deep In Design. The trio were happy to take the press from Roulet Jewelers, who have moved to smaller quarters on Lewis Avenue.
Strewn about the studio shared by J.C. Christy and Rachel McCartney is a century’s worth of Toledo history executed in cold, hard steel.
Within the collection are dies representing Champion Spark Plug and Willys Overland, local clubs and fraternal organizations, sporting events and anniversaries.
Once the tools of the Roulet Co., a 138-year-old Toledo-based jewelry manufacturer, the dies were used to stamp out pins, plaques, jewelry, and promotional items. Many were hand cut; some are more than 100 years old.
Roulet had little use for them nowadays, though. Company officials say some 97 percent of their business comes from Masonic jewelry. They’re hanging onto what they need for those products, but the rest was history.
“There were 7,000 dies there. A lot of them are old dies,” said Gary Wahl, the 78-year-old owner of the Roulet Co. “We haven’t used any of those dies in probably 30 or 40 years. They just sit there.”
With the business’ recent move from a downtown store to a smaller space on Lewis Avenue, the dies had to go. “There’s a lot of history in Toledo there,” Mr. Wahl said. “But somebody's got to store them and figure out what to do with them.”
Luckily for Toledo, they’re being preserved.
A pair of Toledo artists who work in jewelry and metals, Ms. McCartney and Mr. Christy are the kind of people who dig through scrap heaps and see gold where others see rust.
Deep In Design now must sift through 5,000 dies. But they have found some deeply connected to Toledo, such as a collection of dies from Willys-Overland Motors.
“It’s just the same as all the other scrap metal and found objects that we love so dearly,” Ms. McCartney said. “We’re taking this piece of metal that used to be one thing and reinterpreting it with our own vision and our own concepts.”
Mr. Christy and Ms. McCartney, along with business partner Dan Lund, run Deep in Design Toledo. The three founded the small company in 2013 after Mr. Lund got a lead on a commission project for a high-end retailer in Vail, Colo.
That project ultimately fell through, but the trio have secured other commission work since, including a pattern for a plaster-ceiling medallion that will be sold through a national home decor retailer.
“After being in business for almost three years now, I think it will start to come into its own,” Ms. McCartney said.
Their connection to the Roluet Co. grew out of talks to acquire the giant cast-iron press the jeweler had been using for the last century.
The agreement went something like this: If you take the hulking thing out of our building, you can have it. The press, which looks something like a steampunk Atlas, shouldering giant discs instead of a globe, is now bolted to the floor in their studio.
Deep in Design had been looking to get a large press, but buying a new one that large would have been cost prohibitive, and likely they could not have found one the same quality and stability anyway.
For such a large industrial machine, the press exhibits a lot of finesse. It can delicately emboss thick paper or stamp high-carbon steel. It easily stamps a crisp design into a quarter.
“This thing is so smooth,” Ms. McCartney said. “The engineering is so perfect.”
They had immediate needs for the press. The dies? That’s going to take some thinking.
Ms. McCartney and Mr. Christy hadn’t event initially planned to take them, but they grew more interested as time went on. In part, they were concerned someone might think of scrapping the dies, even though they wouldn't have brought much money.
When the auction was announced, Ms. McCartney quickly took up a collection from friends and went to bid. Twelve-hundred dollars got her 5,000 dies.
Many of the dies will be on display at the Main Branch library’s Blade Rare Book Room early next year, and Deep in Design owners are working to come up with product ideas.
“We had really hoped to get the whole collection and keep it intact, but we got the lion's share of it so we’re pretty happy,” she said.
Though they sought out some specific dies — such as a beautiful Willys station wagon — most came in large, unsorted lots. In many cases, they had no idea what patterns they were buying.
Sorting and identifying the dies is the first step. They’re working with a local Freemason to help identify the masonic emblems and make sure they’re properly respected. They’re also in contact with some of Roulet’s old employees and have reached out to the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library for help identifying others.
Early next year, many of the Roulet dies will be on display at the library’s Blade Rare Book Room.
“We were interested historically — the company was a major player — but also artistically as an object,” said Jill Clever, manager of the local history and genealogy department at the library. Making them available to the public is as important as using them, the new owners say.
“This will be as much a community-owned historical endeavor where we can do demonstrations and do displays of the historic dies and do all this community stuff as well as make money for our company,” Ms. McCartney said. “There’s more than the dies that we can use here.”
They expect to use some of the dies in commission pieces, though they also think there can be other opportunities to make more standard products to sell. They’re also getting intriguing ideas from the public, such as using the dies to make chocolate molds.
Mark Lofgren, a longtime employee at Roulet, said the dies are a historical curiosity, both for Toledo because of the local connection and because of the craftsmanship that went into them.
“That kind of tool and die makers are kind of being replaced with CAD operators now,” he said. “It’s just so much easier to generate the same artwork on a computer and send a file off to somebody who plugs it into their machine and, boom, they’ve got the die. It’s just another of the dying crafts.”
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