BY HANNAH RACHEL CARROLL
Inside the Hubbardton Forge factory in Vermont, the steady clink of metal can be heard. Although that sound harkens back to an earlier time, it now represents the new American dream, as blacksmiths combine techniques of the past with the latest technology to create today’s lighting fixtures.
“When you look at a Hubbardton Forge fixture, you’re looking at true American craftsmanship,” says Design Director David Kitts. “It’s not only a work of art that illuminates a room, but an heirloom that holds enduring value.”
In an age of mass-produced, machine-made products, Hubbardton Forge represents hope in domestic manufacturing. The company has also become one of the most respected brands in the lighting industry. What began with two friends, an old barn, and a few blacksmithing tools some 40 years ago, has grown into one of the country’s largest commercial forges with nearly 250 employees. Its home-grown history is one of the many reasons retailer Jill McKearny, owner of Your Lighting Source in West Haven, Conn., features it in her showroom.
“I’m really big on family,” says McKearny. “I like dealing with Hubbardton Forge because it feels like I’m dealing with family.”
McKearny has worked in the industry for more than a decade, after a part-time gig evolved into an undeniable passion and career. Even her own relatives caught the bug. McKearny’s son, daughter, and daughter-in-law are industry reps and managers.
Within her 2,000-sq.-ft. showroom, McKearny also has Salt Lake City, Utah-based lighting company Hammerton on special display. Much like Hubbardton Forge, Hammerton was founded by two ambitious men with a passion for metalcraft and an obsession with aesthetic and functional design. Since 1995, the company has gained a reputation for creating lighting fixtures that are beautifully crafted and detailed to fit each customer’s unique specifications.
“I call it my ‘American-made’ corner,” McKearny says. “I believe it’s important to showcase these companies and the display has really resonated with my customers. People get excited when they learn these pieces were made in the U.S. It’s a great selling point.”
McKearny says the only downside is the price tag.
Across the country in Oklahoma City, Stacey Loud agrees. Loud is VP/Lighting & Controls for retailer Hunzicker Lighting and has worked in the industry for more than 20 years.
“Domestic costs more,” Loud says, adding the higher price is initially a deterrent. “Most customers don’t want to go for a fixture that costs 20 to 40 percent more. Once they learn the story behind the fixture though, things change. When a customer hears the unique details of a piece… that it was hand-forged and individually stamped, the higher price doesn’t seem so bad. Everyone wants something in their home that no one else has — that’s the tipping point.”
According to a Consumer Reports survey published in 2017, almost 78 percent of American consumers would rather buy an American-made product over an imported one — and 60 percent would agree to a higher premium for it. Many believe there is a certain level of quality in American-made products one cannot find in those made overseas. This especially holds true for retailer Bob Warmbold, founder of Accent Lighting, who carries more than 10 “Made in the USA” brands in his Oregon showroom.
“There’s no comparison,” Warmbold says. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Americans would favor American-made goods. Why wouldn’t they? American manufacturing means American jobs. That should make consumers feel good about their choice, and even in some small way, feel like they’re contributing to the growth of their own economy. If it’s available, both physically and financially, I believe American-made is the way to go.”
When it comes to what classifies as “American-made,” for Warmbold, there’s no wiggle room. Even a product with American parts assembled overseas is a half-truth. In his opinion, the entire lighting fixture must be made on U.S. soil.
“It’s like going to the grocery store and seeing ‘pasture-raised’ on a label,” he explains. “You want to believe that’s how they were raised, but really, those chickens probably never even saw the grass. Telling folks their fixture is American-made when it was put together in China is the same thing.”
Retailer Zach Blanchard, owner of The Lighting House in Shelburne, Vt., is a little more forgiving.
“As long as the design, some of the manufacturing, and the final assembly was done here, it can be considered domestically made,” Blanchard says. “I don’t see a problem having the smaller components come from overseas.”
In recent years, John David Finegan of the Texas-based rep agency Alison and Company, has noticed more customers asking for American-made products.
“People want to make a purchase they feel good about,” states Finegan, who joined the lighting.
Finegan joined the lighting industry after high school 15 years ago. He grew up down the street from Kate Grubb, whose parents, Tad and Sue Alison, hired him to work at their lighting sales agency.
“I started with data entry, then service and outside sales along with IT and infrastructure,” he says. “I never expected to stay, but I fell in love with the industry.”
Alison and Company represents several manufacturers, eight of which are made in America.
“As a group, we’ve always been fascinated by the manufacturing process,” Finegan comments. “We just finished touring [the factories of] all of our U.S. lines in the last year. It was an incredible experience and one we enjoy sharing with our customers.”
Like Finegan, Blanchard believes offering consumers the chance to meet the makers behind a purchase is a game-changer. The more that salespeople share a company or product’s backstory, the greater the odds of that customer deciding to pay more for the lamps and lighting in their homes. The growth of American-made goods will depend on retailers getting the word out and discussing the benefits of owning a domestically produced lamp or lighting fixture and the history behind the craftsmen who crafted it.
“These are the lines that have a quality… a design and craftsmanship you cannot find anywhere else,” Blanchard says. “It’s a niche for sure, but a niche we must cash in on.”