Artist Spotlight: Sunburst Companies
From bracelets to badges, this family-owned company makes the medal that they peddle
By Abby Heugel
For more than 40 years, Sunburst Companies in Providence, R.I. has kept things in the family and the country – literally.
With around 50 employees, they’re proud to say that all their products – resort jewelry, gifts, souvenirs, pocket pieces, name programs, customs, educational and trendy accessories, etc.- are and always have been made in the U.S. In fact, Owner Donna Fantozzi said they try very hard to go out of their way to support Rhode Island first, New England and the U.S. for any supplies they do not make themselves.
“With so many temptations to source ourselves out of the country, we stood tough during very high and low times and kept finding products and ways to stay here in the U.S.,” Fantozzi said. “Overseas and other countries have certainly hurt and hindered many businesses here, including ours, but we continuously work at re-inventing ourselves and products.”
Those products are all cadmium and lead free, mostly made of all natural metals – predominantly solid copper, their first metal of choice – along with jewelers’ brass and German or nickel silver, sterling silver and 14 karat gold. Nearly all of the items have a natural look to them, slightly antiqued and finished by hand or in a tumble of soft dust before they bake-lacquer them for an everlasting look.
And with 40 years of history behind them, they have the experience to back up that claim.
When Fantozzi was 14 years old, her father decided to break away from the company he worked at to open a family business. Along with her mom and her sister, Fantozzi began creating and making jewelry, gifts, souvenirs and more. She would help out after school and weekends, and learned every aspect of the business and trade while continuing her education and specialty courses in design and photography, drawings and oil paintings.
“I have learned so much from my parents, and we’ve made a good team for 40 years,” Fantozzi said. “Mom moves the metal and is responsible for purchases and production flow, and dad continues to make models.”
When Fantozzi was 15, I started dating her now-husband, Joe, who was looking for a second job at the time. She got him a job with Sunburst where he learned about the business and how to make and run tools and dies, and they celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary this year.
“My sister, who has an accounting degree, did the same thing with her husband, who has a degree in engineering,” Fantozzi said. “He was also looking for a second job back in high school and they’ve been married 32 years. Our husbands came on board just a couple of years after we got started and make up a huge part of our success. It’s truly a family business!”
Step By Step
When it comes to that business, some operations and products are done by hand, and some by machine. Fantozzi always start with a sketch. It could be on a paper at the side of her bed, a napkin in a restaurant – whenever the inspiration hits her, especially when she travels.
“I’ve traveled all of the states except six and tried to learn about the history of the areas I’ve traveled,” she said. “It’s great to pull from and capture and create a special item of a place you’ve visited.”
Fantozzi also uses trade shows as a key to the company’s success – socializing with the vendors and reps, learning about new products and trends and using feedback for future production, which can take various forms.
“With our popular hiking/souvenir medallions, I start with a graphic drawing and name drop by hand,” she explained. “That design is then transferred to a machine that etches it onto a steel plate, and the plate goes through processes to become a stamping die that is then set into a press.
“Raw copper or brass reels of metal are fed through this press,” she continued, “the stamping die repeats the stampings as the reel moves and the progressive operations occur – piercing a hole, dapping and striking the design. The pieces are then moved to our finishing department, and then onto packaging and shipping.”
The twisted wire cuff bracelets are done differently. They’re not stamped from a press, but rather stretched and twisted and formed with the assistance of the strength of a press, then polished and finished by hand before packing and shipping.
Badges are also a big category for them and the process is similar to that of a hiking medallion. But once the badge is stamped out with its design, they set up the personal names to be stamped on them, then set them up again to form them, then again for applying the pin behind them and then on to hand polishing and finishing.
“Many people are driven to the warmth of copper and brass compared to the flashy fashion pieces,” Fantozzi said. “Because we are the manufacturer and design and make everything ourselves, including our displays, if we don’t have it, we usually can make it.”
Each destination has different needs, all of which can be addressed by the company. Fantozzi said a theme park or national park does well with name-drop badges, and they add an extra touch by not just dropping a personal name, but actually creating a logo or popular graphic from the area directly onto the badge, making it a collectible and personal keepsake.
A museum store does best with name-drop sterling silver collectible charm programs or the company’s popular bookmarkers, while an airport shop might not be able to keep their natural metal jewelry assortments in stock.
“National and state parks, forest, cavern, cave or campground shops all do well with our logo or personal graphic designs on a hiking or souvenir medallion,” Fantozzi added. “Zoos, aquariums and reptile shops hop on our huge assortment of animal, sea and reptile jewelry. There’s something for everyone.”
Because Sunburst Companies manufactures everything themselves, they are able to make an effort to be involved with recycling and donation and operate in an eco-friendly way. Fantozzi said they’re always looking for ways to conserve and save on energy and manufacture as green as possible, with one of their biggest energy savers being a four-day workweek.
“Around 12 years ago we started to shut down pretty much everything on Thursday night and we don’t get back in gear until Monday morning,” Fantozzi said. “We do work longer days Monday through Thursday, but the energy we save in heat, light, water, air conditioning etc. is major. We are also able to keep all those cars from the employees off the road an extra day, saving the environment from gas and emissions.”
By operating in a more eco-friendly way, Fantozzi hopes to be able to work with the natural metals as her medium for years to come.
“I always try to make something that is part useful, part nice looking and the best part is making it reasonable in price,” she said. “I like the endless ideas of how to manipulate all the pieces into something intriguing.”
And if they can keep it in the family – and the country – it’s a win for all involved.