This story was published originally on June 22, 2014.
Tucked away in a downtown art gallery is a uniquely Fresno story: An artist and a pediatric ICU nurse run Iron + Copper + Bronze, a blossoming business selling handmade high-end leather bags with American-made parts.
Bibi Bielat and Cathy Caracciolo – business partners and life partners – never intended to run such a company but are finding that their bags are increasingly grabbing the attention of consumers, shop owners, even Hollywood.
Every piece of the leather and waxed canvas bags with copper rivets are done by hand – from the cutting of the leather to the hammering of the copper rivets. They range from a small leather clutch for $55 to cross-body bags and totes ranging from $165 to $250.
Some have names such as "The Fulton" and "The Amador, " paying tribute to downtown Fresno streets. The women live in Fulton Village, one of the new apartment developments downtown, after moving here from Nashville 2 1/2 years ago.
So far, the bags are sold at Misc. Trading Co. at 2017 Tuolumne Street in downtown Fresno, on the Iron + Copper + Bronze webpage, on Etsy.com and at two stores in Oregon.
The bags are made in a back room at 1821 Gallery & Studios on Calaveras Street. The women use artist Bielat's studio, which she normally uses to paint – in itself a unique process involving paint with ground iron, copper and bronze in it and adding acid to give it a patina and rust look. You can see her art and the bags when they open the studio to the public at ArtHop the first Thursday of every month from 5-8 p.m.
Bielat runs the business side of Iron + Copper + Bronze. Her fiancé, Caracciolo, is the craftswoman – or "worker bee" as she says – who makes the bags. When she's not working night shifts tending to critically ill or injured children, she'll often work late into the night, hammering rivets into bags on the kind of anvil you see in cartoons.
"It's so great to know who's making them, " said Álvaro Romero, owner of Misc. and a downtown supporter. "I love supporting anyone that's genuinely passionate about living and working downtown."
He began selling the bags at his store in November – at a slightly lower price than online – and customers gravitated to them, compelled to touch and feel the leather.
This style of bags is popular right now, Romero says.
"There are a bunch of other designers doing similar things, but not in the same way and not with the same quality, " he says.
Some shoppers balk at the cost, but Romero notes that other designers charge twice as much for bags of lesser quality. The bags cost so much because the parts are sourced from American companies.
"If you want to make 'Made in the USA, ' the cost immediately goes up, " Caracciolo says.
Buckles bought from Asia cost 2 cents each. Buckles made in the USA cost $1.29 each.
Plus, each bag takes between four and eight hours to make.
The couple never planned to start a bag-making business. At first, they stumbled into making heavy duty aprons. They had seen a "super bitchin' " apron made from leather, denim and copper rivets for $90 in a store and wanted to see whether they could make one themselves.
Caracciolo did and soon the pair began selling them.
Caracciolo channeled the sewing lessons she took as a 12-year-old, making aprons from old Army tents and breaking dozens of sewing machine needles. They eventually invested in a vintage industrial sewing machine from US Sewing Machine Co. in central Fresno.
"We spent $800 on a machine, so now we're committed, " Bielat said. "All of a sudden, we're in this apron business, which we never intended."
But the market for such heavy-duty aprons is limited, so Caracciolo tried making a bag. The first one was "so ugly, " but they quickly improved – and so did Caracciolo's arm strength as she gained the muscles to hand-cut the tough rivet posts with nippers.
"This isn't dainty, " Caracciolo says. "I feel like an 80-year-old arthritic when I wake up in the morning."
They bought a second sewing machine, lugging the 400-pound plus machine up two flights of stairs in their home where the sewing happens.
Bielat and Caracciolo are a little amazed at their own success.
The first time they saw a woman carrying one of their bags in Whole Foods they giddily "stalked" her through the aisles.
After friend and professional photographer Clay Enos took magazine-quality promotional photos and put them on Instagram, the bags caught the attention of movie producers working on a major film.
The producers placed a large order of bags with the movie logo – the couple can't say which film since they signed a nondisclosure agreement – to give as gifts for the cast. Now Bielat and Caracciolo watch celebrity gossip show TMZ to see whether they can spot a celebrity carrying their bag.
They started selling the bags in November of last year. After a "this could work, oh my God, " moment, they sold out of all their bags at Romero's shop and their own supply before Christmas.
They've continued to make new ones and are working on new bags, including messenger bags, bags that attach to bikes, "tool rolls" that can hold knives or paint brushes and travel/toiletries bags.
"I'm sure it's just a matter of time before they get picked up by some bigger (stores), " Romero said.