A Madison company has been helping to keep things together for more than 80 years.
Gem Dandy, a belt manufacturer, has been in business in downtown Madison since 1914. The company was originally named the Penn Brothers Suspender Co. By the start of the Roaring'20s, it was renamed the Gem Dandy Garter Co., and it is now simply Gem Dandy.Don Wilson, the vice president of manufacturing, said that although the company started making belts in the '40s, they weren't the firm's primary product until the early '90s. Until 1993, Gem Dandy also had an apparel operation in the building directly behind Madison's town clock, in the plant where the belts are now made. Past products made by Gem Dandy include garters, sleepwear and women's underwear.
Gem Dandy makes belts for its own product lines, Danbury and Lyntone, as well as for Bill Blass and Carhartt. Gem Dandy also has the exclusive rights to make belts licensed by the PGA. The company has five different catalogs for its products.
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``Our name is an old established name, but people like brand (names),' Wilson said.
Upon entering the factory, workers and visitors are greeted by the warm, earthy smell of leather.
Gem Dandy uses finished cow hides for all of its products. The leather arrives in large, oddly shaped sheets. Workers trim the leather, make the edges even and square off the sheets. Scraps of leather are used to make loops for the belts or are sold to companies that make smaller leather goods.
``We generate more scrap than we could ever use,' Wilson said.
In a process similar to paper being shredded, a machine cuts the leather into long, thin strips the width of the belt. After the actual belts are cut, another machine rounds off the edges. Still another then punches holes in the belt, trims and shapes the edges and stamps the size on the back.
After the belt has been sized and shaped, its sides are painted either by hand or by machine, and any stitching then follows. The last step involves fastening the buckles and any ornamentation to the belt, which receives a final inspection.
The workers of Gem Dandy tend to stay busy. Wilson estimates they make between 16,000 and 18,000 belts a week.
Although the belts follow a definite step-by-step process, Gem Dandy does not operate a usual assembly line. The belts move from point to point through the spacious factory in large, wheeled bins. Almost 50 factory workers perform a variety of tasks. Wilson said that if each individual just did one task all the time, someone might work for just four or five hours a day and then have nothing to do.
The average length of employment is 17 years; Wilson said many employees work there all their lives.
Employees are eager to tell visitors about their tasks and show off what they are working on. Several workers wear Gem Dandy-produced belts.
``Sometimes you've got to think when you're making it, 'Would I want to walk in a store and buy it?' ' said plant manager Ramonda Neal.
Gem Dandy's belts, in stores throughout the United States and world, offer almost 150 different types for men and women: brown belts, black belts, belts with different designs on the leather and cloth belts. Some of the belts are elegant and classy, others look perfect for a day at the rodeo.
And yes, they still make suspenders.