EL PASO — Sitting on the back porch of his house overlooking West El Paso as the sun begins to set, Paul Dunham reflects on how far he has come from the days when he started his own jewelry manufacturing company from his small garage at the age of 33.
He remembers vividly how hard he had to work and the risks he had to take to pursue this path. “There were times when I thought to myself, what have I done? What am I putting my family through and the people I’ve hired? Will I be able to make this work?” Dunham recalls, from his living room sipping a small glass of Crown Reserve Whiskey.
Dunham Jewelry Manufacturing has been in business for 15 years, now employs 48 people and grosses about $5 million each year. Dunham rings have been featured in Hollywood films and TV series, such as High School Musical and Friday Night Lights. He manufactures rings and pendants for several local associations such as the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame, El Paso Police Association, El Paso Sheriff’s Association, El Paso Historical Society as well as UTEP’s Athletic Hall of Fame. The company has also produced championship rings for several universities and recently created the Miami Dolphins commemorative Super Bowl championship rings.
Dunham says he knew from the age of 18 that he wanted to one day own his own business. He was born in Anaheim, California in 1964 although this is not where he spent his childhood. His father was in the military service, and he recalls moving around often. “We would move about every two to three years, but I enjoyed that,” he said. “I lived everywhere from Washington State, to Maryland, to Holland and Germany, to here in El Paso.”
In El Paso, Dunham attended Coronado High. After graduating, he moved with his parents to Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle for about eight months. He learned quickly that the gloomy weather did not fit his personality and couldn’t wait to move back to the Chihuahua desert.
In 1983 he head backed to his favorite place. “I love the sunshine, that’s what really brought me back,” he said gleefully.
Although his parents did not approve of Dunham’s decision at age 18 to move alone to the Sun City, he prevailed.
“I knew I could make it on my own. I was determined.”
When Dunham returned to El Paso, he attended the University of Texas at El Paso for a short time, but was more interested in launching his career than seeking a college diploma and he left school.
Waking up in a small West El Paso apartment with makeshift furniture one morning, Dunham set out for his first day of work at a jewelry company named Silverman’s Factory. For several years he worked there as a runner and machinist at the factory, which has since closed. “Being a runner was basically doing whatever it was they needed me to do, and I was okay with that.”
After working at Silverman’s for about six years Dunham was promoted to director of manufacturing. “I knew I could manage the factory; I asked for the opportunity to let me prove it and they gave it to me.”
Not long after, the company was sold and underwent a change in management and owner. At this point Dunham, 33, began thinking of venturing out on his own. “I was unhappy with the direction the company was going and the way management was running,” he said. “It was time for me to do my own thing.”
He opened Dunham Jewelry Manufacturing in October 1997 in his garage in West El Paso. The company manufactured fine and custom jewelry and sold it to several retailers in and outside of El Paso. He knew there were risks as with any new enterprise, but he was not going to let anything stop him.
He used $30,000 of his own money to purchase the right equipment and tools. “I was risking everything, every single penny I had. I had a family to take care of, my wife and daughter,” he said, pausing for a moment. “I was risking everything for the unknown. But I knew if I worked hard I could be successful.”
The first several years he worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. to grow the company. From Monday through Saturday he was in charge of manufacturing the jewelry. He also marketed the merchandize and sold it. Sundays he sold the jewelry at Fox Plaza Flea Market.
“Trying to juggle everything was difficult but I always had faith in my ability to get to where I wanted to be.”
His wife, Stephanie Dunham, recalls this difficult time as well. She and her husband met at a restaurant in El Paso when she was 19 and he was 21. “I was being asked to dance by a guy that I didn’t want to dance with, and he (Dunham) came and saved me… and the rest is history!”
She remembers vividly his transition to business owner. “My biggest fear was, is this going to succeed? Is this going to work out?” she said. “But I believed in him and I knew that he could do this.”
Rick Chavez, a close friend who has worked for Dunham since the company opened, said the business’ success has been amazing. “I remember first opening up the shop in his small garage and how driven he was to make this business work. We worked some long hours,” Chavez said. “But we had a vision and we were willing to work hard to get there.”
Chavez said his friend and employer still possesses the same drive “…that I saw years ago. He’s always looking for new ways to expand the company and reach to bigger markets. He is full of ideas and and it’s exciting to help him bring these ideas to life.”
By 1998, with two full time employees and an established relationship with several jewelers in the city, Dunham moved his business into a building on Remcon Circle and continued producing custom jewelry.
In 2004 he began to specialize in class and military rings and needed to add additional office space. A year later, he moved into a 16,000-square-foot building that now houses the factory and a showroom.
He says he is proud that today Dunham Manufacturing competes against companies like Jostens, ArtCarved, and Balfour.
“We are the fastest growing class-ring company in the nation,” Dunham said with pride.
Although the big three class ring manufacturers are multimillion dollar businesses that have been around a long time, Dunham says that in just eight years his company has reached $5 million a year in sales and hopes to reach multimillion-dollar stature some day because of its factory sales discount pricing strategy. And Dunham constantly looks for ways to grow the company. He recently added three new categories to their ring offerings including family crest rings, fine jewelry and mother’s rings.
With the future looking rosy and the full support of his family behind him, Dunham has this take on the future: “The possibilities are endless.”