Nifty '50s hair curlers meet the 21st century

In a large manufacturing plant in San Clemente, the product that took Jeanne James seven years to conceptualize and perfect began to take shape.

Through a large window facing the manufacturing floor, James watched as a worker loosened hundreds of pink silicone Spoolies hair curlers from a steel mold and inspected them before placing them in bins. On any given day, roughly 6,000 curlers are made.

For the South County resident, it's been a labor of love to develop the retro curler into a modern user-friendly product that is now being sold at 400 Wal-Mart stores across the country.

"This isn't just a hair curler to me," said James, who serves as founder and CEO of the San Juan Capistrano-based business. "This needs to be a quality part that is just right and works well and measures right. It's very much a part of who I am."

Created in the 1950s, the original Spoolies hair curlers allowed women to wrap their hair around rubber-based spools around and "sleep in comfort," resulting in "perfect pin curls" by morning.

James' association with the original Spoolies dates back to her childhood in Missouri, where she was the lone straight-haired girl in an extended family of curly heads.

"Everybody had curly, wavy hair but me," she said. "[My mother] wanted me to fit in, so she would give me an old-fashioned perm. You could smell it in your hair for at least a week."

Spoolies gave James an excuse to forgo the smelly perms and please her mother, so she wore them every night.

Fast forward to 1995, when she and her husband were in Kenya for their church and their charity, Children's Health Education and Leadership Project. There she was moved by the Kenyan girls who weren't given educational opportunities because of how expensive it was to send them to school.

"Ever since we left Kenya in 1996, it was engraved in my mind that these sweet Kenyan girls weren't going to get an opportunity to have an education," she said. "I can't help everyone, but maybe I can help a few, and the best way is to create a business. What can I do that I would love to be involved in and also help to benefit these girls?"

After doing charity work in Spain, the couple returned to the U.S. in 2003 and James began researching a business.

"I actually prayed about it, and I was just putting it out there that this is something I would really like to do for these girls," she said.

She remembered Spoolies hair curlers and searched online to find out that Conair gave up the trademark a year earlier. So she applied for it and acquired it three years later.

She worked to modernize the product, making it more pliable, heat-resistant and creating it out of silicone instead of rubber. She holds the utility and design patents for the Spoolies curler.

"It was a lot of trial and error," she said. "I had to learn a lot about manufacturing. Manufacturing is still very much a man's world. When you show up at a manufacturing plant with a part from the '50s and say, 'Can I make this?' You don't get a call back. You can't come unprepared. You have to respect it."

She immersed herself in the manufacturing world, hiring engineers to do two-and three-dimensional drawing of her curler. She attended trade shows and spoke to manufacturers about the molding process and what kinds of materials they used. She had prototypes made.

"You have to prove yourself, especially as a woman, that you're sincere and you really want to make this product," she said. "By the time I got to [my current] manufacturing company [in 2014], I knew exactly what I wanted to do."

James is seeing the work finally paying off for the company, which incorporated in 2014. Spoolies was one of a handful of businesses to receive a trendsetter award and prime placement at Cosmoprof North America, a major trade show that allow beauty manufacturers and entrepreneurs the ability to meet with industry buyers, distributors, retail buyers and salon and spa owners.

"​Spoolies was really well-received by the market as it fits in with the trend of styling the hair without heat damage," said Daniela Ciocan, Cosmoprof North America Marketing Director. "Both the media and the buyers loved the product especially since it's a refresh of a true and tested product popular in the '60s that actually works. And you can use it even with dry hair and no heat is necessary to give you wavy healthy hair."

That spurred interest from international buyers and from Wal-Mart.

After meeting with two buyers in June to pitch Spoolies at Walmart's Open Call for U.S. products in Bentonville, Ark., James' curlers —the smaller pink curlers and the blue jumbo curlers — are being sold or about to be sold in some 400 Wal-Marts in the U.S.

"Our customers are telling us that where a product is made matters," said Cindi Marsiglio, Wal-Mart's vice president of U.S. Manufacturing. "Second, we know there are some great advantages that come with a shorter supply chain when you can make your items closer to where you sell them such as cost reductions and potential job creation opportunities."

The company in 2013 committed more than $250 billion toward purchasing U.S.-made products and has been holding summits to attract home-grown businesses.

"Spoolies is one of those great examples," Marsiglio said. "We're proud of them and looking forward to seeing how the product does."

That product visibility is huge for her company, which expected business to grow exponentially in the coming years, James said.

"The possibilities are great for a small company like us," she said. "As the curlers are selling, I hope they sell welland expand our products to other stores."

As for her efforts to support Kenyan girls, James already is making good on that promise. She recently purchased laptops and beds for a dorm that can accommodate 50 girls.

"I would love Spoolies to grow to be able to help a lot of girls around the world," James said.

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