What a long, strange trip it’s been for Rio Grande’s production process. Up until five years ago, the business-to-business gems and jewelry tools cataloger had contracted its color separations to a firm in Hong Kong. But since then, the Albuquerque, NM-based cataloger has not only brought its seps business stateside, but it has also started doing much of the prepress work inhouse.

In 1993, the cataloger was spending $110 per page in Hong Kong for separations, including stripping and black art, according to quality control manager Mark Weber. In comparison, in the U.S. the same page would have cost Rio Grande $200, he says. Given that Rio Grande targets jewelers via three catalogs – a 550-page Gems catalog, a 450-page Tools and Equipment book, and a 200-page Display and Packaging catalog – each with annual circulation of 200,000, the cost differential was impressive.

Indeed, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a number of catalogers used overseas color separators, mainly in the Pacific Rim, as a cost-effective alternative to stateside separators. For instance, a four-color scan five years ago typically cost more than $100 in the U.S. but only $75 on average overseas, according to Ira Gold, president of Rockaway, NJ, prepress and automation consultancy Gold Associates.

In addition to better pricing, “the original appeal of overseas color separators and printers was craftsmanship,” adds Miriam Frawley, cofounder of Frawley and Greene, a New York multimedia design and marketing company.

Some of the craftsmanship resulted from the use of different inks. Asian colors tended to be richer and more saturated, and yellows, for instance, printed much warmer. But according to Rio Grande’s Weber, they didn’t always depict the product accurately. “One of the drawbacks in working with the Hong Kong company was that the inks were different,” he says “It was a definite learning curve for us.”

But in 1994, prices in the U.S. came down enough to convince Rio Grande to give its color seps business to a U.S. firm. It should be noted that Rio Grande is unique in that it works in a PC-based publishing environment compared to the more common Macintosh-based platform. The Hong Kong firm with which it worked was less experienced with the PC platform.

For the past five years, Rio Grande has been outsourcing its film output to a U.S. company able to handle the PC files. “Hong Kong was trying to come up to speed to accommodate the PC files, but we found that companies in the States had more experience,” Weber says.

As Ira Gold notes, “It’s hard to differentiate the economic benefits [of using an overseas color separator] unless the catalog is mailing overseas. And as more mailers create a front-to-back digital workflow, I can’t imagine anyone still using overseas companies.”

>From in-country to inhouse

Not only did Rio Grande switch to a domestic color separations company, but the cataloger also brought much of its prepress work, including photography and scanning, inhouse. “We do everything except output film,” Weber says.

In this respect, Rio Grande is part of a growing trend among catalogers. According to the 1999 Catalog Age Benchmark Report on Production (page 57), only 19% of respondents do not use an inhouse electronic or desktop publishing system, compared to 24% of respondents last year. What’s more, 14% of this year’s respondents produce high-resolution color seps inhouse, and another 11% are considering it.

By bringing photography and scanning inhouse, Rio Grande now pays only an average of $35 per page for color separations. “Plus, we have more control with a quicker turnaround time,” Weber adds. The color separation turnaround time on a batch of 50-100 scans takes three or four days, compared to a couple of weeks with the overseas separator.