For the first in a series of oral history interviews for this blog, Kevin Wohlgemuth spoke with gemologist and appraiser Joshua Hyman. Joshua’s family has been working on Sansom St. for four generations participating in various aspects of the jewelry trade. Angelina Jones transcribed the discussion that Kevin and Joshua had at J. Hyman & Co. at 725 Sansom St. We have divided the discussion into three parts, which will be posted over the course of three days. This first part of the interview is focused on Joshua’s family history and how each successive generation worked to establish itself on Jewelers’ Row.
PART 1: FOUR GENERATIONS OF JEWELERS ON SANSOM ST.
Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): So, I’m hoping to get an understanding of what you do on the row. You’re a gemologist – licensed, educated…? Do they license gemologists?
Joshua Hyman (JH): No, the state doesn’t. It’s a diploma; it’s called a graduate gemologist. I have my diploma from the Gemological Institute of America.
KW: I’d like to get a feel for what you do and find out how that works with what else is going on on Jewelers’ Row and in the diamond district in general.
JH: Do you want to know the history of the family?
KW: Yeah, absolutely.
JH: First, and then we can end up with what I’m doing now.
KW: Was your family in the same business?
JH: I’m 4th generation. So, my great-grandfather, whose name was Ruben Littman, and Ruben in order to survive during the Depression, Ruben sent his wife and his son, my grandfather Marshall, to live with his mother-in-law in Philadelphia.
KW: From where?
JH: From Atlantic City, which is where Ruben is from. Ruben lived with his parents in Atlantic City and his wife and son lived with her mother at 4th and Locust. His mother-in-law had a boarding house, and Ruben would make a tour. It started in Atlantic City and he would come to Philadelphia to see his family, and he would go door-to-door in South Philadelphia, and he would ask people if they had any metals that they wanted to sell, hoping to buy precious metal. And he would pay them cash, I’m guessing he had a portable scale of some sort. Then he would bring the metals here, to Sansom St. During the Depression and before the Depression even, there were auction houses on Sansom St. So he would sell the metal to the refinery, to the metal buyers, and Ruben would use that money to buy home goods at auction. He then would take the home goods he bought at auction back to Atlantic City to sell on the boardwalk. That was his routine. He wasn’t the only one doing that. They were called “curb merchants.”
So, my grandfather was a boy at the time and my great-grandfather Ruben was doing this for many years. In , the US went off of the gold standard and the president ordered all of the gold coins melted. The mint had to stop producing gold coins and they instituted a license that you had to have in order to buy precious metals. You had to be registered with the federal government.
I actually have his original  precious metal license that was issued to him. It’s also evidence that I have that I’m 4th generation, which is cool to have.
As my grandfather was growing up, he was going to a South Philadelphia High School [Central], he was 16 and he wanted to work. My great-grandfather, knowing so many of the jewelers on Sansom St. got my grandfather a job as a runner for a poker game in the basement of 732 Sansom St. Guys would want cigars or cigarettes or a sandwich or whatever, my grandfather would go get these things during the game. One of the players in that game offered him an apprenticeship to learn how to be a bench jeweler and he took it. He excelled at it to the point that by the time he was twenty he was already a partner in his own business with someone and got married. He got married, but he did a terrible thing by marrying my grandmother during the Christmas season in mid-December. What happened was they were supposed to get married in September, but her sister (my great-aunt) got married first because her husband was being deployed to England for World War II, and my grandparents had to get married second. My grandfather was never enlisted. He was 4-F. So they got married in December, which is the busiest time for Jewelers, and had no honeymoon really.
They started living that typical life – they were having babies, and he was working, she was home. Then his partnership failed and he decided he didn’t want to be a jeweler anymore because he was so distraught over the partnership failing. They moved to Wildwood and they opened a boutique on the boardwalk and ran it for two years and were pretty successful doing that. Raising their children in Wildwood in the summertime and then were here in the wintertime. But then my grandmother decided that my grandfather should be a bench jeweler again. They came back and they went into business for themselves, now my grandmother was his partner. She ran the business side of it and he did the work side of it. Back in the early fifties, a woman in this industry was very rare. They built a business over the next forty years that became a pretty big business.
KW: Was that here on Sansom St.?
JH: Yes, on Sansom St. They wound up moving into 730 Sansom St., second floor. They wound up expanding and taking over most of the space and then they wound up buying the building from the owner after he passed away from his children. They owned 730 and 732 Sansom St. They had a pretty big business. It was called [Marshall Littman Manufacturing Jewelers, Inc.]. At one time they had about eleven employees. My mom then marries my father in the late 1960s. He starts working for my grandfather, his father-in-law. He winds up making a career there and in 1987 my grandparents decided to sell the business to my parents, but they did it in an arm’s length negotiation. My parents bought the business, but they hit a recession and they slowly lost the business over time, but because they owned the building, they wound up shutting down the business and just making it much smaller and moving to another location in the building and renting out that space. Since they owned the building, that helped them survive.
That was around the time that I was graduating from high school and going to college, I wound up deciding to visit Europe. While there (I was there for about a year) my parents offered to send me to a school in Germany to learn how to cut gemstones. So I did. I actually have a diploma on my wall for cutting gemstones from a German school in this historic village called Idar-Oberstein. Gemstones have been cut there for over five-hundred years, in medieval times almost.
Then I came home, and I decided I wanted to be in the gem business, but my parents had a manufacturing business. I tried to work for them, but I couldn’t do that work, I just wasn’t good with my hands. I decided to go to the GIA [Gemological Institute of America] in Los Angeles. I graduated from that in 1991. I then worked for a brief time in the Philadelphia area, for about six months and then I got a job in Aruba. I got a job as the in-house gemologist for a multi-store chain in Aruba and Curaçao. I was twenty-two, I was single, it was a great experience. I went there fully expecting to never leave. It was good. I learned retail, and management, and brands. Then I left Aruba after four years, because I met the woman I was going to marry. We decided to leave Aruba together, she lived there and I lived there, we lived together and then we decided to move back to Philadelphia and we got married. My parents really didn’t have space for me in the gem business on the retail side, so we decided to move to Miami, where we lived for four years. Aruba was 1992 to 1996 and Miami was 1996 to 2000. In Miami I worked for a pawn shop, which was the opposite of what I did in Aruba. I worked for a high-end pawn shop that only bought jewelry and paintings and silver. I learned how to buy, I learned how to evaluate. The guy I worked for was a high-level gemologist, so I learned high-level gemology.
KW: Were you doing any cutting work?
JH: Never did any cutting work after Idar-Oberstein. Never again. But I became a gemologist, an expert in gemstones – just no actual cutting.
Both our kids were born in Miami. After four years we decided to leave and come back to Philadelphia. I met a guy here in Philadelphia named Marshall Asnen, he used to own 740 Sansom St., before he sold it. I worked for him for 11 and a half years, and I learned everything about this industry.
Most importantly it was my homecoming. I had never really worked on Sansom St. until the year 2000. I was in Europe, I was in school, I was in Aruba, I was in Miami, so in 2000, I got introduced to my home, basically, where I grew up.
I started meeting people, putting down roots here on Sansom St. My parents in 2008 decided to retire, so they sold the business and moved to Florida. In 2011, I went out on my own.
KW: What was the work you were doing for Marshall Asnen, between 2000 and 2011?
JH: Wholesale buying and selling. I was buying from other dealers and the public and selling to other dealers and the public in an office situation. When I left on my own, we still owned 730 and 732 Sansom St. We decided to open my first business there, because the rent was free. My family helped me. Then we decided to sell in 2012. We got lucky and we sold right away. We sold the building to Michael Tang of Tang Jewelers. He purchased both buildings, so at that time I decided I wanted to go to a new location, I didn’t want to be in that building anymore and that’s when I moved here [725 Sansom Street], in 2012. So, I’ve been here and I’ve been here ever since, so I’ve been here for over four years now. It’s been great.
What I do here is I do appraisals for the trade. Other jewelers bring me jewelry that they sell to their customers who need insurance appraisals. As a gemologist, it gives insurance companies a level of peace and credibility, so that they can accept an appraisal of retail replacement value on an article. I also buy and sell from the trade. I work with other jewelers, I buy some of their inventory and then sell it to other jewelers for their inventory. That’s the basic nuts and bolts of what I do here. I consult – a lot of people on Sansom St. know me to be an expert on colored gemstones, so they’ll bring a stone to me for a consultation. Is it treated? Where is it from? What’s its value? Sometimes I do that for free, other times I charge a fee, and sometimes I actually buy it or buy it with them [the jeweler]. So, that’s what my business is here.
KW: Thank you for that storied introduction of your family and your business.
Tomorrow we will post Part 2 of the interview with Joshua Hyman which focuses on the current operations of his business and, in his opinion, how Jewelers’ Row functions as a community.