Today we are posting the second part in a three-part interview with Joshua Hyman, a gemologist and appraiser on Jewelers’ Row. This post focuses on present day operation of Joshua’s business and how it functions within the context of the jewelry district. As one of only a few gemologists on the row, Joshua is asked to provide appraisals for makers, wholesalers, and retailers on the row. In this capacity, he does business with the full range of types of jewelry professionals along the supply chain operating on Sansom St.
PART 2: HOW THE ROW WORKS TODAY FROM A GEMOLOGIST’S PERSPECTIVE
KW: When jewelers’ come to you with gemstones for appraisals, do you find that it’s mostly local, they’re coming from the row, from the diamond district, from Philly?
JH: From within Philly. Within 30 miles of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a hub for most jewelers that exist within 50 miles, but most come from an area of 30 miles. It’s a hub, so if you have a jewelry store within 20 or 30 miles of here, you’re most likely going to come to Philadelphia to get what you need to get done – watch repairs, jewelry repairs, appraisals, odds and ends, things like that for your store.
KW: So you’ve been doing that in this location now for four years, and you were kind of doing the same thing before that with the wholesale buying? So, you were able to make a name for yourself on the row over the last sixteen years.
JH: Yes, both working for myself and while I was working for my previous employer. He [Marshall Asnen] legitimized me, he taught me everything I know and also legitimized me. When I left, it wasn’t difficult at all to continue to do what I was doing anyway, but for myself. Because of where I was working before. His high standing raised me, totally.
KW: Since you have established yourself, people come to you knowing that you provide this service at this high quality. Do you get most of your business through referrals, do you have the same people coming back to you over and over again?
JH: Referrals and coming back over and over again, yeah, sure.
KW: One of the things I want to know is what that interaction is between you and other jewelers in the diamond district here.
JH: Retail stores are geared towards sales, and the owners and managers and the sales people rely heavily on the information provided to them from their vendors, so I help fill in the gaps when they buy something or they’re considering buying something from somebody that is not a vendor. Maybe from the public or maybe from a vendor they don’t know, and they just don’t have the information they need to make an educated purchase and then resell. They come to someone like me for that information, and I’ll be able to tell them, “Look, this is no good. This is glass.” Or “This is incredible. This is a not treated stone and it’s worth a lot of money.” Or “this is a signed piece.” Many times I guide them as to what to sell it for or where to sell it, because many times just because you have a jewelry store on Sansom St., it doesn’t mean you only have a jewelry store on Sansom St. You can auction things, you can have clients outside of the city who understand that particular product better than people who live in the city. I’m sort of like a gap filler for these people.
KW: Do you interact much with the jewelry arts people, with the craftspeople?
JH: Yeah. Whether you’re a craftsperson or you’re a retailer or any other part of this trade, when a question arises and you don’t know the answer when it comes to a gemstone, there are certain people like me who you would want to ask that question. I’m one of a few people on the street that you can go to to ask those questions and get those answers.
KW: Anyone through the process of getting the stones to selling the jewelry, they can come to you for information or advice about what they’re working with?
JH: They could, yeah. They might once a year, they might once a week, they might once every two years. Whenever the need arises when they need information I’m one of the people available that they can go to for that.
KW: Beyond the history that you and your family have on Sansom Row, what do you think makes it a special place for the jewelers and yourself?
JH: Well, it’s an extended family. So, I’m dealing with certain people who are also 4th generation, so I know their history.
I know their parents dealt with my parents or their grandparents dealt with my grandparents. We know about stories, some are funny, some are grand, some are exciting, and some are terrible, but you’re not just dealing only with the person in front of you. You’re dealing with, if you want to look deeper into it, you’re dealing with families to families. It’s a familiarity, it’s seeing somebody’s face and seeing their parents in their face, or their grandparents, in their face.
It gives you a level of familiarity or of comfort, and that creates a better atmosphere to work in and to live in. Doing what I do in a bubble somewhere else would not be as fun or as interesting. But doing it here where I’m interacting everyday with not just people, but with families with entire generations behind them. We might have interactions that we don’t speak of the past in anyway, but if we step back and we think about it, our interaction was so much easier because of the past. Sometimes we actually bring it up, we talk about it and we share historic pictures and whatever. Also, watching the next generation go from 0 to 100, watching new immigrants come to this country who start from nothing. Michael Tang who bought our building came to this country as a refugee from Cambodia. Literally the American Dream, went from nothing to buying a building for over a million dollars in a 30 year span. Only from hard work, no welfare, no help no support from the government, just hard work. His story is amazing. If you ever want to interview anyone [interview Michael Tang], because he’s as much a part of Sansom St. as anyone else. There’s the whole… there’s Italians, there’s the Jews, there’s the Southeast Asians, there’s the Russians – they all are part of this street now. And nothing’s really changed in that sense. If you look at the old, historic pictures the names on the walls are not Anglo names. There always have been German or Russian or Italian. This has been a melting pot and it stays a melting pot, this street.
KW: That’s one of the most incredible things about the row.
JH: Right. It’s not just one group of people. We all interact with each other and the language or the thing that bonds us is the jewelry.
There’s no culture or language or race or religion in a diamond, it’s just a product that we both love. Whoever I’m dealing with on the street, it’s irrelevant where they’re from. What’s relevant is the stone or the deal and how we make that happen. The history, it’s just under the umbrella of a familiar history, which is nice.
When the Southeast Asians first came in the late 1970s, they weren’t accepted right away and they were put into the worst jobs. Because they worked hard in those jobs, they were able to excel, put their kids through high school, then college, and then open their own businesses and then create their own community here. In spite of the obstacles in front of them, they succeeded like everyone else did here. Which is amazing.
KW: That’s incredible. When you think about other people on the row and people with similar storied family pasts that have to do with either the row or just jewelry, how many people do you think along Sansom have that kind of history?
JH: 75% minimum. Maybe more. And to tell you the truth, when I meet people who are first generation, they have no history or family history on this street or in the business, but they decide they want to be in this business – it isn’t too long before I see them bring their kids every day and then seeing the next generation. If 75% of the street is like me and can go back at least one to three generations behind, of the other 25%, maybe 5% of that I’m already seeing the next generation coming in. It’s definitely a generational thing.
KW: That fact in itself gives Jewelers’ Row that intangible value.
JH: Yes. There’s no Zales or Jared’s. It’s all family owned business. Then when you dig deeper, it’s all multi-generational owned business all of it.
Come back tomorrow for the final installment of Joshua Hyman’s interview where we discuss the character of Jewelers’ Row and its uncertain future.