This is the third and final part of our interview with Joshua Hyman, fourth generation jeweler on Sansom St. This portion of the interview focuses on the character of Jewelers’ Row and why Joshua thinks the Diamond District is currently thriving. Joshua did not want to comment on the development proposed by the Toll Brothers.
PART 3: WHY JEWELERS’ ROW IS IMPORTANT
KW: You said you don’t want to talk about the proposal [for development] at all?
JH: Not at all.
KW: Okay. That’s fine. Is there anything else that you want to tell me?
JH: I think Jewelers’ Row is in a very good place right now. That the world is changing again. The world goes through changes maybe every 75 years or so. We’re doing that right now with… brick and mortar traditional avenues of selling are changing, country-wide not just here. Jewelers’ Row is going to have to adapt, and I think it will. I think it already is, that’s the beauty of what is done here, the more personal experience, the more hands-on experience, the more you feel like you’re in the historic thing. It’s not just a cookie-cutter sterile environment. There are creaks on every board. There’s old glass all around you.
KW: Right, it’s the character of it.
JH: It’s a character that can’t be replicated. I think the street is slowly, but faster than the rest of the country, but slowly understanding that it needs to sell that to its customers – the new Millennial customer. And through different means, through social media and pop-up things, and picnic things, and park things. And they’re doing that, it’s slowly happening here, you don’t see this in the mall or in suburbia. I have faith in Jewelers’ Row. Is it a perfect place? No. Are there issues? Yeah. But I also don’t believe that the row has a border. I think it’s always been moving. There were many jewelers on Chestnut Street at one time and there’s less now. There’s more here.
You can’t kill the row, the row can’t die, unless people give up. Even though we might be forced to maneuver and move we might be spread in a different direction, we’re all going to stay and we’re all going to do that. No matter what happens.
KW: Do you think it’s possible for Jewelers’ Row, whatever the borders of that are, to keep this quality that it has and this comradery that it has, even if some people have to move out of the area.
JH: Yeah, I think it will. I think it’s organic, it’s not static. And it will adjust to whatever is going on around it. If it needs to move in one direction or the other, physically, it will. The only way it could ever end is if everyone gives up and just walks away. That doesn’t seem to be what people are wanting to do right now. I’ve no fear about the row disappearing.
At the same time, like we discussed earlier, I think that it’s a shame that it’s not, for whatever reason, a city-designated historic area.
KW: In order to protect it.
JH: Right. It seems like a no-brainer that it would be. This didn’t develop in the last 15 or 20 years. It started in the mid to late 1800s. This wasn’t only Jewelers’ Row, it was a housing community. At some point the housing community morphed into a business community. It started out as printing. Are you aware of that?
KW: Printing and engraving.
JH: Right. Edgar Allan Poe had engraving done for his literature here on Sansom St. The morphing of the street really got into full swing sometime between 1850 and 1900. I don’t know exactly when. So that’s over 150 years, so it seems historic. I don’t know what else you would really need.
KW: When you say that you think that Jewelers’ Row is in a good place right now, can you expand a little more on that.
JH: Because I think that it’s a circle. Jewelers’ Row was very successful for many years, and then people started to move out to the suburbs. Then people started to open jewelry stores where people lived out in the suburbs. It hurt the row, because you didn’t have to drive into Philadelphia anymore, deal with the traffic and the parking, and so on. But the row survived through all of that for many, many decades. Now the row is in a position where its location in the city has now become a benefit [again]. The children of suburbia, or grand-children even, they want to come into the city and they want the experience and they want to find where stuff is made and be a part of it being made. They’re not as interested anymore in the sterile, fluorescent lighting of buying a ring at 10:00 at night on Friday at a mall. They’re more interested in the one-on-one experience in an old building. That’s the hipster thing, it’s the Millennial thing. That started in a very small way with just a certain group of people I believe aged 18 to 22. Now it’s become 15 to 35 and I even think that it’s permeating into every sector of the country. The Millennial mentality I don’t think is a group anymore. I think we can say this is the new culture of America and even if you’re 40 or 50 or 60, you’re starting to learn what the vast majority of consumers are doing and you kind of like that. Okay, yeah, maybe it’s time I… Our parents, my parents, they’re moving back into the city, they want the city experience again they want to relive their youth. So, they ran away and now they’re coming back. It’s cyclical and that’s why I think Jewelers’ Row is in a good place, because it survived all those years of difficulty and now it’s in a place where it can start to thrive. If it does the right thing, which I think it’s doing. To keep attracting these people and selling to these people and explaining to the public why they need to shop this way with us. And they are. Our competition now is other sectors within the city where people open jewelry stores.
KW: Really? You think more so than on-line retail?
JH: Yeah. I think on-line retail is a part of the competition, it would be silly to say it’s not, but it’s not as dangerous as most people think. It’s again, the Millennial mentality is, “why should I buy from you? On-line or in person. It doesn’t matter to me.” I think Millennials get it. “Your website doesn’t impress me, I could make your website myself if I wanted to.” Our generation, my generation, a big important website meant you’re a big important company. Millennials look at that and they go, “So what? It’s just code. It’s no big deal. It’s easy to replicate.” A website that sells better than a retail store that sells, the story and the reason to buy from them [could] do better than a store, but not because it’s on-line. It’s because they are selling to the audience better than the retail store is.
KW: Like you said it’s cyclical. Now it’s almost going back to what it was like before on-line retail where you could go into the store and you could talk to the person who was making your jewelry.
JH: Sure. You have to sell the value. It got boring. It got monotonous. It got to be, “if I open up a stingy looking jewelry store that’s where you have to go to get your jewelry. Then on-line came up and “Oh wow, important jewelers look real important on-line and I can buy from them.” And that was purely because they were on-line, but that was five years ago. It ended. But now, I don’t care if you’re on-line or if you’re brick and mortar, [the question is]: “Why should I buy from you? What’s drawing me to you?” And if you’re not reaching out to me in some way, then I’m not going to search you out. Just because you have a big website, or just because you’ve been around for a hundred years, I don’t care. That’s the Millennial mentality, “I don’t care [about your website or age]. That means nothing.” Sell me. Why should I come to you? Is it just because you’ve been around for 100 years? I don’t buy it anymore. Is it just because you made a big important website? I don’t care. My kids buy very expensive sneakers through apps. My kids watch very expensive shows with no commercials on Netflix. They don’t care about television. They can watch incredibly entertaining content for free. The big companies understand this and they’re starting the back door to get to my kids. You know, get the YouTubers to promote their product, convince YouTube to put fifteen second commercials in front. They’re doing things to try to get the attention where the attention is. Jewelers are no different. I find that we’re small enough to pivot quickly, individually on the street. Those who do, will succeed. The big chains and the big retailers… it will be harder for them and they’re going under quickly. The rate of closures in this country of jewelry stores right now is extremely high. You can find the statistics on different websites, including nationaljewelers.com, maybe, or rapaport.com.
The rate of closure of jewelry stores right now is alarming. It’s very high. Higher than it’s been since 2008, but not on Sansom St. Nobody is closing.
So, that’s my evaluation. Show me five empty stores on the street. These people who have to move because of this building are having a hard time finding a spot. Those are positive numbers, right?
KW: Definitely. So, you’re saying the Millennial crowd, they’re not enticed by the shiny website anymore and the history may not even be enough to grab them.
JH: Not in and of itself.
KW: What do you think Jewelers’ Row is doing to grab their attention?
JH: It’s using social media, it’s speaking directly to these people and asking for their business. It’s showing them product and it’s telling them that they will be involved in the process. It’s not telling them trust me, just buy it because you can trust me. No. I’ll show you how it’s made, you’ll be part of it. You’ll help design it. You’ll see the stones, you’ll touch the stones. And that’s the difference between this generation right now, the millennial generation, which I, again, think is bigger than just this generation – and the past. The past is only 4 or 5 years ago. It’s literally just changed.
KW: That’s exactly how we got our engagement ring for [my wife]. We went into a local… we were living in Tucson, we went into a local jewelry store.
JH: Do you remember which one?
KW: McGuire’s in Tucson.
JH: I know a lot of people in Tucson. I go there every year.
KW: Oh, they have the Gem and Mineral Show. And so, it’s actually where her mom, my wife’s parents got their engagement ring and wedding rings. They have a little section of estate jewelry. We saw one that we kind of liked. There were a few things about that we wanted to change, so we worked with them to design the ring and looked at the sapphires that we chose.
JH: It was a hands-on experience.
KW: It was and it was so much better than just picking one off the shelf. You can do that here. You can do that with pretty much anybody here. Right?
JH: Pretty much. Pretty much anybody, right. I mean the vast majority for sure. You really are limited in that ability in a chain store or a megastore.
KW: I went through that as well, when I first started thinking about it. I went in and talked to some people and the experience really turned me off.
JH: It’s like couture designing versus off the rack. If you go to Saks Fifth Avenue, you have to buy off the rack. You can’t say, “I like this dress, but this color.” “We can’t, we don’t make it we just sell it. That dress is this SKU [stock keeping unit number] and that dress is that SKU.” But here, there are no SKUs. You want that diamond or sapphire with that ring? Okay. Let’s make it happen. It’s a different experience. It’s a better experience.
By the way, social media has allowed for these small independents to reach a new generation very cheaply. That’s also part of it.
KW: Do most of the businesses on the row have their own social media pages?
JH: Instagram, Facebook, you know, everything. Fifteen years ago, the megastores could out billboard anyone. They could TV ad you to death. How do you compete? “Kay is for Kiss.” How do you compete with that when you’re just a small mom and pop? You can’t spend the advertising dollars. You don’t have it. The row tried to get together, by the way, at one point, but too many personalities and conflicts, but in the end social media leveled that playing field. Kay’s can’t get more followers than me [with money]. Instagram isn’t going to allow them to do that. They can’t pay Instagram to get more followers. They can pay for the billboard on I-95 to catch the commuters, but they can’t pay Instagram or Facebook. If I’m willing to fight with them on that field, I can really bring some competition. That’s what’s happening on the row. They’re not fighting with each other yet. It’s all about fighting the big guys and they’re winning.
KW: That’s really interesting to me… there are definitely businesses here that you would look at [and expect them to be] competitors. These people sell, these people make, but it seems like it’s more of a community than one would think with a whole bunch of people trying to sell the same thing.
JH: Yeah, it is. The more jewelers there are the more people will come and walk around and shop around. So it’s good for everyone that we’re all together. This is not a very competitive street.
KW: I’ve heard that from other people as well.
JH: There’s always going to be a few people who are highly competitive, but for the most part everyone helps each other. Jewelers run into other jewelry stores, “Hey do you have this, I need this… I have a customer waiting…” “Oh, yeah. I got it right here, you can take it.” You write down the price real quick. Yeah, it still goes on here. It’s not a… Everyone’s out for themselves, no not at all.
Well, look. Everyone is out for themselves, we’re all trying to make a living, but there’s a lot of cooperation on the street, a lot of it. When there’s been a tragedy, the street steps up and helps each other. If someone loses something or has a robbery. For the most part people are going to offer help.
KW: So, the way that you and I met was I tried to join a Facebook group.
JH: My Facebook group, yes.
KW: Tell me a little bit about your group.
JH: It’s a memory group, yes. It’s meant for people who have businesses on the street or had businesses on the street, to share memories. Share pictures and share memories. So, that’s all it is. It’s not for any political reasons. Not for any business reasons. In fact, there’s rules. There’s no doing business in the group, there’s no slander allowed in the group. I don’t allow any protests or political ideology at all. It’s just sharing pictures.
KW: Are most of the people on the row in your group?
JH: Not most, probably about half I would say. I like for things to grow organically. I don’t like to force it. Since, I also don’t have the time to force it, as people see or talk about it with each other and ask to join, I let them join. And we share that.
KW: There’s also the Jewelers’ Row Association. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
JH: Well, I’m not a member. Not a current member of it. I know it’s been around for many, many, many years. It’s had its ups and downs, but basically it’s an association that tries to enhance the experience of Sansom St. It does the Christmas lights for the whole street. The lights that come up every year are through the association. At the moment I feel like it’s in limbo. It doesn’t really have a vibrant direction right now. It’s a little bit stagnant. I think that it’s something that hopefully will come back and become something important on the row again one day. At the moment it’s sort of… the people who run it try very hard to do some very positive things here, but it [sometimes] proves too difficult to accomplish, because of the conflicts [between] personalities on the street. Last time it really was trying its hardest was…7 or 8 years ago. It just proved too difficult. I think the people who ran it were like, “you know, this is just too hard.” So they kind of let it go stagnant for a while. It’s still there. I don’t know why I’m not a member. I was never asked to pay or something, I suppose. But I would of course, if it ever came back up again.
KW: You said that in this area, there’s none of the chain jewelry stores. Have any of them tried to make it in this area?
JH: I’ve never seen one try, no.
KW: Do you think that they would be welcome?
JH: No. They would not be welcomed. We went through a period from 2008 to a couple of years ago where it was very difficult financially. The whole country. So, a lot of gold buying popped up and a lot of the stores converted into gold buying. That was necessary, but not 100% welcomed. As that dies down more retail jewelers are starting to take over and that’s what’s really good for the street. I don’t think a chain store would be accepted here at all. It might be a good thing for the street. It might be bad for the chain, but good for the street to compare, because you can see so obviously the difference in customer service and level of knowledge and product line. It’s never happened, so. I don’t know why. As far as I know, no chain’s ever tried.
KW: One of the aspects of the proposal for the development is trying to keep jewelry as part of it and maybe having jewelry retail on the ground floor. Do you think that that would be accepted?
JH: Yeah. Sure. I think it comes down to rent. If the rent of the space is reasonable for jewelers, then they’ll take it. If they can get an unreasonable amount, [more] than any jeweler would be able to pay, because a very large restaurant or a drug store would want go in there and pay that, then they will. That has other benefits of bringing people to the street for the reason of the restaurant. There are restaurants on the street. It’s not like it’s a non-restaurant street. I mean, there are restaurants. If a successful restaurant wanted to step up and pay an exorbitant rent for the space, it’s one less jeweler, but it brings another dimension to the street, which could be positive. It just depends on the rent really, because jewelers can only pay so much and then we have to move somewhere else. And they’re only going to be willing to take so little for the space they’re going to build. They can say we want jewelers here, but if the price that they want for the space is too high they just can’t. So, we’ll see what happens. It’s out of our control.
KW: So, some of the jewelers that are in those five buildings, they’ve been there for decades also right, and they’ve got the family history or a connected history?
JH: I think ironically that those particular five buildings don’t have the sort of history… the people who are in them now. Whereas some of the jewelers have been there for many, many years, I don’t know of any families that have been there for decades.
KW: Not generations?
JH: Panepinto is part of that, he’s selling his building. But he just moved to that location. He was on the corner where the coffee shop was and he was able to buy that building, so he moved into it. But he was on the corner for 30 years or something. He literally just moved in there about two years ago. The colored stone dealer and the watch guy. Now they’ve been there for a long time, but not generations. And that building is completely redone. That used to be a different building. The whole front of the building was redone.
And then in between them is where Marianne is. She’s probably been there ten years. I think, so it’s terrible that she has to leave. You know, she established herself. Now I guess she has to leave. Again, it’s not generations.
But what those buildings do represent is, at some point all of our generational families have been touched by that building.
Whether, my grandfather, I can’t say this for sure, may have or may not have ever rented space from one of those buildings at one point in his life, or worked very closely with another jeweler or had a customer in one of those buildings. The buildings, whether the facades change, the guts are usually the same. The guts of those buildings are certainly for our community historic, but I don’t think that there are any of the jewelers that are down there that you can say have been there for generations. There’s very few of us, because we move. We rent for thirty years and then we finally buy a building and then we’re there for thirty years. Different stuff happens. Not too many jewelers I can look at here and say, “they’ve been here for five generations or three generations in that one spot.” Most of these jewelers started [out] working for someone else.
KW: Like Marianne started with Neff.
JH: Neff, right. There’s Barskys across the street. A lot of salespeople from Barskys in the 1970s wound up opening their own jewelry stores here on the street. The same with Safian Rudolph. Some of the salespeople from Safian Rudolph have over the years opened their own store. It’s sort of like how… you come down here you learn the business, you work in the business, and you decide to go on your own, like I did. I worked for Marshall Asnen. There’s a lot of connections.
KW: Great. This has been incredible, just so much information. I really appreciate it.