“The Only One”: Frank Schaffer, Jewelers’ Row Diamond Cutter

Frank Schaffer has been a diamond cutter on Jewelers’ Row for nearly 20 years. In that time he has built his company and his brand and has become one of the most well-known institutions on the row (indeed, many people stopped and said hi to him during the interview). In this series Frank talks about how he became a diamond cutter, how he came to be on Jewelers’ Row, why he loves being on the row, why he is against the new development proposal, and why he has an impressive collection of prehistoric fossils hanging in his storefront.


PART 1: BECOMING A DIAMOND CUTTER ON JEWELERS’ ROW

Kevin Wohlgemuth: Part of what we’re doing here is getting to the history of the row and one thing we really want to do is get your story, your history out to people because that…I think is one of the most important things you can talk about here.

Frank Schaffer: Yes, being the only diamond cutter left.

KW: Yeah! Absolutely.

FS: The only one. In a 5-state area.

KW: Yeah, tell me. How long have you been here in this location?

FS: Right here in this building, I’ve been here almost 10 years. 8 and half if you really want to get down to brass tacks. I was across the street in Leonard’s building for another 8-10 years. So that puts me on the street…I guess you could say I worked for everybody for years. Let’s take it from the time I had my own business. That would probably be the best, instead of working for someone. And then of course, being down here with my father when I was a kid.

KW: I want to hear all of it.

FS: Ok. I would much rather tell you about what I’ve accomplished as being a young man who was barely 30 years. Because one doesn’t come down here in the 20’s and open their own business. It takes some money. Usually you have to bust your butt for somebody else first and save what you can. Eat a lot of beans and such. So by the time I’m 30 years old, I came down here and moved in with Janet Osborne. And that was Atlantic Gem Importing.

KW: What year was it?

FS: Let’s go to 1998. Worked for her for a year and I couldn’t tolerate it. I just didn’t want to be with anyone anymore. I had been with people all my life.

KW: She was here on the row?

FS: She was here on the row. Still is, actually. But she merged her business with another business in the Neff Building. She was at 721 [Sansom]. So I was at 721, lower level. And boy did I see things. Oh I’ve seen unbelievable amounts of things. Fires to sewer spills to selling of bad stones. (Hey John, how are you?). From there I couldn’t take it anymore, I moved right over to Leonard’s building (Leonard Zinstein, 713 Sansom). Now, I spent the better part of three months building the shop that I had at 721 in the lower level and found out that I could no longer share the spot with anyone anymore. So I moved to Leonard’s building where I expanded.

I started out with the front room, 400 sf., then I expanded. Took another room as soon as someone moved out. Took another room as soon as somebody moved out again until I pretty much took the whole floor over.

KW: Which building was that?

FS: This was 713, the second level. Now, the neat part about this is: what broke up my whole floor was Charlie Gasparro, who had been on the street for 40 years prior to me. And Charlie became my best friend. Charlie called me 2 days ago, 3 days ago. He’s 85 years now and he finally retired last year.

KW: Was he still on the row until last year?

FS: He actually got bounced around. So he actually moved in to Hagstoz’ building (709 Sansom) for a period of about 2 year and then Hagstoz wanted to build some apartments so…this was all gently done. Nobody boots anyone out. He says, Charlie I’ll help you. I’ll do whatever. They put him in Roberto’s other building at 717 [Sansom]. And then he retired from 717.

KW: That’s amazing.

FS: And he was on this row for…it has to be close to 60 years. He was my best friend.

KW: That’s incredible.

FS: Foiled a lot of robberies in his day and such like that. Oh yeah.

KW: I’d love to talk to him too.

FS: There’s a story…he doesn’t talk about it much…but there’s a story that actually he was running down the street with his weapon drawn chasing somebody who had just robbed somebody. (Hi, hi, how are you?). So, the funny thing is, when he knew he should retire. He opened up his safe one day to pull out his weapon and he caught the trigger on the top of the safe. A safe that I helped fix the door on. And it fired. And it went straight through the floor. I think that was one of the reasons that Hagstoz’ to get him to go. Because that all goes to insurance. Simply because of the police report. Sooner or later somebody hears about it. They actually confiscated his weapon. I do believe he got it back. You know, they had to swab him for powder burns. Because he actually hurt is finger and went to the hospital. That’s when I think he knew and I said to him, “Listen Charlie, I think it might be time, time to retire.”

The stories here are incredible.

I’m not just talking about scandal. Kevin, I gotta tell you something. You peel back a couple years, there’s scandal after scandal. Everytime you have high dollar expenses…this is exactly what happens. But now the money’s slowing down a little bit, it’s just a different way of doing business.

But anyway, back to this. I actually expanded. Around this time…I was always exposed to diamond cutting my whole life, with my father.

KW: He was a diamond cutter?

FS: Yes, my father was a diamond cutter. He concentrated mostly on gems.

KW: And where was that?

FS: This was in the Lehigh Valley. From Philadelphia to the Lehigh Valley was his stomping ground. Now, my business never crossed my father’s. That’s the unique part about it. I don’t whether it was a competition thing or it was his true love for me that says I don’t want to give you anything, I want to give you a talent, I want you to make it for yourself. That was his school of thought. It was an old German school of thought from the Depression. Feed a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life. I think what you first have to do is you have to be the tool to be used to do that. This is not against anyone who does not have the ability to branch out on their own. Some stay within the family because maybe they didn’t have the whole skill set to be both the craftsman and the business man. You have to have both. And there are some ethnic cultures that are more adroit in teaching that than others. We see this all the time.

So, about that time, I made friends with a guy who finally retired at age 93. (Hi, how are you?). And his name was Dave Parker. Dave Parker was actually here since the time he was…95-42…that would be 53 years. 53 years Dave Parker was on this street. He taught me how to cut diamonds. More so than even what I learned from my father. There’s learning a way that’s the textbook. Kind of like, the people I hire now all graduate from Temple. They all have degrees from their metals department.

They’ll learn a certain way to do things and then there’s the way that really gets the job done. And that’s what’s passed on generation to generation. And you only can learn that by apprenticing with someone.

I apprenticed with some of the best craftsmen on the street. And that was going back even before my days of having my own business. So Dave Parker wanted someone to take over his business. Dave Parker had no children. Didn’t have a wife.

Dave Parker was a young guy. A Swedish company came down here and they hired him to learn diamond cutting. He was a young guy. Shortly after they hired him, they hired all these young women. It was WWII. The American government now sat there and hired all these Rosie the Riveters  to actually cut diamonds for tooling that the US government was then using through contractors to score the inside of and grind the inside of tank barrels. After Rosie the Riveter was finished, they all sent them back to do housework and brought the men back. There were quite a number of companies that worked between NY and Philadelphia. I think that was the most wonderful thing in the world. And [Dave] said keep this history preserved because this is exactly the things that will be lost. And this is one of the last things he said to me before he died. That was a cool thing.

KW: Where was he here?

FS: This was in the building next to Barsky in Tang’s other building. This was in 720 Sansom. However…Dave’s office, which actually…the building had been in use since 1849. The diamond cutting equipment that I’m using today…the skeleton was from 1849.

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KW: And that came from Dave’s shop?

FS: That came from Dave’s shop. So, we moved this equipment out after I had learned just about everything I could from this gentleman over the course of several years.

KW: Is the cutter labeled 1849?

FS: No, but you can tell from the legs. Somewhere on there I think we saw a foundry mark but the mark is under the tabletop now. Here’s the deal. Especially with equipment, having a sturdy base is the most important part. So we decided we were going to move it into the place since I expanded to the whole floor. We decided…hey, we’re making money. I’m paying huge salaries out. I’m actually trying to build a business.

I’m trying to build something more than just staying at the bench and just continuing with the same old-same old. There’s nothing wrong with that but I wanted more.

Of course the economy has really changed a lot but if you do business in the correct way, there’s plenty. We tried installing it in 713…not going to happen. So I went out and I found a place to do some business as that was over here. Ed-mar [Crystal & Jewelry Co.) was this incredible supply house that was in these three buildings: 710, 706, and 708. Ed-mar had been there for a good solid 10 years. They took over a watch crystal company and they expanded. His business went away simply because he did not follow the whole web design. He should have put his business on the web, reached out to a larger audience, as more Chinese imports came in, guys were ordering directly from China finished products where he was still selling the parts to make jewelry. He could have easily survived because there’s a huge need for (inaudible) which Michael Tang has taken over because he’s a lot smarter business man. Michael Tang says, well it might be a little slow. And Michael Tang sees a need for it and he’s doing well and he probably could do even better. So I went and started speaking with Roberto Pupo at that time and he says, “Fine, take the 3rd floor,” which was 1800 sf. And so I started working on the third floor.

[Leonard Zinstein] said, “God bless you. Go Frank. Expand. Be fruitful. Multiply.” So that’s when I came over here. And it took a good long time for me to get this showroom to where it is. I tell you what. There was wallpaper on the wall. It looked like crap. If you google it, you’ll see what it looks like today and what it used to look like. Now there’s a million dollars of dinosaur bones hanging on the wall in there. I’ll give you a tour.

KW: Sorry, which year was this?

FS: Now we go back 10 years. So, having had a successful run for 8-10 years. Geez, it’s been 20 years just in this little corner. So, I’m at the point of paint and just ready to move in, Roberto says, “Listen, why don’t you take the window downstairs?” I said, “Because you want too much money for it.” He says, “Well, talk to me. Instead of taking the upstairs, why don’t you take the whole ground floor?” I said, “You want too much money for it.” He’s like, “Listen, I’ll give you a lease that will ramp up and give it a shot.” Well, ok, so we started out at $3,500. 2008 hit, the economy crashed. So we floated until about 2010.


In Part 2, Frank talks about how his business works and gives us a tour of his store and shop, including his 1849 bench and the prehistoric fossils on his wall.

 

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