This is just the beginning…

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.


Frank Schaffer (FS): So, in the window [of 702 Sansom], they actually had for 3 or 4 years, maybe 2-3 years a picture of the end of Jewelers’ Row. Just from maybe [714 Sansom] on down.

Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): A historical photo?

FS: A historical photo. Sepia toned, you know, the whole original. Another one similar to that side of the street sits in Hagstoz’s counter. And it’s kind of cool, everyone comes. As soon as Toll Brothers starts sniffing around here about 3 years ago, the photo disappears. So, actually, so many of the jewelers on this row always talk about, even in their business cards, my letterhead even says that, “located on historic Jewelers’ Row.”

KW: Yeah, I saw that on your website.

FS: Yeah, everyone. Except…all of a sudden now it’s…

KW: …now it’s not historic…

FS: It’s…first of all, it’s gentrification at its finest and the guys who do not understand what’s going on here. Most of them are building owners but this is one thing that always bothered me. They call it the stakeholders because [there are] a fortunate few who were actually left a building by their parents because very few of them would actually have the money to buy a building over the years. Except for Leonard [Zinstein, Harzin Jewelers]. Leonard busted his ass over there. Leonard’s like a surrogate father to me. I was in that building [713 Sansom] for many, many years. He was a tough landlord but he was fair. Do you understand what I mean? Everyone here was tough but they were fair. He actually sold this building [706 Sansom] to Ed-mar, the owner before Roberto Pupo.

And many times he regrets selling it. Simply because of the situation right now.

(He’s over there looking at me). And he understands what the ramifications are of the gentrification of the street.

(Leonard comes over to say hi)

I’m speaking to this fellow because he’s going to be using some background information for the historical commission hearing that’s at the end of the month. So we’re giving him some overview. And I was just talking to him about you and you walked out the door. You see how it is, you speak of the devil…

I was speaking to him how you were the previous owner to Ed-mar before even Roberto Pupo.

Leonard Zinstein (LZ): Yes, it was mine. I shouldn’t sell. Because I could make a lot of money (laughs).

FS: (laughs) No! Shame on you. No! Because that side will be next. You know that. You know.

LZ: I sold almost 30 years ago. Make mistake. But we all make mistakes here.

FS: There’s no mistakes here. The only mistake is putting a 16-story complex.

LZ: Bad. Bad.

FS: You see, he understands. Where most of these guys don’t understand. Leonard, they don’t really understand what happens.

LZ: They think 80 tenants will bring a lot of business here?

FS: They want to cash out. Rosen is the only thing standing in the way of the parking garage. Because Rosen to Barsky (724 Sansom) will become the parking garage.

LZ: You know, they approached me before they approached on this side.

KW: The Toll Brothers approached you?

LZ: Yes! Yes. They sent me letters. I refused right away.

KW: How long ago?

FS: This was only about 3 years ago.

LZ: More!

FS: 3-4 years ago.

LZ: More!

FS: More. 5. They’ve been sniffing around 5 years. I’m trying to get my head around it.

LZ: I had a letter from them. I just trashed it.

FS: Yes, yes. I remember, it was 5 years. And that’s when we made an offer to purchase a building from him (Pupo). A very fair offer. $2.2 million. I had the financing and everything. And he was ready to look forward to it and then all of a sudden it just disappeared.

LZ:  Let’s see, maybe we…maybe it stays this way.

FS: I hope. I would like that. Absolutely. That’s what I’m working for.

LZ: I’m counting on you.

FS: Yes, I’m trying.

(Leonard departs).

KW: What’s his first name?

FS: Leonard. Leonard Zinstein. He’s one of the salt of the earth down here.

KW: How long has he been here?

FS: I see their sign says 1980. I want to say 1980. Let me tell you something. They often talk to me about what it was like first coming into this country. They were Russian immigrants and they came with whatever was on their back. And they walked through customs with necklaces and everything they could and he came down and he was a total success story. He has 2 sons, one’s involved in the jewelry industry now who’s future is all up in the air because, once this happens and I’m…Kevin, I swear sometimes I feel I’m the only guy out here that has a brain simply because I listen to the university professors. That one that just walked by here is a university professor and I also had the Penn…

KW: Yeah, the studio came and talked to you, right?

FS: Exactly. And that parking garage, [Toll Brothers] want that.

KW: Where are they going to have their tenants park? Nowhere.

FS: Absolutely. I gotta cover this. So, let’s just go for a four block area. Now…ride up Market St. and there’s no parking. Ride up Walnut: There’s maybe 1 parking garage that would be for the general public and only 1 for real estate. Let’s take a ride up Sansom: there’s a parking garage here. On the next block, there’s 2 parking garages, one on the right and one inside the Ben. We go up to the next block, right across the street, we have a huge parking lot and another one on the corner of 10th. Go up a little further, you have one on the 11th. It’ll dump out here. This is the parking corridor for the street (Sansom) and if you go all the way up to Broad St. that’s where you have all the parking. And in fact, the big major one that they made, the automated one in there too is, I think 13th? 12th? They all dump on to Sansom St. and the only one standing in the way is Rosen. And for the right price, he’ll sell. The rest of the guys all have made agreements. Well, they haven’t made agreements but they’ve shown interest.

KW: This is just the beginning.

FS: Just the beginning. Just the beginning. With that in mind, of course, Old City would be the next area that is still open for development for jewelers to move in. Or possibly Arch St. Somewhere around 12th-Broad St. on Arch. There’s a lot of retails space available there.

KW: So when people are saying if it was just this (702-710), it wouldn’t kill Jewelers’ Row…it’s not going to just be this. This is just the start of it.

FS: This is just going to be the start of it. And that’s how it is. You just get that foot in the door. Just get that foot in the door. And here’s the deal. This is the part that really blows my mind and I’ve heard this mentioned once before in a meeting. And someone mentioned it just to give me a jab. And I heard this from the Toll Brothers. They said, “Well, they’re just tenants.” Kevin, I want to tell you something. If it wasn’t for the tenants paying the $3,000, $4,000, $6,000, myself paying $6,200/month, that building would have been in foreclosure a long time ago. And this is what I wanted to say at the hearing.

Really? Just tenants? Tenants are the small businesses that allow you to keep this building going.

KW: The owner of this building isn’t going to have businesses all throughout their building.

So you can see that it would only be a matter of time until it’s all gone. And anyone who says business is dead around here, doesn’t have a successful business. I was quoted as saying that before. Simply because it is quiet. However, business has changed. This is an area that you can manufacture and people understand that. And the guys actually have gone green over the time; they’ve all tried to update their equipment. They no longer are dumping chemicals in the sewer. They know not to do that with the cyanide and hydrogen peroxide that was used many years ago for the refining process and the manufacturing process. Everyone now follows a better code of green living…

KW: Environmentalism…

FS: Environmentalism, exactly. And the products now are more environmental friendly. They’re not the same products that were used many, many years ago. So you can see that they have done right over the years. One of the concerns that I see is the expense that the city will have to put out which everyone seems to be forgetting. About 3-4 years ago, we finally got a new transformer put in in front of 721 (Sansom). During the summertime, there was never enough power to run the air conditioners and the steamers and everything else that went all.

KW: All the equipment, there’s a lot of equipment in these buildings.

FS: Yes, there’s a lot of equipment. Sow what happened was…I don’t want to say we had brown outs but there was definitely a change in your usage. So you put an 80-unit building here, the city will have to put so much more into the construction and that’s just their job. And that’s one of the first things I said, “Who will cover it?” And the city said they would. They will have to cover it. So they will have to cover a huge expense of sewer lines because everyone now is having a problem taking the water off their roof rather than through their plumbing simply because the plumbing can’t handle all the rain water we’ve been getting because, of course, climate change is real.

So, if the city has to put that money in, it will not reap any rewards at least for 10 years, which I think is ridiculous.

KW: Plus they’re not getting the taxes for 10 years.

FS: Exactly. For 10 years, that’s what I mean. So on a more main street, like you have Walnut St., it’s a little different designation where there was huge buildings all the time or up maybe at the corner of 10th and Walnut where you have the Ben located. That can handle it. The plumbing on this street, not so much. So it’s only the beginning. They will have a hole in the ground for many, many, many years, so to speak…

… Because once it opens up and their business goes [down], because there’s going to be a big hole in the ground. So, who the hell wants to come down here with a big hole in the ground?… What are they going to do? They can’t close Seventh Street, it’s a major artery. This (Sansom) is the street that’s going to get closed. This is the street that’s going to be shut down. So, you will not be able to just come into your parking, you won’t be able to use these nice four parking spots that they constantly use for the passenger drop-off. So, you will have to pay $20 to come down [and pick up merchandise]. And [the business] will die. Either that or people are going to use UPS, FedEx, and USPS a lot more.

I have a feeling to the opposite way, because I watch patterns that happened on South Street. I said Leonard, Leonard understands, but I asked all these other guys, “Do you know what happened on South Street?” “I haven’t been to South Street for years.” Well, let me tell you, I satisfy three or four people on South Street. They put new sidewalks in, which was a blessing for them, however, during that time, nobody came down to South Street. What are you going to do? Walk in the street? There was no area to walk. So, the businesses died. Now it’s just starting to come back. Third Street, there’s a bar at Third and…Race. The street was chewed up for quite some time… almost three years. Just about everyone went out of business. There are empty stores… They’re going to lose. They’re going to lose. Absolutely. Not that I’m not… This is not sour grapes. Fortunately, I have the ability to move, I have Plan A, B, C, all the way through Z. I have so many different plans. Not that I want to pursue these different plans, but I really don’t want to pay him $6200 a month… I’d rather buy a building and have something, but right now it works for me… but I’m not going to have someone just work on my misery. I’ve become someone, I have inventory. Believe it or not, I don’t want to brag, but I can fill thirty stores with the inventory that I’ve amassed, because everyone here just had blue topaz, amethyst, and such like that. I can offer you sapphires, rubies, and high end tourmaline. That’s what I’ve done over the years. And now it’s time to take a big slice of that inventory and buy my own building and if it’s not on Jewelers’ Row, it will be somewhere in the city. People will come to see me. I might not have the benefits of the security of Jewelers’ Row, but then I’ll have to take a second floor suite and do even more advertising. The security of a second floor suite would obviously far out way that of a ground floor.

KW: The other people in these five buildings…

FS: I feel so bad for my friends, I feel so bad for them.

KW: Are they much worse off than you are?

FS: I feel so bad… I know one has made an agreement to move into the Neff building. I was made an offer in the Neff Building, but it was too high… I don’t sell wholesale and then you sell me retail. Or below wholesale and you sell me retail. They know they’ll have a check every month and you’ve got to give me a deal. If not, I’ll move off the street, but I look at the place that Marianne has and anybody who had come in on their investment. How can you advertise there’s office space for rent, when you know you’re building is going to be set for destruction in one year? My God. I mean, how much more of a scumbag can you be?

FS: Good people. Good people. Oh, there’s a number of people who would like me gone, too, simply because they can’t compete. Because the jewelers will come and people when they’re shopping will look for a sapphire and they figure I’m their competition. But I never step on their toes. If they call me up, I will never step on their toes. I have a definite wholesale and I have a definite retail, and that’s the way you do business if you’re going to stay in this area.

KW: So, you’ve been here for a long time, you’ve been on the row for a long time. What is it about Jewelers’ Row that’s just really special?

FS: Comradery, absolutely. Everyone understands football, at least most people do. Did you ever notice why football players are still walking around? Because you put two teams opposite each other, that 340 pound, half animal has the ability to kill that guy on the other side of the line. He plays like a gentleman. He tackles him without [killing] him. Now, sometimes it gets a little rough, but fights don’t break out, because they understand it. It’s called comradery, where you have… I try to teach my child a healthy sense of… competition… There’s healthy competition and there’s underhanded, dirty competition… healthy competition is, “I respect you, but I’m going to try to make my money.” Nowhere else do you have that besides maybe Fabric Row, Jewelers’ Row… I needed the stuff that my front window is covered with, I needed that. I went down to one guy, he did not have it. He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. The guy over here does.” He called him up, I know he got a couple bucks off of it. That’s the way it works and that’s what keeps the retail price low and that’s what makes it work. So, the beauty of you have a Russian Jew across the street, you have Chinese-American across the street, you have a Jewish-American across the street, you have a Greek-American up the street and we all work together. It’s a beautiful melting pot. Nobody calls each other a name. You understand what I mean? Yeah, there’s been a situation arise, I got pushed recently when I went to go drop something off and a guy got nasty, but he’s only been on the street for a year. He didn’t understand how it works. Now you’ve burned yourself. Good luck getting… because I get very rare and unusual things that no one else does. And we need it because… that’s what makes Jewelers’ Row. I hope I answered your question. That’s it.

It’s a healthy form of competition and a great melting pot. Without [healthy competition] forget it.

You put this many people…we have rows here in Philadelphia…it’s a very civilized way to do business but there’s a lot of competition. That’s what keeps prices low. That’s what people love about Jewelers’ Row. Because of the concentration of jewelers, the prices are low. Hence restaurant row, hence funeral row, hence fabric row. You’re not there just to do business. You’re there because you’re competing against everyone else. I would love to put an ice cream place right next to this guy’s ice cream place (Sweet Charlie’s). You know what I mean? Because he’s such a success.



FS: Many years ago, we had both retail and wholesale all along the street. And in fact, the building that Campbell [& Company] moved into (715 Sansom) was a big wholesaler and he sold everything from pens to tiebars and things like that. I can’t remember the name of the company. But what you actually had here was mostly retail on the bottom. Of course the Eagle Diner is now [Pamir Grill Kebab] and Paul’s [Pizza] is pretty much the same. But if you look at [the building that] KAO Design Studio (725 Sansom) [is in]. There was a manufacturer there [before] that didn’t pay his taxes. He moved into the Neff Building and now he’s pretty much going into semi-retirement. Mark right here. Mark was in the Neff Building and moved to street level. You actually have Metal Marketplace (740 Sansom) who was actually in the Neff Building now moved to street level. You actually have KAO who was in the Neff Building and moved to street level. Now the manufacturers start taking over the street showing that they’re doing well. Retail is dead. So the manufacturers start coming down her now which was easily more accessible. You actually have Jewelers’ Depot (722 Sansom) who moved in here and moved a complete stop. Was wholesale only. Now does everything from CAD to selling equipment. Rubertones (730 Sansom)…in the Neff Building. Successful manufacturer and moved to street level.

KAW: So that’s being successful, then expanding and coming out onto the street level.

FS: Correct. KAO. Highly successful. Especially for the Asian community. Moved to street level. And look at how nice he worked together. So what he did…Hyman was obviously a tenant in the building here so when he revitalized this whole building he actually made a canopy with his name on it. That’s what you call working together. So Josh is longer just a tenant to this guy, he actually becomes part of the business.

Desumma [& Wexler Fine Jewelry] (734 Sansom) actually had one building. Successful retailer. Took over the second building and made a double wide store now. So instead of being one single, he’s double. Successful. These are guys who are growing and successful. Now obviously [Norman Kivitz Co.] (731 Sansom) is a manufacturer, been on the ground level for many years and continuing to do fantastic business. Frank Salese [Fine Diamonds] (733 Sansom), that’s the next generation, has done well. Govberg (737 Sansom) now, I think, has done so well that they use this pretty much just for a buying operation.

So you have manufacturers moving to street level. Which is a fantastic thing. Because now they have better exposure on Jewelers’ Row.

These guys all have successful businesses. And I love the fact that the manufacturers are moving to street level. Because what it does, is they’re not retail. You can’t just walk into Jewelers Depot and buy retail. But what happens is they’ve taken over and there’s 5, 6, 7 employees. Come on…I have 6 employees. These people have lives.

KW: So where do you think the row is in terms of coming out of the recession?

FS: Better and stronger than ever. Now the manufacturers are moving to street level. And not only that…and this is the part of the next generation that I thought was fantastic. I spoke to some people that said you’re actually preserving the next generation of work. The Millennials that are coming out of Temple’s metals program which is also a CAD program, they actually give them a degree in CAD design and metal smithing. It’s really an important degree. They can go anywhere. They can go work in New York, L.A., they can go work in any jewelry district. You name it. Or on their own. They actually are taking over the street. Rubertones is hiring them. I’m hiring them. Christian Michaels (704 Sansom) is hiring them. This is the next generation. These are no longer the 70 year old or 50 year old guys. I only hire the Temple grads. So yeah, has it come out of the recession? Very well. I think stronger than ever because the next generation is coming here and they need livable wages. It’s getting harder and harder to live in the city and the wages have to be more so obviously they have to be doing better business.

Not that the street’s dead. Really does it look dead? And the whole idea that it gets too quiet here. What are you talking about? I walk with my wife and my son after Sunday night church, we walk in Old City. Of course it’s quiet on a Sunday night. Of course it’s supposed to be quiet in the evening. What do you want, a nightclub? It’s not designated for night club because nightclubs don’t work here. They don’t. They don’t pass zoning. It’s CMX-5 zoning but you can’t have a nightclub here. Do you understand what I mean? And they’re talking about, well we’d like something like that. You want another restaurant? You think that’s going to bring you business to put a restaurant on the street? Your logic makes no sense.

KW: Speaking of the next generation, has your son expressed interest in the business?

FS: Oh absolutely! He already picked out a college. He wants to go to Temple. That’s his plan. He’s already running CAD. He’s 9 years already and already playing with CAD program. And I’m not talking about a diluted version. He’s actually playing with Rhino and the nurbs that we’re using in my shop. The next generation. So it is preserving it for future generations. And I’ll continue to hire more and more and more.

Here’s something that I actually had going on. The cat’s out of the bag now because it really makes me angry. I knew a lot of the jewelers who wanted to retire were having a hard to moving their merchandise. So I took a 62 year old man and sent him to auctioneer school. He was supposed start September 10 but when all the shit hit the fan here we couldn’t send him any longer. So we’re going to send him next year. We’re opening up an auction house, specializing in jewelry and diamonds. So now I can help these guys move their merchandise and that’s exactly what we’re going to do. And we’re going to link it into major auction sites and run them love.

KW: That’s incredible. That just helps everybody.

FS: And what I wanted to do was actually take it onto public access television. That’s the next generation of the business. But if you think that people are just going to park their car here, get out of their very expensive automobile, come down here, fall in love with a $15,000 ring and say I’ll buy it now…those days are gone. It’s a different way of doing business. But the fact is the manufacturers are moving to street level.

KAW: How many casters are there on the row?

FS: 5 major casters right here on the row, not to mention another on Chestnut.

KW: Are you noticing a lot of the spaces turning residential?

FS: Oh sure. Absolutely. That’s why everybody’s moving to ground level. And that’s to be expected just because the industry itself is getting smaller. It is shrinking. But the guys who are taking over the spaces ate ground level are paying good money for them and are doing quite well.

KW: And moving there because they’re doing well.

FS: Absolutely. Feiner (717 Sansom) just moved out of the [Sansom Coin] Exchange right here, 721, he was right in the front. That’s why the Exchange moved to the front, he moved over here. But now he has a sign in here that says “Revitalize the Row” because they, George Vatos owns that building with Hersch Weisbrod. George would like to retire and move back to Greece and Hersch is damn near 90 years old. So they would sell in a heartbeat.

KW: So those signs are up showing who is willing to sell.


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