Rona Fisher: An Artist on Jewelers’ Row

For this, the second in a series of oral history interviews on Jewelers’ Row in Philadelphia, we speak with Rona Fisher of Rona Fisher Jewelry. Rona is a jewelry artist and designer who has been working on Jewelers’ row for a decade. Trained as a fine artist at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), Rona found jewelry design through a passion for crafts and has built a successful business that thrives in the Neff Building on Jewelers’ Row.

On September 28, 2016, Kevin Wohlgemuth spoke with Rona about how she got her start in the jewelry industry and made her way to Jewelers’ Row. Rona also discussed how her business works in the context of the industry and her thoughts on the proposed development. This interview was transcribed by Angelina Jones and Kevin Wohlgemuth.


PART 1: BECOMING A JEWELER

Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): Tell me, how did you get into the jewelry business?

Rona Fisher (RF): I started off as a fine arts painter. I went to Philadelphia College of Art, now University of the Arts. I think a lot of people that go to art school after they’re out and then introduced to life in general and the realities of it. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, nobody really cares that much except me and my other artist friends.” So, you can choose to be an artist part-time and do something about your economic reality. Or you can take the chance of trying to bring both together, which I did… I didn’t want to do that with painting, because I don’t like the gallery scene that much.  I went to a fine craft show in Berkeley when I was living in San Francisco, and all these great glass blowers were showing and selling their work, starting the glass movement from Seattle, they were coming down the coast and doing shows… the work just blew my mind. This is fine art and it is craft, because they’re making kind of functional things. The pieces are gorgeous . I realized that they don’t know what’s going on [over] on the East Coast. They have no idea about this. Because the fine arts department was very concerned that we stay with fine arts instead of deviating to these lower, lesser kind of kitschy, crafty things. I was like, “they don’t know about this, they don’t know this is happening.” Amazing work, amazing. Right then and there I thought, “Okay, I’m going to spend my year just scraping by financially, living as cheaply as I can, working as little as possible, and playing with different media and find out what else I want to do besides be a painter…” It’s kind of a shame to waste yourself on a menial job just because you need to pay the rent.  I wanted to devote my whole life to being creative, not just part of it.

KW: How did you then focus in on jewelry in particular?

RF: I played with a whole bunch of different things and that was the intent, just to play with a lot of different things and see what would fulfill [me]… one that I wouldn’t get bored [using]. If I’m going to do something for the rest of my life, I’m not going to get bored with it… it had to be challenging, to have many layers, so that was pretty much it. Don’t get bored with it.

There were a lot of things I played with, they were fun, but for some reason I took a piece of silver to play with it one day… I knew nothing about jewelry making, but I just had a feeling. Now, twenty-some odd years later… it’s still amazing.

There are so many techniques and if you get bored, you just try to learn a new technique and suddenly you’re in student mode again, discovery mode and you get all inspired. Even if you never use it for anything. You’re in the inspirational mode and it just kicks on the creative juices again. From just making things by hand, doing all my wax models by hand, with simple tools, or fabricating from sheet and wire and then going all the way into CAD/CAM [Computer Aided Drafting/Modeling]…the adventure continues. Continue reading

Recap: Philadelphia History Museum Panel On Jewelers’ Row

By Patrick Grossi, Advocacy Director, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

On Thursday, September 22, the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent hosted a panel discussion on the history and future of Jewelers’ Row. Bob Skiba, President of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides presented a brief history of the row and its evolving context, from Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris’ palatial “folly” to the emergence of the jewelry trade on and around Sansom St in the late nineteenth century. Paul Steinke, Executive Director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, presented his advocacy organization’s position on the proposed Toll Brothers project and how Jewelers’ Row can and should be saved in its entirety. Lastly, Hy Goldberg, President of the Philadelphia Jewelers’ Row Association and longtime merchant on the row, expressed general support for Toll Brothers and their project, though also indicated his hope that at least the late nineteenth and early twentieth century facades be retained in the eventual tower project. As of this time, no designs or official plans have been shared by Toll Brothers, though they are believed to be forthcoming.

Seated in the museum’s Main Gallery atop “the world’s largest walkable map of Philadelphia,” the capacity crowd was largely supportive of efforts to preserve Jewelers’ Row. Asked by a show of hands, close to 80% of those in attendance indicated they had signed the Alliance’s online petition expressing opposition to the project (which has thus far generated over 6,300 signatures). Also in attendance were First District Councilman Mark Squilla and the city’s Director of Planning and Development Anne Fadullon. City representatives for their part have been reluctant to weigh in on the matter, citing the “by right” nature of the project and the lack of local historic protection. Both public officials have nonetheless been accessible and transparent in their efforts to convene the various stakeholders invested in Jewelers’ Row and who hope to preserve its historic character.

You can’t kill the row…

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. Continue reading

It’s an extended family…

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. Continue reading

It’s a family thing…

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 [1934], 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 [1935] 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.

hyman1

Ruben Littman’s License to Buy and Sell Scrap Gold, 1935 (photo credit: Kevin Wohlgemuth)

Continue reading

The Stories of Jewelers’ Row

One of the main purposes of this blog is to collect and share stories and histories about the people that live and work on Jewelers’ Row and in the rest of the country’s oldest jewelry district.

The stories will come from interviews and oral histories collected from the jewelers and will shed light on the row’s incredibly rich and storied past. Many of the jewelers that currently live and work on Sansom St. have a generational connection to the row’s past, whether their family has lived and worked on the row for multiple generations or they learned their craft from those who came before them.

To tell the story of Jewelers’ Row is to tell of family, community, and a legacy that has endured since the 19th century.

The first oral history was collected through an interview with Joshua Hyman of J. Hyman & Co. whose family has lived, worked, and owned buildings on Jewelers’ Row since the 1930s. His story is one of continuing an incredible tradition begun by his great-grandfather. We can’t wait to share it with you.

Rows and Markets – What Jewelers’ Row Can Learn from its Peers

By Paul Steinke, Executive Director, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia

 


The current threat to Jewelers’ Row made me think of how other collections of like-minded retailers in Philadelphia are doing: Antique Row, Fabric Row, the Italian Market, and Reading Terminal Market.

In recent years both Antique Row and Fabric Row have shrunk as changing consumer tastes and shopping patterns undermined their business model. The Italian Market is still going strong, but is no longer predominately Italian-American as South Philly undergoes ever-changing demographics. Reading Terminal Market, where I served as general manager for 13 years, is also going strong, fueled by a heightened interest in local food and the revitalization of Center City.Which brings us to Jewelers’ Row, America’s oldest diamond district and the second-largest in the United States. A developer recently announced plans to tear down several occupied, viable buildings on the 700 block of Sansom Street, each filled with jewelers and craftspeople, in order to build a sixteen-story luxury condo tower. This announcement sparked immediate outrage on Jewelers’ Row and around the city. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia started an online petition against this proposal in mid-August that has so far amassed 6,000 signatures. Continue reading