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.


PART 3: FRANK’S THOUGHTS ON THE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL

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.

Continue reading

It’s a lost art…

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 2: HOW FRANK’S BUSINESS WORKS

Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): So, you’re the only diamond cutter [in the area]?

Frank Schaffer (FS): In the five state area. Every state that actually touches Pennsylvania, I’m the only one… Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Ohio.

KW: How is that the case?

FS: Lost art, [it’s a] lost art. It’s absolutely a lost art. Now I’m not saying that [I’m the only trained diamond cutter]… I’m the only one who is actively pursuing it.

KW: That’s great for you.

FS: Pretty wild. You’d think it would be wonderful, but you’d be surprised how business has actually changed over the years, how imports have pretty much destroyed [the cutting business]. So, you here have the last bastion of hope for the jewelry industry. You have New York, you have Philadelphia, you have guys here who are really doing it.

I never saw the talent that I see in Philadelphia anywhere, and I know the talent, trust me.

I don’t see it in New York, because it’s very transient. It’s a faster pace of just… I don’t want to say junk, because there’s some high end stuff that goes through New York, too. But as for the craftsmanship, that is available… at any given time I could walk up to the second floor of 704 and I can find a talented guy, I can find one of the most talented laser guys in that building, just because you have a laser doesn’t mean you know how to use it. I’ve seen him do things that are just incredible that I’ve seen nowhere else in the world.

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… I actually taught another fellow too who actually moved on and found gainful employment as he moved on with his life. And Sary and I have been together for thirty years now. We know each other now since 1989… I would have to sit there and say 1992. Yeah, that we really were good friends. No. Oh, man. It’s much longer than that. Sary and I have been best friends since… 1988. Sary is Cambodian American citizen who was a dissident in Cambodia during the regime of Pol Pot in 1975. He settled here finally when he was of age after he did a tour in the army and that’s pretty much what they did. They brought them over here and then you gave a little tour to the army and that was it. [Then he] came to Jewelers’ Row and never left. [He came to Jewelers’ Row] in 1982 [and started] cutting. That’s all he ever did. Gemstone cutting. Now he works with me. I say with me, I don’t say for me. He works with me. We’ve been best friends ever since. Yeah…

FS: I pay my employees anywhere from $40,000 to $70,000 a year. Those are living wages… You are not going to work on people’s jewelry with inexperienced help.

KW: How many employees do you have?

FS: Right now I have three full-time employees beside myself and… three part-time. There was a point where we had more full-time employees, but I had to release two of them because I had an $80,000 opal that went missing. They had to go.

KW: What do you mean, “Went missing?”

FS: That’s what happened. Stuff gets stolen in this business, absolutely. Oh, yeah. I had to release another two employees, too. One was, he had a terrible drinking problem. He needed to straighten his life out. The other guy, I thought it was narcolepsy, but it wasn’t, it was prescription medicine and he would fall asleep. Yeah, I really didn’t want him to have a heart attack at work…

KW: You said you still go to shows?

FS: Yes, absolutely, I’m very active.

KW: Tell me, how does that work?

FS: The only way you’re going to get out there. I always tell people, “How many albums do you think Beyoncé can sell if she doesn’t go out on the road?” She has to be on the road, she has to. Get those people what they want and from there…

…there’s no other cutter like me in the country. I cut both colored gemstones and diamonds.

Mostly diamonds I get in now are repairs from other people, because there’s enough work out there that I don’t even have to import rough [diamonds] anymore. Colored stones, no one cuts colored stones like we do. Which is a lost art here in America. Most of them can’t compete with the Chinese labor, but we compete because we cut it big. In China, you’ll never cut bigger than a four carat stone, amethyst or quartz, because the people will swallow it. Believe me. They’ll swallow it and they’ll try to steal it. So they cut small stones. That’s why. We cut big.

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KW: And if you lose one, it’s a big loss?

FS: Absolutely. Exactly, we’re here, we cut it big. So, now we do four gem shows a year. I cut it down to the most cost effective means… I take the whole show out on the road we have the merchandise picked up then we travel and most of these are down in the DC area. Now, we will start, December I believe is our first one in Hong Kong. We should have actually been doing that for the last six months, however because, actually we were going to start two years ago, but we’ve been hearing this rumbling from Roberto for about two years now. You know, where he talks about, “Oh, Toll Brothers would come in here and they would do this, this, and this.” And we thought it was just stories. Absolutely. And then when finally we saw this permit get posted around the corner, so underhandedly, so that the city even says, “Oh, yeah, it’s no problem.” Come on.

KW: How many shows did you say you do?

FS: Four. I used to do nine. Now, I got good, so I just do four… In the DC area, where there is a big international community. Now in December I believe it’s December or April, we will start doing the Hong Kong shows and we’ll do two to four a year. And we can now make a living just from doing those two to four Hong Kong shows a year. But you’re not going to sell Chinese [nationals] Chinese made mountings. They already sold them to you and that’s what I’m trying to tell these guys. Instead of continuing on with the high end merchandise, they sold out and they just buy stuff that’s made in China and they wonder why they have no business. Well, they do have business, but you’re not going to sell it to that kind of clientele who has the major money and that’s what this is about. You can’t sell a Lexus to somebody who is making $15,000 a year, it just doesn’t happen, You know?

KW: Who are your clients, generally?

FS: High earners. Yes. My business, it’s people who invest in gemstones. Absolutely, that’s my client. All the time. The person and what I sell goes up in price, it never goes down… we make sure of that. We’re not selling like a retail item, just because it’s pretty. We sell for investment… and ethically sourced materials from all over the world, but mostly from Africa…

KW: How do you get your clients?

FS: Shows… website. We have a major website. I have, honest to God, probably $70,000 put into my website, just in the last year and a half. In labor and upkeep and that’s what you need to do. And then you need to promote the website. You don’t just put it up there and let it sit there. You have to promote it, you have to use social media…

KW: When did you notice that you needed to start having a big on-line presence?

FS: I always had an on-line presence probably since 2003. However, I really saw the need to re-do that website probably two years ago. Make it very web accessible from the phone and make it huge. And do something that none of the other websites are doing and that’s not to use Photoshop to make the picture look any better than the gemstone itself. To give people exactly what they see. Or, if they see it, they order it, they get it, and it’s going to look even better. I can use that to bring the clients in here.

KW: What percentage of your clients actually comes to the shop?

FS: Just about all of our business, all our retail comes from the shows. So, what’s really nice is anyone who sees me at the show I’m able to do business out of state, which is kind of unique, because then the government has a really weird way of saying it. You have to pay taxes to [the state] where that person first saw the item.

KW: So, if they see it at a DC show?

FS: Yes, you have to pay the taxes to DC… or what they can do, no one can ever prove that that’s where they bought it. They contact you here, you ship it to them, they get to save on taxes… and then most of what we do is wholesale. Wholesale for jewelers all over the country, mostly all over the country. Not too much oversees. That’s going to change with the Hong Kong show, I know it will. I know it will be a huge success… I have things that I can use here, American mined stones like large turquoise, the gem silica chrysocolla, red emerald, things like that that I can still find here and source out a collection that I can sell over there.

KW: That’s something I’m trying to get a sense for as I’m talking to people here, is how much of the businesses on the row work together and how many do their own thing.

FS: The retailers are retail. They have their clientele over the last 20, 30, 40 years. The wholesalers now sell to them. They give them their work at wholesale prices… Like for the gem cutting, I give them a wholesale price, and if that person comes over, suppose I get a phone call and someone says they’re looking for a two carat sapphire and I have the exquisite color they want and they’ll come to me… I get a couple of calls from the jeweler for a two carat sapphire and I give them a price and they might even pick up a stone or two from me and the person looks at it. Then that person happens to walk through my door and they ask for a two carat sapphire. I will not give them [a price that is lower] than I gave [the jeweler].  I put a mark up on it, so that jeweler still has the ability to make 25% maybe 50%. Yeah, you have to protect it because they do pay my salary.

KW: What is the flow through your building into the other [businesses]? So, you cut and then sell to…

FS: To just about every jeweler down here, absolutely… [I do] a lot of wholesale. Most of my business is wholesale, most of my business is wholesale. And the retail outlet I have is done far enough away that it doesn’t [impact their business]… That’s what being a nice guy is all about… Why would I know sell retail on the same street where I’m getting wholesale work, but if I’m not getting wholesale work, then I have to go look for other avenues to move my merchandise. Hence the website.

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BONUS FEATURE: TOUR OF FRANK’S STORE AND SHOP

(Inside FGS Gems)

FS: The rarest thing, besides the 12’ crocodile, which the only that’s fake on the whole wall is his tail and that’s why we put it down here so people can touch it. Because very seldom did you ever see a 12’ crocodile that was 100% intact. But the ichthyosaur in the center is actually a toddler. The ichthyosaur was the terror of the sea 85 million years ago before the great white or the megalodon. [Above that] is actually the mom. The reason it was such a terror is it came out about this size…[the mom] bore live young. They grew 90 feet long.

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KW: How did you get into this?

FS: Dr. Helman. He’s the chief medical examiner for Delaware County and probably one of the leading paleontologists. He respects the fact that he also is, I believe, the upcoming President or Vice President of the Tuscarora Lapidary Society. Typically very highly educated people are usually into gemstones. It doesn’t have to be that but they have an affinity for what we do.

FS: I have a 700 sf. Showroom. I give people the whole idea of natural light so I don’t have to just turn on the super sparkly lights so they can see everything.

KW: (In workshop) And this is where the magic happens.

FS: This (bench) has been in constant use since 1849. This actually has floating bearings. It is so cool that this technology was used way back and now they’re just starting to bring it back. We use the belt drive because you get less vibration than a direct drive, even though the direct drives are more expensive. But you do have to adjust the speed a lot because of belt slippage. This was in constant use since 1849 so what we actually did was use the CAD process to design a whole new top, use the same guts and the bearings to update the top of it.

I use green energy now. I use 220V motors and they’re energy saving. They still cost some money to run but we redesigned the whole thing.

I also am very adept at designing jewelry. So, this bench is much older than you think it is but I keep it in good shape.

KAW: Do you sell the jewelry you design?

FS: Sure. Especially when it comes to setting color stones I know how not to break them. This is also an old bench too that I redesigned the cutting table.

But this is 1849. I know there is a date on it somewhere up underneath the bench. I just can’t remember where it is. [Hard to find it now] because it’s all bolted down. I didn’t even tell you the best part. These are variable frequency drives so what I actually can that is totally different that nobody can do is that I use the technology to be able to use it into a DC current and actually slow the 1.5 horsepower motor down to 50 rpm so I can find that facet that is chipped, find it then turn it back up to 4000 RPM and cut it right in.

 

KW: You have a lot of control on this, that’s amazing.

FS: Exactly.

FS: No one has a problem leaving me work because they know I live here. I also watch out for the other guys on the street because we have 27 cameras all over the place.

KW: Any of the cameras go to the exterior?

FS: Oh yes, absolutely.

I purposely got rid of my other house so I could be here close to the diamonds. One of the ploys would be me buying a house in Society Hill or Old City so I’m still in the McCall catchment and going to the Neff building with a 3 year lease with 2000 square feet.

KW: Yeah, we did an interview with Rona Fisher in the Neff Building. She was saying that all they’re getting over there are 3 year leases. They won’t do any longer.

FS: Remember what I told you. Exactly what I said. They only give 3 year leases. So they figure this way: if this works out for them, by the time it’s done, they can sell their whole property.

“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? Continue reading

There’s a trust between us all…

In the final part of this interview with Rona Fisher, she discusses what she finds special and unique about Jewelers’ Row and why the proposed development could end that.


PART 3: THE DEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL

Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): Are you interested in talking about the development?

Rona Fisher (RF): Totally, yeah. Absolutely.

KW: You were asking me earlier about what was going on when the barricades came out…

RF: Yeah, what was that about? They came, they were here for a week, then they left.

KW: It is the first of many steps towards the demolition and construction but it wasn’t actually any demolition. Those were [up so that they could take] soil sample cores to test the soil to make sure that they can build a 16-story tower there… That’s what that was. They didn’t need any kind of permit for the work, just a permit to block off the street. [The developer] didn’t tell anybody that it was happening. They didn’t tell any of the shops it was happening.

RF: This is something that is annoying about how they’re functioning already is nothing’s out in the open and everybody’s taken by surprise…  Because that way they don’t have to answer to anybody and they can just plow ahead and nobody knew it was coming. At the first meeting, the Councilman said, “Well you’re paying $6500 in rent and you’re month-to-month, didn’t you think something was happening there?” But I think that’s typical of us jewelry people.

Our world is very tiny and we forget to look up and see what’s going on.

KW: What did you think about that meeting?

RF: I thought it was a good first meeting. We all came together and voiced our concerns…you know, if we don’t say the area’s important for us, who’s going to? I think it was pretty clear that this is really going to devastate a lot of businesses. For all the reasons I told you it’s good to have a business here on Jewelers’ Row. When you’re out in the city at large, you’re at risk and a move is ridiculously expensive.  A lot of people wouldn’t be able to do it, actually.

KW: How do you think it will affect your business?

RF: Well, as long as the owners here don’t decide to go residential, I’m ok. But they’re not willing to give a long lease either. They’re only willing to give 3 years out. And I was really considering not moving in because of that. To me that’s a red flag. It means they want a flexibility to do whatever. They don’t want to be stuck with a 15 year business lease, which is really what you need if you’re in business. You want that security. I looked at a lot of places around here…  Some of the places, the ceilings were falling down and the owners were just using them to squeeze whatever rent they can they had no interest in keeping them up. And that’s a shame.

KW: Are you 100% against the development?

RF: Yeah, I think they should move it. There’s a parking lot adjacent here that’s not used much. And it’s the Philadelphia Parking Authority so as far as I’m concerned it has something to do with the city and the Mayor can talk to the Authority and work something out with the Toll Brothers and make a deal to move them over there. I think the only thing that can possibly have them do that is if the resistance got to a point where they couldn’t make their time commitments and it was getting to them financially where they’re just getting obstacles all the time. From everybody I know that’s been a David with a Goliath that’s how it’s worked…I guess that’s the only way it’ll happen if enough blockades are put in their way that maybe it’s not worth it to them anymore.

KW: Or if they’re offered something else…

RF: If the city can make a deal with them for a lot that isn’t making any money. That lot over there is overpriced. Anybody that parks there once will never park there again. It’s like $27 for an hour to park in Philly? That’s insane. It’s not really a used parking lot. Maybe they can make them a deal. Make it good for them to be there instead.

KW: You’ve been here for 5 years now so what do you think, other than the ease of going out and getting things and the security, what do you think is special about Jewelers’ Row?

RF: Well, you know, it’s mostly pieces made one at a time for most of the shops here. Even the smaller manufacturing casting companies that I work with aren’t pumping out thousands of units. They’re not thinking in units, they’re thinking of an order. Someone might need 10 or 20 of the same thing at the most.

So you’ve got a lot of small businesses. It’s all hands on. They know each other and there’s a trust between us all. That’s a really good thing.

After you set up an account with a company and work with them for years. You have a good relationship.  I think there’s a hunger to know where things are made. Because of all these big boxes and all these imports I think people are really getting tired of it and they want to know where their string bean comes from. So I think it’s really important to hang on to that when we can. And if it weren’t for Toll Brothers, even though things are shifting and they’re shifting with every jewelry district, it’s still intact and New York’s is still intact and L.A. and Boston are still intact. Even though they’ve lost a lot, they’re still functioning.

KW: Do you think if the development goes through that would be lost?

RF: It would start. It would start to erode. I’m sure this owner would start to be thinking of residential. They would get more than what I pay for it if they turn it into residential. It’s a corner and has all these nice windows and beautiful views. That would definitely…as the property value goes up because now they’re selling condos and what the Toll Brothers will get for them, the property values in the rest of the neighborhood will start to go up more and these older building owners will be aggressively selling to a developer and it will just eat away at it. It will disappear in maybe 20-30 years and be gone.

KW: The owner of this building is not in the industry?

RF: No, he’s a developer. The previous owner was and he has a space here still…it’s larger estate jewelry.

KW: Who’s that?

RF: Marshall Asnen. He’s still in the building.

KW: Before we conclude this, is there anything else you want to say?

RF: No, just keep putting the word out. We’d like to keep it out there and keep it on everybody’s mind. My customers ask me, “What’s going on?” And I tell them to sign the petition and if you have $5-$10 we need to pay the lawyers. And people have a misconception that comes from a lot of what goes down on the street level. I think somebody wrote, “Oh you’re asking for donations, I think you people can very well take care of yourselves.”

But what they don’t get is it’s a façade of luxury.

Most jewelers, even the people in the stores, are maybe middle to upper-middle class. Very few get super wealthy. Because their inventory is so expensive and you have to have a lot of it. Unfortunately, people think we’re all rolling in dough but most of us are not.

You should go to the Boston [jewelry district] and talk to one or two people and ask them what’s happening there. Because it is happening in every jewelry district, not just here. It’s happening all over. Just as a comparison.  This is the oldest…maybe the smallest but it’s the oldest.

KW: Actually, it’s the second largest.

RF: Oh, bigger than L.A.?

KW: Yeah, it’s the second largest and the oldest.

RF: Well, it’s the oldest so I think it would be good to keep it intact as much as possible. That would be really good. I would be sad if I weren’t here. If I were working somewhere else I would think, it shouldn’t happen. It’s just an American thing…you know, use it up and throw it out. That’s part of our mentality. That’s not how it is in Europe. They use it and if they can’t use it anymore, they repurpose it immediately.

KW: Yeah, but these can be used, they are being used. It’s not like they’re defunct buildings or are empty.

RF: Well that’s it. These are ongoing businesses. Basically the city is willing to give tax money away in a tax abatement instead of promoting small business, which they should do. They should be actively promoting small business and getting closer to getting rid of the business privilege tax which is just ridiculous. They should be encouraging small businesses not discouraging them. They need to do that and this is just a move in the wrong direction. What we’re getting is a lot of developers from New York coming to pick up bargain properties in Philly. That’s how they look at Philly. It’s really cheap here by comparison.

KW: Well great, thank you so much.

RF: Thank you, Kevin.

I’m always getting inspired…

In this second part of the interview with Rona Fisher, the Jewelers’ Row designer talks about what it’s like to be on the row and how her she promotes her business.


PART 2: WORKING ON THE ROW

Kevin Wohlgemuth (KW): What do you like in particular about being here, being right in the middle of the Diamond District?

Rona Fisher (RF): I like being around jewelry. That’s always fun. I can leave the building and walk and look in the showcases, even if most of it isn’t my personal style, I’m always getting inspired with little ideas… I like to see what people are up to and to know what the other part of the industry is doing. I’m in the designer segment, so I’m really not related to what’s going on on the street level here. I still like to know, I still like to be around it. It’s convenient for customers and employees. There’s public transportation, people come from New Jersey on the high speed line. The Convention Center is close by, people call from out of town for appointments…we’re only 8 blocks away. So, [this location] is super convenient, and secure, more secure than being out in a studio building. Plus, you can move anywhere in the jewelry district here and you’ll find a space that some other jeweler has been in, so you’ve got all your gas lines, all your stuff. You’ve got the right electricity, it’s zoned correctly, you just have to move in and start to work.

KW: Do you find that people move relatively often around the district?

RF: Some do. Maybe they want to downsize or upsize, or they don’t like the stairs, or they’re sick of their landlord or whatever, so they’ll look for something else. There’s a little bit of movement, but I think most people like to stay put because their customers know where to go. Like, half the time I don’t know the address of my suppliers, I just know the door. Sometimes I think, “I should really have their number or address, because I think I’ve walked past it.” So [Jewelers’ Row] is kind of like a little beehive that goes on, and that’s kind of fun.

Also, when people do move around, there’s always a safe and these safes are an atrocious thing to move. They’re ridiculously expensive to move and ridiculously expensive to buy as well. So, Metal Market Place left like ten safes here. They had whole walls banked with safes. God only knows how much it would have cost to move those things. As soon as I moved in the landlord was like, “who wants a safe? Do you want a safe?” I was like, “Yeah!” Unfortunately, I only have room for one…

KW: You have the safe in your space?

RF: Yeah, it’s in the space, it’s huge. It makes putting these [jewelry trays] out and putting these away [really easy]. Each gets its own shelf, I just take it out, set it up. So, if somebody calls and says they’re around the corner, I can just say, “come on over,” and put everything out [quickly]. So, it makes it easy .

KW: Have you noticed any vacancies around here recently?

RF: Well, the trend is that there’s less jewelers, because of the  recession. I think the industry has lost like 30%. It’s a big, big loss for jewelry all over the country and all jewelry districts are suffering.

KW: When did the recession start?

RF: 2008. It really started eating away [at business] really quickly and continues to eat away. There are a lot of reasons for this: demographics, people your age don’t really want to take over the jewelry business, it’s a store and most people just want to do their own thing on-line through social media or find some alternative way of selling if they happen to be addicted to jewelry. So, the whole parent to child, leaving the business [to the next generation], that chain has  broken a lot. One of the reasons I think a lot of these building owners  are anxious to sell, is that they don’t have anyone to leave their business to and they want out…

You know, if they had active business and were really making good money and everyone was happy and their kids were taking it over than they wouldn’t want to do it, because that would be their retirement money.

That’s what usually happens is that the next generation would pay the parent to take the store as their retirement salary. So, with that chain broken, they’re anxious to go.

Also, the trend has been to take a lot of these places that aren’t being used and make them into apartments. Already, I’ve seen a lot of apartments on second and third stories. [For example] In New York, [the jewelry district] is in the middle of Manhattan. Most jewelry districts are in the middle of some city. So, the real estate is too expensive to let it sit and quite frankly, people can get a lot more from a residence than what we would be willing to pay for a workshop. That’s just the trend.

KW: How about on Sansom in particular? Have you noticed many vacancies?

RF: Well, apartments, changing workshops into apartments. On the second and third stories I’ve noticed lights on at night…residential types of lighting fixtures, etc.

KW: Earlier you were telling me you like being on the row because you can go out and get the materials right here. Can you tell me more about that, tell me how that works?

RF: Several of my casters are in the neighborhood, so that’s very convenient. Especially if we  do shows back to back, so I’ll come back from a show and I need to replace certain pieces. I can get my castings back in like two days… and then I can go off again and have my line intact, with certain important pieces I really like to have with me.

Little things you might need, tools and stuff like that that needs replacing. You just run out and get it.

KW: Do you go to appraisers here?

RF: Yes, there’s a few appraisers here. Especially when people send me their diamonds, I like to make sure that they understand what they’re worth. Sometimes they just send them to me and I’m like “do you know, do you have any idea? You sent this through the mail…maybe you should get this appraised and insured.” Sometimes they don’t know. They’ve had it forever and aren’t thinking about it. Some of them are worth quite a bit and they should have them insured.

BUSINESS

KW: …What do you do when you go to [fine craft] shows?

RF: The retail shows, they are fine craft shows. There are a mix of artists that go, jewelers, ceramics people, fiber, painters, photographers, furniture makers, glass artists, and they all have their studios and they go out to these fine craft shows and they sell their things to the public. That’s how I find my retail customers.

KW: And where are these shows? Do you go all over the country?

RF: I’ve tried all kinds of things, but pretty much restrained it now to a three hour drive. The furthest I’ll go is Chicago and Ashville, North Carolina; those are the two furthest points.

KW: Are those big shows?

RF: Chicago’s a big show. Chicago’s a great town, they’re very art oriented and I like going to Chicago. So, I go there and Saint Paul, Minnesota has a show and Ashville has a great show.

KW: Do you ever go to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show?

RF: Oh, I go there to buy, yes.

KW: That’s a place you have to go, yeah?

RF: What’s fascinating about Tucson, is you get to meet people from all over the world. And even though mostly it’s the same vendors, new ones pop up and you find material you don’t know about yet or just different cuts [of stones] coming out that they’re doing. So, it’s inspiring. As well as always being over budget, spending wise…

KW: You said you get a lot of your business from going out to these shows, do you also find that people are referred to you by other jewelers on the row?

RF: No, mostly they’re my retail customers who bring their girlfriends.  So, we don’t do work for the trade. The guy next door does work for the trade and probably most of the people on Jewelers’ Row do work for the trade. I’m an anomaly here, in that I’m a designer and I don’t want to do work for the trade. Not that it’s below me, but it distracts me from focusing on my line…

KW: Thinking about the other way, if someone comes in looking for something very specific that you don’t normally do, would you refer them to somebody else?

RF: It depends. If it entails making the master model, but it’s something that isn’t really our line, but that I can do rather quickly and not be too distracted by, then I’ll just do it for them…

KW: Do you have repeat customers?

RF: We have some customers that are jewelry addicts. It’s like when chefs have food addicts and they come to their restaurant, it’s like, “Yes!” So, we have a whole stash of people who just love jewelry and are very passionate about it. Luckily for me, they like my work.

One of the big things we do is we encourage people to take their old jewelry that they don’t like anymore, especially if they have diamonds in them, because diamonds don’t get worn down… they always look good. We get the diamonds out for them and we can make something they’ll like and they’ll wear. People will inherit [jewelry]… mom dies, grandma dies, and they have it. They can’t stand to wear it, but there it is. What are they going to do with it?

So, we’ll make them something they’ll actually wear and love and they’ll have that connection with their loved one… It’s very meaningful for people to have that connection, and it’s an honor for me to have a part in it.

KW: Obviously you have people who come to your studio. Do you also have people who contact you for commissions on-line?

RF: That’s one of the main reasons for our website is to reach out anywhere.

KW: Do you find that most of your clients come [in person to your store]?

RF: Most is word of mouth. It’s mostly word of mouth and then we’re working aggressively on spreading the website further, because people will, if they like the website, contact us and after a few emails back and forth we establish a good connection. They see we have good reviews and they feel comfortable about sending me their diamonds.

KW: Do you do any repairs of jewelry for people?

RF: Just our own. Or if it’s a good customer, then we’ll accommodate them. But, again, we’re not a repair shop. I don’t want to get distracted. If you’re a repair shop, then you’ve set yourself up to do quick repairs. So, for us to stop and do a repair, it’s distracting…

KW: You don’t sell to the major chain stores?

RF: No, we wouldn’t want to. This isn’t the look they’re after. It’s the biggest look for the least amount of money. That’s the mantra. That’s what makes those stores work. And when you say you can buy a karat worth of diamond studs for $499. Half a karat diamond each for $200…just for the diamond? I mean, that is a garbage diamond. There is something very wrong with that diamond. Because a half a karat…even just a decent diamond…is well over that.   So when I see these ads…what is it they’re really selling? That must be pretty bad. And you know, cheap labor in China and blah, blah, blah. So I that’s not my market. I sell to boutiques. There’s one  online e-tailer I sell to and we’re getting set up to do another one. That seems to work.

KW: Do you sell to a lot of local shops?

RF: No. Not really. The gallery scene kind of went down the tubes with the recession. A lot of them didn’t really know what they were doing  as retailers. But they were riding on a good economy, a boom economy, like we all were. We all thought we were great. We didn’t realize until it stopped that it was the economy that was helping us out. We could sell anything and they could sell anything. People had extra income and they were happy to buy things that they liked and not worry about it too much and gold was cheap compared to now.  And when that all stopped I’d say at least 50% of galleries went out of business.  All these artists that were building their financial future…business was doing great and you thought you knew what you were doing…and it just stopped. Like really one day from the next.

fisher_5

KW: And how did you find Lorelei?

RF: Lorelei’s been with me since the studio in Northern Liberties. She’s been with me for a long time. We had 3 jewelers full time and things started to slow down. I didn’t really have to let anybody go. One guy was getting burned out. There’s this serendipity that happens a lot in this business. Things happen for a reason.

I think a lot of jewelers know there’s kind of this mystery that goes along with jewelry making. You’re working with elements and they all have their own energy. And the stones like to play games on the jeweler.

KW: How so?

RF: Well, you’re sitting there setting one and you put it down and make some more adjustments on the setting and you pick it up and put it back in and it’s not quite right and you go to make a few more adjustments and…it’s gone. I just put it right there! You’re keeping your bench really clean and have a little container for the stone so that nothing gets misplaced . I’ve learned to give it 20 minutes tops. You do the floor sweep and you have all these ways of finding the stone. 20 minutes…it’ll show up, it’s here. It didn’t go down the drain. You weren’t near the sink, you go through all the things that could have happened. And sometimes I’ll walk in the next day and it will just be sitting right there. And it’s happened to everybody. I’ve never lost one that didn’t show up again.. . It’s bizarre.

KW: How is business now? It’s coming out of the recession and picking up?

RF: I have totally revamped and redone the business. Totally reorganized it. I made my initial money with the Buyer’s Market ( which doesn’t exist anymore) and selling to crafts galleries. My retail price point for them was about $500. It was 14 karat [gold] and silver. So I wanted to be working with 18 karat [gold].

But once you’re selling wholesale you’re known for that and it’s very hard to move away from that. It’s a big deal. Because it’s your brand and you’re known for that.

And that’s what people look for and that’s what the stores want and that’s what they think when they think of you and you’re kind of confined when you do wholesale. I decided to make the move anyway and start working with 18 karat gold. I knew it was a big risk. I knew I was going to lose a lot of my retail customers. I had already stopped selling wholesale because when 2008 happened I was like…I’ve known these galleries for 15 years and they’re all going to want consignment and it’s very dangerous and I don’t want to do it… So I wrote everybody a nice note saying “I’m going to step out of wholesale for a while and when things settle whoever’s left standing, we’ll see each other again. I wish you all the best of luck.”

My spouse and I travelled everywhere. I went to Florida, we pretty much commuted to Florida in the winters back and forth doing shows down there just to keep things together. I started honing the line into one particular look. It’s been a couple years and it’s starting to click pretty well now. It takes a while because it’s sort of a new business when you have a new line. So my old customers come and say hello but they’re used to having something fun for under  $500. And we don’t have many pieces like that anymore.

KW: Right, with 18 karat [gold] you have to bring up that price point.

RF: Yeah, so now whenever I design something and figure it out, it’s like, “Well there’s another one for $2000.” What can I do for under $1000? And that’s difficult when you’re using 18 karat gold and diamonds.

KW: So what do you think your general range is?

RF: Pretty much from $350 for silver and 18k gold pieces up to $7000.


Come back for Part 3 of the interview with Rona Fisher where discusses her position on the proposed development on Jewelers’ Row and how she believes it will effect the row and the jewelry industry in Philadelphia.

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

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