Editor’s note: The following interview excerpts are published in partnership with the Save Jewelers Row oral history project, a blog dedicated to preserving the voices of merchants along Sansom Street and the legacy of the nation’s oldest diamond district. We present them as the Historical Commission begins to assess nominations of 704 and 706 Sansom Street to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which would protect them from demolition and replacement with an apartment tower, as proposed by the suburban house builder, Toll Brothers (see the New York Times recent coverage HERE).
These first two interviews are part of an ongoing series produced by the project’s founders Angelina R. Jones and Kevin Wohlgemuth.
It’s an Extended Family: Gemologist and appraiser Joshua Hyman
Gemologist and appraiser Joshua Hyman’s family has been working on Jewelers Row for four generations. He is one of only a few gemologists on the historic corridor and does business with most jewelry professionals in the supply chain operating on Sansom Street. In this abbreviated interview he discusses his family history and the interconnected, multicultural merchants that keep Jewelers Row thriving. (Read the full, three-part transcript HERE.)
Kevin Wohlgemuth: Can you tell me a little about how your family business began?
Joshua Hyman: I’m fourth generation. My great-grandfather, Ruben Littman, in order to survive during the Depression, sent his wife and his son, my grandfather, Marshall, to live with his mother-in-law at 4th and Locust in Philadelphia where his mother-in-law had a boarding house. Ruben lived with his parents in Atlantic City and would make a tour. It started in Atlantic City and he would come to Philadelphia to see his family, then go door-to-door in South Philadelphia and ask people if they had any metals that they wanted to sell, hoping to buy precious metal. He would pay them cash, then bring the metals here to Sansom Street. During the Depression there were auction houses here. Reuban would sell the metal to the refinery, to the metal buyers, and would use that money to buy home goods at auction and take back to Atlantic City to sell on the boardwalk. He wasn’t the only one doing that. They were called “curb merchants.”
When my grandfather was going to South Philadelphia High School, he was 16 and he wanted to work. My great-grandfather, knowing so many of the jewelers on Sansom Street, got him a job as a runner for a poker game in the basement of 732 Sansom Street. Guys would want cigars or cigarettes or a sandwich or whatever. My grandfather would go get these things during the game. One of the players in that game offered him an apprenticeship to learn how to be a bench jeweler and he took it. He excelled at it to the point that by the time he was 20 he was already a partner in his own business. When his partnership failed he decided he didn’t want to be a jeweler anymore. They moved to Wildwood and opened a boutique on the boardwalk and ran it for two years. But my grandmother decided that my grandfather should be a bench jeweler again. They came back and went into business for themselves. My grandmother ran the business side of it and he did the work side of it. Back in the early fifties, a woman in this industry was very rare. They built a business over the next forty years and wound up moving into 730 Sansom Street. The business was called Marshall Littman Manufacturing Jewelers, Inc. At one time they had about eleven employees. My mom then marries my father in the late 1960s. He starts working for my grandfather, his father-in-law. In 1987, my grandparents sell the business to my parents. But they hit a recession and they slowly lost the business over time. Because they owned the building they wound up moving to another location in the building and renting out that space. Since they owned the building, that helped them survive.
That was around the time that I was graduating from high school and going to college. I wound up visiting Europe. While there my parents offered to send me to a school in Germany to learn how to cut gemstones. I actually have a diploma on my wall for cutting gemstones from a German school in this historic village called Idar-Oberstein. Gemstones have been cut there for over five-hundred years. I then decided to go to the GIA [Gemological Institute of America] in Los Angeles. I got a job in Aruba as the in-house gemologist for a multi-store chain in Aruba and Curaçao. I was 22, I was single, it was a great experience. I left Aruba after four years, because I met the woman I was going to marry. We decided to move back to Philadelphia. My parents really didn’t have space for me in the gem business on the retail side, so we decided to move to Miami where we lived for four years. I worked for a high-end pawn shop that only bought jewelry and paintings and silver. I learned how to buy, I learned how to evaluate. The guy I worked for was a high-level gemologist, so I learned high-level gemology.
After four years we decided to come back to Philadelphia. I met a guy here named Marshall Asnen. He used to own 740 Sansom Street before he sold it. I worked for him for 11 and a half years, and I learned everything about this industry.
KW: Beyond the history that you and your family have on Sansom Row, what do you think makes it a special place for the jewelers and yourself?
JH: Well, it’s an extended family. I’m dealing with certain people who are also fourth generation, so I know their history.
I know their parents dealt with my parents or their grandparents dealt with my grandparents. We know about stories, some are funny, some are grand, some are exciting, and some are terrible, but you’re not just dealing with the person in front of you. You’re dealing with, if you want to look deeper into it, families to families. It’s a familiarity. It’s seeing somebody’s face and seeing their parents in their face, or their grandparents in their face.
It gives you a level of familiarity or of comfort, and that creates a better atmosphere to work in and to live in. Doing what I do in a bubble somewhere else would not be as fun or as interesting. But doing it here where I’m interacting everyday with not just people, but with families with entire generations behind them…we might have interactions that we don’t speak of the past in anyway, but if we step back and we think about it, our interaction was so much easier because of the past. Sometimes we actually bring it up, we talk about it and we share historic pictures and whatever.
Also, watching the next generation go from 0 to 100, watching new immigrants come to this country who start from nothing. Michael Tang, who bought our building, came to this country as a refugee from Cambodia, he went from nothing to buying a building for over a million dollars in a 30-year span. Only from hard work, no welfare, no help or support from the government, just hard work. His story is amazing. There’s Italians, there’s Jews, there’s Southeast Asians, there’s Russians—they all are part of this street now. And nothing’s really changed in that sense. If you look at the old, historic pictures, the names on the walls are not Anglo names. There always have been German or Russian or Italian. This has been a melting pot and it stays a melting pot, this street.
KW: That’s one of the most incredible things about the row.
JH: Right. It’s not just one group of people. We all interact with each other and the language or the thing that bonds us is the jewelry.
There’s no culture or language or race or religion in a diamond. It’s just a product that we all love. Whoever I’m dealing with on the street, it’s irrelevant where they’re from. What’s relevant is the stone or the deal and how we make that happen.
KW: When you think about other people on the row and people with similar storied family pasts that have to do with either the row or just jewelry, how many people do you think along Sansom have that kind of history?
JH: Seventy-five percent minimum. Maybe more. And to tell you the truth, when I meet people who are first generation, they have no family history on this street or in the business, but they decide they want to be in this business, it isn’t too long before I see them bring their kids every day. I’m already seeing the next generation coming in. It’s definitely a generational thing.
KW: That fact in itself gives Jewelers Row that intangible value.
JH: Yes. There’s no Zales or Jared’s. It’s all family-owned business. Then, when you dig deeper, it’s all multi-generational owned business, all of it.
An Artist in the Diamond District: Jewelry designer Rona Fisher
Rona Fisher is a jewelry 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 craft making and has built a successful business that thrives in the Neff Building on Sansom Street. In this abbreviated interview Fisher discusses the beginnings of her career as a jewelry designer and what brought her to Jewelers Row. (Read the full transcript HERE.)
Kevin Wohlgemuth: How did you get into the jewelry business?
Rona Fisher: 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. 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 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 in Seattle, they were coming down the coast and doing shows and the work just blew my mind. This is fine art and it is craft, because they’re making kind of functional things. 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]. If I’m going to do something for the rest of my life it had to be challenging, to have many layers, so that was pretty much it. Don’t get bored with it. 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. 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].
KW: The public knows Jewelers’ Row and what it is, but not how it works behind the scenes. What has your experience been?
RF: The first time I moved into Jewelers Row my customers were very happy. They were saying things like, “Oh, thank God! Now we know where to find you.” Everybody’s heard of it. Everybody’s come down here as a child or their mom dragged them down here to get a little birthday tchotchke. I certainly did in the day. I was pretty excited to move down here. We have our own designated police force. My first studio was in Northern Liberties and it was an artist building at the time, which had its own fun ambience.
KW: When was that?
RF: 1991 and I was there about 15 years. Then, the real estate boom happened and the owner and his wife, an architect, bought the building as an investment property. When the boom came they were happy to be selling it. Of course, we all had to scatter somewhere.
KW: Is that when you came here to Jewelers Row?
RF: That’s when I came to the area. To 8th Street in Lynn’s Jewelers, right upstairs. I was there for five years, and I kept my eye on this building. I heard it was for sale. It did get sold, and as soon as that happened I was over here every two days to see what was happening. As soon as I heard the hammers I went looking for the owner. It was raw space. This entire floor belonged to Metal Market Place, which is on Sansom Street now. The recession caused him to downsize immediately.
KW: What do you like in particular about being right in the middle of Jewelers Row?
RF: I like being around jewelry. 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 the street level here.
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 and we’re only eight blocks away. So, [this location] is super convenient and 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, 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: 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.
KW: Have you noticed any vacancies around here recently?
RF: Well, the trend is that there’s less jewelers because of the recession. It’s a big, big loss for jewelers all over the country, and all jewelry districts are still suffering.