A Jewel-Worthy Selection


Depending upon a number of factors — your bankroll, whether you want to schlep into the city, deal with the crowds at the mall or venture someplace else — there should be something for everybody. 

Yes, diamonds are still a girl’s best friend. But when it comes to buying jewelry for the holidays, they’re by no means your only option. 
Depending upon a number of factors — your bankroll, whether you want to schlep into the city, deal with the crowds at the mall or venture someplace else — there should be something for everybody. With Chanukah almost here, it’s getting to be a busy time in the jewelry business. 
Only, it’s not quite as busy as it used to be. 
“In the past, jewelers used to do about 60 percent of their business from the end of November to December,” said Ben Sorkin of Ben Sorkin Jewelers, who’s been on Sansom Street for 35 years. “It’s not quite like that anymore with the advent of the Internet and other factors.
“So you have to work harder to get business. Make the phone calls. Get out and hustle.”
Those on Jeweler’s Row like Sorkin face a different challenge. Not only do they have to lure customers into Center City, where they often have to deal with traffic, parking and other hassles, but they have to compete with each other. 
If you don’t like the merchandise in one store, there are plenty of others eager for your business. Since no one wants to price themselves out of the running, you may get more bang for your buck. 
“This is still the street of dreams,” said Steve Rosen of Sydney Rosen Co., whose late father founded the business 70 years ago “Absolutely. For those who like to come into town for some significant shopping, Jeweler’s Row is still a significant draw. They can go into dozens of stores for some serious comparison-shopping. They don’t pay mall prices since we’re all competing with each other, so we keep the prices down. They can see a lot of choices all on one trip. And they’re dealing with family-owned businesses rather than corporations. Many people like that.”
On the other hand, Jake Spiegelman, of Jay Roberts Jewelers in Marlton, says he offers the best of both worlds: affordable prices without having to deal with the annoyances of coming into the city. 
“What we have here, rather than an open smaller location, is one super location,” said Spiegelman, who opened the business with Roberts 30 years ago, moving to its current location in 1991. “We’re all under one roof, with a full-time jeweler and watchmaker. This is kind of a supermarket of jewelry all located in one spot.”
While he’s working the Jersey market and people like Sorkin, Rosen and Robert Schwartz of Harry Merrill & Son — which has been around for 61 years — try to drive customers to their respective stores, Joy Stember does it a bit differently.
Now in her fifth year running her own company, she’s become one of the experts in the relatively small field of metal arts, specializing in Judaica. Whether it’s a menorah or dreidel for Chanukah, a mezuzah for the home, a Passover seder plate or even a specially designed keepsake holder for the glass broken under the chupah, she makes it in her Abington studio.
With luck, just like the kiddush cup or that Shabbat candle holder which has been passed down from generation to generation, her original creations will be passed down, too. “The work I make is to be part of family legacies,” said Stember, whose father, Jonathan, operated a fine jewelry store in Blue Bell for 41 years, which is where his daughter learned many of the tricks of the trade. “It’s a modern take on a traditional item, which can become something meaningful to a family. We hold onto those items to remember our family. My favorite part of doing what I do is hearing the stories, like somebody who tells me they still have their grandmother’s candle-holder she brought from Poland during the Holocaust. It’s a way of remembering those who’ve come before us.”
But why metal? And why the emphasis on Judaica? 
“My dad taught me metals from the time I was 9,” said Stember, who grew up in Cheltenham, attended Tyler School of Art at Temple, then realized her niche after attending a workshop in Asheville, N.C. “I feel metal is the proper material to realize my designs. Clay was too messy. It didn’t give me that crisp edge I wanted. Metal just seemed to fit right. And actually all I work with is pewter. That also goes back to the days I was working with my Dad. 
“I decided on this after I came back from a trip to Israel on Birthright,” she continued. “When I was about to turn 26, I decided to go, because I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I hadn’t felt the connection before. I was pleasantly surprised how deep a connection I felt. When I came back, I started working in my studio, and all the pieces I ended up making were Judaica. I kind of took that as a sign from God — or whomever — this is the path I should be going on.”
Judaica has become a more personal gift over the years, whether it’s buying a Yahrzeit candle-holder or an apple-and-honey dish for Rose Hashanah like she sells, or buying a necklace with a Jewish star or a yad at a jeweler. While many of them have ideas on the perfect gift, they’re more than happy to incorporate yours. 
“People are buying custom designs and redesigns, which is something we do a lot of,” explained Robert Schwartz of Harry Merrill & Son, whose grandfather founded the company in 1954. “Maybe they inherited something from their grandmother and it’s sentimental but not to their taste. So we remake it into something.”
At the same time, they’re always trying to anticipate what the public will want. “We stock up on certain stones — rubies, sapphires, emeralds — our ‘bread and butter,’ ” added Schwartz, flanked by his mother, Iris, Harry’s daughter. “But of course, there’s trends.
“One year you might sell more stud earrings or bracelets. For a while, journey necklaces or ‘past, present and future’ necklaces were popular.
“We do some Judaica, too, though it’s not as popular as it used to be. We’ll get a Star of David from an estate sale or someone will say, ‘I had this or that custom-made for a Bar Mitzvah.’ ”
You can even design your own. In fact, Ben Sorkin encourages it. “Jewelry should be fun,” said Sorkin, whose store is filled with an array of sports memorabilia, including baseballs signed by Hall of Famers and a Wilt Chamberlain signed photo. “You want customers to be a part of creating their own piece of jewelry, which I think is way more fun that buying something ready-made.
“I love to create from a customer’s ideas. Even with Judaica, I try to give them a variety and let them choose what they want, whether it’s incorporated into a pendant or a bracelet with the classic Jewish inscription.”
As for what to look for during the holidays: “I think diamond studs are always a terrific gift,” offered Sorkin. “Now they’re doing them with what they call a ‘halo’ style — a center diamond surrounded by smaller diamonds. It makes the diamond look bigger and is a great fashion accessory which is going to be very popular.”
Just as fashion has changed through the years, so have the accessories men and women wear in public. “The world is not as formal as it used to be,” said Spiegelman, who was born in Netanya, Israel, before his family moved to Vineland, N.J. when he was 5 years old. “Lifestyles are more casual, therefore jewelry’s more casual.
“Before, people went out on weekends and to nice restaurants and were more dressed up. Today, they’ll put on jeans. People tend to buy jewelry that can be worn every day.” 
They also tend to buy it when they feel they’re getting good value. For generations, that’s been the word along Jeweler’s Row. But as the older generation begins to give way, there’s concern for the future.
“The last few years, it really has become an age thing,” noted Sorkin. “People over the age of 40 will come into town to Sansom Street, because they know it’s a great destination. It’s the younger generation I feel we’re having a problem with getting the word out. They might not know how excellent a place to shop Sansom Street is. You can see a tremendous variety of new and old items that you’d never be able to see it in any one store.
“But you certainly can see it in 60 stores. It’s true that a satisfied customer is the greatest asset in any business. Because jewelry is such a personal item, a job well done usually leads to more business. I don’t want to be negative about large jewelry stores, but they’re not manufacturers or designer and don’t know how to create a piece of jewelry for the most part.”
That’s certainly not the case with the businesses on Jeweler’s Row, at Jay Roberts or with Joy Stember, who puts her metal Judaica on display at some 15 top quality crafts shows throughout the country. So when it comes to choosing that perfect piece of jewelry for the holidays, keep in mind that those are just a few of the options. 
With so many to choose from, how can you go wrong? 
Contact: Jmarks@jewishexponent.com 215-832-0729


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