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In the Jewelry Center, All That Glitter Sure Is Gold

December 07, 1987|DAVID FERRELL | Times Staff Writer

On the 16th floor of the International Jewelry Center, Randy Matiyow's walls are rigged with alarms and reinforced with several tons of lead. Employees come and go wearing guns and holsters. Television monitors keep an unblinking eye on every room.

In this atmosphere, Matiyow and his company--Prosegur Inc.--specialize in the storage and shipment of gold, silver, diamonds and other precious commodities.

Through the company's massive vault flows much of the lifeblood of the Los Angeles Jewelry Center, giving Matiyow what he considers a rough barometer of the district's growth. Three years ago, he said, the vault was far from its huge capacity--25,000 pounds of bullion. Now it is stacked to the limit.

The one dark cloud on his otherwise booming business, Matiyow said, is the problem of too little vault space. But it is a dark cloud lined with more silver, gold and diamonds than he ever imagined.

"I can't store all the metal people want to give me because of the weight factor," the former Brink's executive lamented. "That's the biggest problem I have right now. I think everyone was completely fooled about what the market would do down here."

Indeed, the market is thriving. The L.A. Jewelry Center, an unlikely world of unlikely lineage, has become a sparkling success story in a rebuilding downtown. On the rise even after a decade of growth, it is a fast-paced immigrant outpost in an old part of town, a melting pot of old-time American jewelers and craftsmen from Japan, Hong Kong, India, Armenia, Thailand, Israel and elsewhere.

Together--despite problems of crime and competition--they have forged a multifaceted world where jewelry is imported, traded, designed, manufactured and sold. A few bulky buildings represented the district 12 years ago; today, about 2,000 jewelry businesses crowd the storefronts and high-rise offices that run along Hill, 6th and 7th streets. A dozen major jewelry buildings exist--with more on the way.

For many, the American Dream lies gilded within the delicate filigree chains and gold watches of a display shelf. Lights burn long into the night on floors where rings are sized and polished and diamonds are carefully set within the dimples of a metal earring.

"There is lots of bargaining and negotiating--and people enjoy it," said retailer Rita Lam, the daughter of a prominent jewelry family in Hong Kong, describing the sense of community.

The handling of the merchandise in the district amounts to highly organized chaos. The Armenian retailer on the street buys his diamonds from the Israeli on the third floor and his opals from a Japanese importer on the ninth. Gold rings for those diamonds are the product of the gold importer down the hall, shaped by the manufacturer who passes it on to the diamond setter who does his work for the retailer.

The many foreign-born and first-generation jewelers who operate in the district feel secure investing in diamonds and gold, they said.

"Lebanese . . . Israelis . . . people from the Orient. You name it, they've come in," longtime building operator Harry Mordy said. "Frankly, I don't know how they all can make it."

Lam said the thinking is simple: "If you (open) a restaurant and buy meat, it can go wrong," she said. "Jewelry cannot go wrong."

Despite Cassandras who predict doom because of falling stock prices, the crush of trade has turned Los Angeles from an also-ran to a major player on the international jewelry scene, according to most in the industry. Although notably smaller than America's top market, New York, second-ranked Los Angeles is expected to continue gaining ground because of soaring demand for jewelry in the Pacific trade region, jewelers said. Total trade is estimated at more than $1 billion a year in Los Angeles.

"In the last five years it has grown tremendously--unbelievably," said Haroon Hanasab, 31, part-owner of the Jewelry Design Center on West 7th Street. Hanasab's family fled Iran after the revolution and sank their money into a 14-story building that was less than half occupied five years ago.

Now, he said, the building is more than 95% full, housing 120 jewelry manufacturing companies.

The district has made a significant impact on the downtown office market. Forty- and 50-year-old structures that were losing their hold on banks, theaters and department stores are now the domain of jewelers.

Space in the jewelry buildings goes for nearly double the lease rates at office buildings just a few blocks away, Coldwell Banker broker David Louie said. The old Bullock's building--a landmark at 7th and Hill streets--is one example of the transformation. No longer desirable for the department store, it was gutted and resurrected five years ago as St. Vincent's Jewelry Center, a sprawling home to 500 wholesalers, retailers and manufacturers. The $15-million project may be followed by another expansion, building manager Mike Youssefian said.

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