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Baubles and Bargains

Tips for shopping in the L.A. Jewelry District

February 11, 2007|Jessica Gelt

The sooner you and Toto realize that you're not in Kay Jewelers anymore, the better.

L.A.'s Jewelry District is the second largest in the nation, behind (of course) New York City's. A diamond in the rough, it's mounted between the four prongs of Broadway, Olive and 5th and 8th streets. For the first-time shopper, acclimating to the area--the gum-pocked sidewalks, the blaring CD stores, the stewpot of street chatter--is as key to the experience as finding the right jeweler among nearly 2,000 vendors.

It can be worth it. The trade-off for suburban shopping-mall serenity is the chance to find wholesale bargains 50% to 70% less than retail. Just be forewarned that the Jewelry District isn't exactly L.A.'s best-kept secret. Peklar Pilavjian, owner of the 500-tenant St. Vincent Jewelry Center, says the district does as much as $3 billion annually in wholesale and retail sales.

Because it's easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the operation, it helps to know exactly what you want, and to understand the different qualities of the various gemstones. One place to start your education is the American Gem Society at www.americangemsociety.org, which offers a free consumer protection kit and shopping tips. These will get you going, but there's hard work (if you consider buying baubles work) ahead. Warns Diane Flora, the society's director of education: "It takes a lot of years of experience to really have confidence."

Start with comparison shopping. If you're looking for an emerald, walk every raucous square inch of the district and stop at all the emerald-bearing booths you see. Act as if you know what you're doing, even if you don't have a clue. Negotiate. Yes, you're allowed to haggle.

Star Gem Jewelry Inc. in the St. Vincent Jewelry Center sells a variety of emerald pendants as deep and green as the sea, each evaluated according to the same four C's as diamonds: cut, color, clarity and carat. A square 1-carat beauty framed by 20 graded half-carat diamonds costs about $1,000. A similar setup, minus a few diamonds, costs half as much at a booth down the block because the stone (a slightly sallow dry-lawn green with a tiny black speck at its center) is of lesser quality.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but a little reassurance never hurts. Pilavjian recommends asking for a certificate or receipt that guarantees quality, which most vendors will happily supply. As one jeweler in the L.A. Jewelry Mart at 7th and Olive assured this shopper: "I'll give you my blood type, my driver's license and my children's birth certificates."

Remember, though, that a certificate is only as good as the signature at the bottom of it. Kevin Stevenson, owner of Bellflower's Johnson Jewelers, says the jewelry industry is built on trust, so it's important to know the reputations of the people from whom you're buying. "That's gonna hold true for a booth or an independent retail store in Mission Viejo."

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