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Bargains For The Bold

May 03, 2009|Susan Carpenter

There's something disconcerting about shopping for diamonds in an area that reeks of urine, or buying gold from a place surrounded with stores hawking $39 boom boxes, $2 T-shirts and "brand-name" merchandise that is, most likely, fake. But shoppers who are willing to brave the hustle and bustle of L.A.'s downtown jewelry district could be richly rewarded. The glittering objects of adornment sold along Broadway and Hill and Olive streets, between 5th and 8th streets, typically cost 50% to 70% less than retail.

About 1,500 vendors operate in this half-mile span, which is, to the uninitiated, daunting. It's difficult enough to know whether the neon signs advertising 14K puro oro and endless especiales on watches and earrings are legit. Throw in the fact that most of the shops are operated by immigrants hailing from countries where prices are flexible and haggling is expected, and you've got a situation that is, at best, confusing for shoppers who are accustomed to set prices, mall shopping and brand names.

To be sure, the district's teeming melee of humanity is rife with pitfalls and rip-off potential, but "the small jewelry outlets as a general rule don't get many complaints," said Gary Almond, director of operations for the Better Business Bureau of the Southland. "There may be some bad actors in there, but we process 10,000 complaints a month and if 10 of them were about small jewelry stores in that area I'd be surprised."

The upside to having so many sellers packed in such a small space is, of course, lower prices.

"There are plenty of people to compare prices with," said Peklar Pilavjian, co-owner of the St. Vincent Jewelry Center on Hill Street. Home to 500 vendors, 300 of which are retailers as well as wholesalers, this sprawling, 350,000-square-foot former Bullock's department store has a ground floor filled with stalls that sell to the general public, while its upper floors are strictly business to business.

It's these close quarters that allow vendors to offer such great prices. Not only are their rents lower, they're forced to offer better deals because their competition is just a few steps away.

Ask the vendors who operate in the district, and they'll tell you it's the overhead that customers are really paying for when they shop for jewelry in traditional stores -- not the precious metals and stones.

"The mall stores have more rent, higher expenses [such as advertising] and less competition," says Ramin Kasher, the owner of Ramin Jewelry, a shop that's been in business for almost 20 years on Broadway. "Most people like to pay for the brand rather than the quality."

According to Kasher, the gold rings, earrings, bracelets and necklaces he showcases under glass and atop red velvet forms are all high quality. They're also made from real gold. If customers don't believe it, he'll conduct an acid test and show them.

Many of the shops in the jewelry district offer this service for free when asked. They simply rub the gold item on a hard surface, stone, top the spot where it was rubbed with a drop of acid, and if the gold stays put, it's real. If the "gold" disappears in a sizzling and stinky chemical reaction, it's fake.

For diamonds, another in-store test is often available to determine whether the rock is real, though the test isn't sophisticated enough to determine cut, clarity or carat size, all of which affect price. When a battery-operated wand is held to the stone, it beeps if the diamond is a diamond and is eerily quiet if it's glass. "We do anything we can to make trust. Honesty -- that's how our business grows," said Robert Sagezi, manager of Broadway Gold Center at 6th and Broadway. A bustling and brightly lighted place glittering with gold and pumping with club music, Sagezi's shop offers both tests.

"This is a family business. We want it to continue," said Sagezi, whose two brothers work with him.

Broadway Gold Center has been on the same busy street corner for 18 years, Sagezi said. It's been on the same street since 1987.

It's the longevity of a business, and a long-standing location, that customers might want to look for when shopping in the district. Both are good indicators of a shop's legitimacy.

That's part of what drew Susan and John Park to the 25-year-old, J&M Jewelry shop on Hill Street, where they were looking at a diamond-encrusted eternity ring to celebrate their fourth year of marriage.

"This neighborhood, the reputation is there are a lot of unsavory characters in the area," said Park, who was shopping on Hill, which offers a somewhat less frenzied shopping experience than Broadway.

"We looked at all the chain jewelry shops, but a mall is mediocre," said Park, 55, an L.A. native who's been living in Australia for the last 21 years and was visiting the city with his wife.

"Here, you get better quality for a better price," said Park, who thought the $2,599 that J&M was charging for its white-gold, 2.88-carat, round brilliant diamond wasn't just reasonable. The $2,500 savings he estimates he achieved by buying the ring in the jewelry district instead of Australia paid for the couple's airfare.

Finally, if you decide to shop the downtown jewelry district, here are some suggestions that might improve the experience: Shop around, ask questions, negotiate and get a receipt.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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