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Where Have The Lovers Gone?
From Sing Tao Daily

Monday, July 1, 2002

Where do lovers go when they become engaged? Sio Wang Sang, proprietor of "Golden Jade," a Canal Street jewelry store, says that it has been more than a week since he last sold an engagement ring. Before 9/11, he would sell five to 10 per week.

His clientele consisted mainly of professionals from the neighboring Financial District, who would walk to Canal Street after work to look at his merchandise. The volume of business was as predictable as the changing of the seasons; rings sold especially well in December, and business always went up tremendously before major holidays—especially Valentine’s Day.

At present, he is fortunate to sell a single ring per week, since most of his customer base has disappeared post 9/11. Many of the professionals who previously frequented his shop no longer work in Downtown Manhattan.

Nine months after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, Chinatown’s narrow streets are once again bustling with customers, but its 250 jewelers have not recovered.

The jewelry industry, which developed rapidly within the neighborhood during the economic boom of the 1990s, now suffers from three setbacks: the dearth of financial professionals and foreign tourists since 9/11; the economic downturn that succeeded the attacks; and the recent closing of the Grand Street subway station.

In addition to a lowered demand for engagement rings, the retailers also have trouble selling their other wares, including black pearl earrings, 24-carat gold bracelets, diamond-studded crosses, and Rolex watches. The stores, which run from the corner of Broadway and Canal Street all the way to the Bowery’s "Gold District," have hastily covered their windows with fliers: "Fifty percent off all Engagement Rings"; "Father’s Day 30-50% off Everything"; "A Gift with Each Purchase."

Chinatown jewelers say that business is 30 to 50 percent lower than it was this time last year, compared to the 20 to 25 percent figure reported by the Midtown Diamond District (47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues).

The "low-profit, high volume" mentality which characterizes most Chinatown vendors is very much like Mr. Sang’s principle of providing "Fifth Avenue quality at downtown prices." He showed this reporter a $7,000 diamond ring that would sell for at least $8,000 uptown.

Jewelers now have to drag people in off the streets. They smile warmly at any person who ventures into their stores, only to be disappointed when all that is required is a simple watch or chain repair.

The closure of the Grand Street station until the year 2004 due to Manhattan Bridge repairs has had the greatest impact on the jewelry retailers located on the Bowery.

Although the industry does adjust to changing economic conditions, the present situation in Chinatown is especially serious, since a huge number of jewelers established themselves there to cater to the loose purse strings brought on by the bullish markets of the 1990s.

Ten local jewelers have already gone out of business. Some of them were part of a rent-sharing collective of jewelry merchants where fellow, struggling businesses had bought them out. Only half of the lots of 177 Canal Street, a collective which opened two months ago, are occupied.

This establishment is still decorated with red, white and blue ribbons. Plants in red tinfoil pots occupy one of its windows. The owner was unable to find someone willing to pay the $6,000 rent for the front lot.

Things are only getting worse, says Shun Li, who set up shop in this collective back in June. He has worked within the industry for thirty years.

Those jewelers still in business have already cut down on staff. Before 9/11, Mr. Sang employed 16 salespeople on the weekends. They now number six. Many Chinatown firms agree that the jewelers are facing their worst crisis ever.

Before Canal Street became the backbone of the neighborhood, it witnessed the birth of the Diamond District. Back in the 1930s, immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany opened jewelry stores on the eastern half of Canal Street. The area blossomed into a successful commercial district.

After World War II, the jewelers slowly moved to Midtown mainly due to the higher rents resulting from the wartime economic boom.

47th Street, home to what are now primarily diamond wholesalers, has since become the premier diamond district in New York. In the 1970s, the Canal Street district experienced a renaissance when Chinese immigrants like Mr. Sang began to set up jewelry stores.

Born in Macau, 56-year-old Sang was in the jewelry business in the Dominican Republic for four years prior to arriving in New York. When he opened his first store here in 1973, his customers consisted of Italians and other Caucasians.

Sang’s family owns at least twelve jewelry stores throughout Chinatown. He himself owns three. Under the present conditions, though, he is unsure as to how long they will all hold out.

Mr. Li, who operates a lot at 177 Canal Street, says he was forced to close his store at the corner of Canal and Centre Streets last November when the location was bought out by a Starbuck’s cafe.

Although he has maintained contact with former customers by telephone, only about a third of them have visited him at his new location.

Translated from Chinese by Kelvin Wu.

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