Few would guess that Queen Elizabeth II and New Haven high school students share something in common. But one only has to look as far as their jewelry collections: They both have pieces from New Haven jewelers.
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In the middle of July 1976, on a summer day during the United States’ bicentennial celebrations, Her Majesty sailed her yacht into New Haven Harbor. It was by all means a rare occasion, and to mark the event, the city presented her with a small silver pillbox — a modestly built cylinder with nine squares etched into its lid, representing New Haven’s city plan — designed by local jeweler Derek Simpson.
At the time, the streets of New Haven were lined with more than a dozen jewelry shops, many of them owned by handcrafters who had founded their businesses around the turn of the century. Today, reminders of those bygone days of luxury rings and brooches remain in the handful of jewelry stores along Chapel Street. But while business has, for the most part, been shaky over the past several months for these stores, the owners of four downtown jewelry shops said Monday that shoppers — from high-profile visitors to local high school students — are beginning to open their wallets for trinkets and baubles once more.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs,” said Ronen Yur, owner of the clothing and jewelry store Yurway Boutique at 1130 Chapel St. “But over the past couple of months, we’ve finally started to see a change.”
Yur’s shop, which opened last year, is one of the newest additions to the Chapel Street landscape, and like its predecessors from decades past, it carries a hefty collection of jewelry designed and crafted by the owner. Entering the store, it is nearly impossible to miss the handful of modest glass vitrines crowded with dozens upon dozens of colorful accessories, which range from machine-made rings priced at $35 to Yur’s $500 handmade necklaces. Leeza Chernou, an employee in the shop, emphasized that a majority of Yurway Boutique’s business comes from visitors to Yale, with sales usually soaring during alumni and parents’ weekends.
One block over, at Derek Simpson Goldsmith, another store that is thriving despite the hard times, shop manager Gene Dostie said many of the store’s customers have ties to Yale, whether they are international luminaries speaking on campus or old alumni purchasing items for their grandchildren who are now students.
“We’re very lucky to have loyal customers,” Dostie said.
But this is not to say that international customers are a necessity for a successful business. Savitt Jewelers, which is also on Chapel Street and has operated in New Haven since 1919, has established connections with Elm City residents, as well as buyers from the rest of Connecticut and New York, said Michael Rosenthal, the shop’s owner since the 1970s and the third generation of Savitts to run the store. He added that many of his customers are the children of couples who purchased their engagement rings from Savitt Jewelers three decades ago.
“We once sold a $90,000 diamond anniversary ring,” Rosenthal said. The ring was sold just before the recession to an old couple from the greater New Haven area, he added. Though Rosenthal said he does not expect another $90,000 sale any time soon, Savitt still has exorbitantly priced pieces: A $25,000 engagement ring was awaiting a hopeful fiance in the store’s vaults on Monday, for example.
“It shows we have hope,” Rosenthal joked. “Things are definitely looking better.”
But in contrast to the long price tags on Savitt’s items, Dynasty Jewelery, further down Chapel Street, provides a different offering to a different clientele. In the storefront of the five-year-old shop, several white poster boards read “We buy gold” in red capital letters. An electronic ticker also advertises the same promise, sitting above shelves of large gold jewelry.
If there is one thing that stands out about the shop, it is the much more visible offering of gold items. A wall behind the store’s counter showcases a treasure trove of gold earrings made by melting the scrap metal bought off customers.
“We melt it and make custom things with the gold,” the store’s manager, Sylvia Lee, said, pointing to the wall. The custom-made items are often made to feature the names of the buyers, with the handful of chunky examples on the wall displaying “Shaquasia” and “Esther” inside their hoops.
Alexis Parker, a student at the High School in the Community, said she had spent hundreds of dollars on her collection of necklaces and earrings purchased from stores in New Haven, though she said she has not trekked west of College Street because those shops cater to a wealthier demographic with which she said she does not identify.
Luckily for Parker, Lee said Dynasty is not going away: While business has not been as substantial recently as the gleaming chains in the store’s displays, it has been enough to keep the shop operating throughout the recession.
Adding hope, Goldsmith said each of New Haven’s jewelers is unique enough to serve its own niche.
“There’s a customer for each of us,” he said.