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The Russians are going, the Russians are gone

April 20th, 2009 (08:18 am)

Anybody who's ever heard me blather on about vintage jewels and watches has also heard me talk about the Russians.

If you haven't, here's the story: My watch guy, Shane, has elitist tendencies. Generally, he won't do movements with less than 17 jewels, but there are exceptions such as the pin pallet Oris (the only watch makers to have pin pallet movements with chronometer certification) that I gave my nephew, Keith. He did that one because it was interesting.

On one occasion, I had some old ladies' Elgins in gold cases that he wouldn't repair because they were uninteresting. He suggested that I could sell the cases for the gold content and that he had a friend who was an antiques watch dealer who had an inside line on a pawn shop that had the best prices for scrap.

Thus began my descent into the weird and wonderful world of vintage jewellery.

Shane's friend told me to go to a place called Alex Elegant on Church Street.It was a tiny hole in the wall pawn shop. Except unlike the other pawn shops on the strip, they seemed to have very little for sale. I din't know how these things worked and the couple who ran the store seemed all business. I gave them the watch cases. They weighed them. I showed them ID (in case the watches turned out to be stolen). THey gave me money. Then I put my fuzzy ear flap hat on to go outside, and the couple grew animated.

"Russian hat! Are you Russian?"

I explained that, no, the hat was from Gap Kids. But we chatted a bit about Russia and how they missed it but there was no going back because the Russia they knew was long-gone anyway.

Because I had been given such a good price for the scrap, I decided to check out my jewelry box for broken chains, busted rings and single earrings in silver and gold. I watched as the acid tested the items to make sure they were really gold, although they could usually tell just by looking. Mr. Elegant (I never really knew what their real names were) would explain the process to me. You rub the metal against the stone and then pour different solutions of acid on the lines rubbed onto the metal. If you use the 10kt solution and the line stays, then it is at least 10kt. You move up to the 14kt solution and if it disappears, then it is 10kt. The price they pay out is determined by the price of an ounce of 24kt gold. 18kt gold is like 75/100ths of an ounce. And since the dealer needs to make a profit, you get a certain percentage of that.

Whenever I found myself with some broken gold or silver, I went back to the Russians. They remembered me and my fuzzy ear flap hat. They liked me because I brought them scrap. Too many people came in because they were broke and needed to pawn family treasures only to be told that their actual value was much, much less than their sentimental value. For the most part, jewellery from chain stores has little value other than scrap. The diamonds are of poor quality. The settings are not strong and the designs are unaccomplished. Still, it's sad to see people walking up and down the strip, after making a heat-breaking decision to sell their engagement ring, only to be told it was worth $50.

Sometimes, I would take pieces in just to talk about them or have them tested (they never charged me). The Russians taught me about valuations but also about recognizing jewels in the field. Metals have a smell, a feel. Not all gold is marked, and frequently things that are marked are not gold. Synthetic star sapphires have a smooth backside, and the star looks painted on. Old, low carat gold does tarnish. And the more I knew, the better I was at finding gold.

They took pride in their work and I think they liked teaching me stuff because I was interested. Plus the better I got at finding stuff, the more scrap I'd bring in to sell or swap.

Then, two weeks ago, I went by to see if I could trade a big Cuban Link bracelet I found for an Art Deco rhodium-plated pin they had showed me last December. They were gone, the windows of the store all papered up. I knew that they had been considering retiring (their kids had no interested in the family business). And in reality, I only went in once every couple of months (I do have to work for a living). It was a shock all the same. I guess with gold going for $900 bucks an ounce, they could sell their inventory and retire comfortably. I picture them going back to Russia, to some rural Baltic town maybe. They never liked the summers here -- to hot -- so I don't see them in Boca Raton.

Anyway, I will always have this buff cut citrine platinum ring to remind me of the Russians.