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Jewelers Exchange Building celebrates 90 years

Posted by Jeremy C. Fox  November 8, 2012 11:55 AM

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Nicole Vellucci.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Nicole Vellucci works in Forever Diamond with her parents and sisters, where much of the business is in custom engagement rings.

As Washington Street in downtown Boston has changed dramatically over the past 90 years, one building has remained consistent.

It was there when the daily papers left the old Newspaper Row, most of them shutting down their presses forever. It was there when Woolworth’s closed, and Gilchrist’s, and Filene’s. It was there when the Paramount Theatre opened in 1932, when it closed in 1976, and when it reopened in 2008.

The Jewelers Exchange Building at 333 Washington St. has survived because the jewelers here have embraced new fashions and new technology while maintaining a tradition of customer service, said Kimberley Murphy a third-generation jeweler who has spent “basically my entire life” here.

These jewelers are in the business of building relationships, Murphy said, and generate most of their new customers through word of mouth.

“I always say the unofficial tag line of this building should be ‘I know a guy,’ because that’s what comes out of people’s mouths,” Murphy said.

Many become repeat customers who get to know their jewelers. Some of their referrals come from parents who bought their engagement rings in the building decades ago and now send their sons and daughters here when they are ready to marry.

It took some time, though, for the Jewelers Exchange to take shape. The building opened in 1922 as a hotel, though its time in the hospitality business was cut short, most likely by the Great Depression, Murphy said.

Sometime in those early years, it began to fill with jewelers.

First came watch repair shops, and later full-service retail jewelry stores as well as makers and wholesalers, said Murphy, 38, who owns Santisi & Bove and is a trustee in the building, which operates as a commercial condominium complex.

For a time, tenants here sold other specialty goods like electric razors, vacuum cleaners, transistor radios, and luggage, but today, Murphy said, the building’s approximately 155 shops are almost evenly split between retailers, wholesalers, and custom craftsmen.

Like Murphy, many are carrying on a family tradition.

Sevag Zargarian is a seventh-generation jeweler from an Armenian family that he said once worked for Persian kings — the root of the family name is the Persian word for goldsmith.

“They were blacksmiths and then goldsmiths, maybe five generations ago,” Zargarian, 34, said of his family.

For three generations, since 1967, there have been Zargarians in this building. While Zargarian works at the counter in Brag, on the second floor, his father Raffi is upstairs hand-crafting rings.

Zargarian said the way the family sells its work has changed as the market has changed. These days, the money isn’t in serving Persian rulers but in reaching online shoppers, and Brag has a “big Internet presence,” he said.

“It was a shock in 2001 or 2002, but then you adjust and you take advantage of it,” said Zargarian, who studied economics at Boston College.

Nicole Vellucci, 34, works alongside her parents and sisters at Forever Diamond, on the building’s fifth floor, where many customers are looking for engagement rings that aren’t ordinary and mass-produced but reflect their personal tastes, she said.

“It’s not like he just picked up a generic ring and presented it to her that way,” Vellucci said of her typical customer.

Some go further than just a custom ring. Vellucci said one man hired an artist to paint a series of scenes of the couple’s life together — concerts, favorite restaurants, Red Sox games — that culminated in an image of the man presenting the woman with a ring.

Defying tradition, modern couples often shop for rings together, so the bride-to-be gets a band that suits her tastes, but the notion of a surprise proposal still appeals to many.

Jewelers will sometimes give the prospective groom one date when the ring will be ready and the prospective bride a different date so there is still an element of the unexpected.

“We’re often asked to tell a lot of fibs,” Murphy said.

Besides retail jewelers like Murphy, Vellucci, and Zargarian, the building includes wholesalers who supply retail stores and jewelry makers both here and around the country with everything from finished rings and chains to pieces such as clasps, bezels, earring backs, and stone settings.

There are also bench jewelers, like Raffi Zargarian, who cast rings, set gems, string pearls, and repair damaged pieces.

Serjeo Minassian, 42, has been a bench jeweler since he was 14 and now splits his week between his retail space and his workshop, both on the fifth floor. Minassian, who is also a trustee in the building, said downtown Boston is on an economic upswing that can provide new opportunities to jewelers here.

“The area is revamping; it’s becoming a wonderful place,” Minassian said. “And now we have quite a few new jewelers in the building and getting the word out to the younger generation.”

Like the Zargarian family, Minassian is Armenian American. He said the Armenian people have a long and proud history of jewelry-making, but their traditions are threatened by competition from stores in suburban shopping malls with big advertising budgets and by the low prices of Internet jewelers.

What the Jewelers Exchange Building offers instead, he said, is a special relationship between jewelers and customers. Jewelers here don’t mark up their wares so they can create artificial discounts, he said, and they don’t try to pressure customers into the most expensive options.

“Not every stone needs a platinum setting,” Minassian said. “Every stone has its own history, its own life, personality.”

These jewelers say customers benefit from their long experience and individualized treatment. Anne Dubin, who operates Dubin Jewelers with her daughter Elise, said it’s rare in 2012 to find a family business like theirs in the world of luxury goods.

“There’s a lot of pride here, behind our product, behind our service, behind our longevity, because you have to work to keep it,” Dubin said.

Email Jeremy C. Fox at jeremy.fox@globe.com.
Follow Jeremy C. Fox on Twitter: @jeremycfox.
Follow Downtown on Twitter: @YTDowntown.

Raffi Zargarian.jpg

(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)

Raffi Zargarian refinished a platinum ring. Zargarian, 65, is considering retirement, but he joked that jewelers don’t consider what they do to be work. “They always say this is not a real job,” he said.

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