A Rare Find: Black jewelers in the Bowery

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Tired of shopping for the perfect engagement ring and want to create your own? New York City’s Bowery district on the eastern rim of Chinatown is the place to go. Walking south along the Bowery toward Canal Street, it’s hard to miss the variety of jewelry shops and exchanges. Inside the exchange at 76 Bowery, John David and Sandra Went, husband and wife owners of La Frantz Lapidary Inc., stand ready to take you through the customized-ring process.

A man planning to propose can come in with his vision, answer a few design questions and leave with a finished ring in a matter of hours, Went explains. David remarks: “That’s the thing about the jewelry business. People don’t want to wait and with the services that we offer, they don’t.”

La Frantz is a full-service shop, offering an extensive collection of gemstones, pearls, jewelry and jewelry-related services, including on-site repairs, pearl restringing, appraisals and gem grading and identification. David, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, left his job in the financial services industry to test the jewelry waters more than three decades ago. The waters were rough at times, he concedes, but he set in motion a plan to open his own business. Eventually, he raised enough money to buy La Frantz from Alfred La Frantz in 1976, becoming one of a handful of Black jewelers in Lower Manhattan. In 1994, the business relocated to 76 Bowery.
“Suppliers treated John differently,” says Went, who initially worked for a neighboring exchange before marrying and partnering with David. “He was often charged more for similar products and his knowledge was repeatedly tested. Suppliers would leave a parcel of gemstones with other jewelers and return days later for payment. But if John needed anything his payment was expected immediately,” she explains.

Determined to stay on his chosen path, John became more forward-thinking. “Regardless of what people tried to do, I truly believed that if I worked hard and remained dedicated success would come,” he says. Instead of dwelling on the negative, he decided to arm himself with the skills to make La Frantz profitable and enrolled at the Gemological Institute of America. He survived those years to become a seasoned jewelry professional with expertise in grading, buying and identifying diamonds and colored stones.

Went, a native of Barbados, studied restringing and now manages her booth with a sophisticated selection of pearl necklaces and earrings. Today, 90 percent of the couple’s revenue comes from repairs ranging from ring sizing and engraving to multiple-stone replacement. They work mainly with the companies contracted by department and jewelry stores to manage repairs.

That forward-looking attitude prepared them for the current jewelry environment. As gold approaches a value of $1,000 an ounce, many conventional jewelers are feeling a pinch because, says Went, more consumers are focused on remodeling existing jewelry instead of making new purchases.” A woman will now change the stone in her ring, for instance, instead of buying a new item. This trend is proving advantageous to La Frantz, a store that sells new jewelry and restores the beauty of family heirlooms.

The secret to the couple’s success is their dedication to learning everything about their industry through a combination of formal training and practical experience. Staying on top of current industry trends not only shows a commitment to providing the best service, but it also is essential to making sound business decisions. David and Went highly recommend this practice to anyone interested in starting a similar business.

Asked why he has remained in the industry for more than 30 years, David remarks that every day is an adventure. “At 11:00 a.m. I’m ready to sell the business because a sale fell through. Then, hours later, a woman will come in and thank me for an appraisal that I conducted months ago and will recommend my services, and I am in love with life as a jeweler again,” he says.