IN AN AGE OF national banks, chain restaurants, and big-box retailers, Washington's jewelry scene remains stubbornly local.
Although some old favorites like Galt's are gone, many of Washington's most respected jewelers are family-owned shops. Many of the owners have gems in their blood: Their fathers or grandfathers taught them the business.
It helps that these stores aren't fly-by-night, because one key to buying jewelry is finding someone you trust.
"Establish a relationship with the jeweler. It's just like a bank--if you're doing business there, your jeweler usually takes care of you," says Lynne Loube, a jewelry appraiser in Bethesda.
To help establish that trust, Martin Fuller, an independent appraiser in McLean, suggests asking questions: How long has a jeweler been in business? Does it do repairs on site or send them out? (On-site is a plus because you can talk to the repair people.) What training does a jeweler have? It can range from self-taught, especially in family businesses, to formal schooling.
A good jeweler can help you figure out, even when you're not sure, what it is you want.
"A lot of times a person will walk into a jewelry store and have no idea what they're looking for. They just want to buy something for their significant other," says Adam Gorman of I. Gorman Jewelers. He says a good salesperson should ask, " 'How do they dress? Tell me about your lifestyle--do you go out for a lot of fancy dinners, or are you casual?' A lot of stores unfortunately just bring out the 'How much do you want to spend?' question, which really doesn't bring out what kind of piece to buy."
Ask about a store's return policy and warranties. Some jewelers don't allow returns; others give store credit only.
Another tip to ensure better service and a happy experience: Try not to shop at a downtown DC jeweler during lunch hours, and avoid any store on a Saturday, Maryland appraiser Davia Kramer says. You'll get more attention at other times.
THE GOOD NEWS, say appraisers who see jewelry from local shops, is that although a few jewelers mislabel or overhype items, most are honest.
"If it's too good to be true, it usually is," gemologist Gary Lester says.
Although many stores will have you believe you're getting an incredible deal, you generally get what you pay for. If you see a ring for $1,000 in one store, then what looks like the same ring for $3,000 in another, it's possible that the $3,000 ring is of better workmanship and materials. One may be handmade, one cast. One might be made with inferior "off-cut" diamonds. One jeweler might fudge the color grading--calling G diamonds F--or call 10-karat gold 18-karat.
Then again, one ring may be designer--and you're paying for the name. The fancier the store and the higher the rent, the more you pay for overhead. If you really like a piece but it's more than you want to spend, some jewelry stores will bargain.
Sometimes you're paying more for knowledgeable service.
"You do pay more for better service," Lester says. "They sell diamonds at Costco, but you're not sure if anyone there really knows what is going on."
The jewelers listed below offer good service and selection. To come up with this list, we interviewed appraisers, gemologists, and others who know jewelry; we visited jewelry stores throughout the area; and we solicited feedback from readers.
Although there are fine stores not listed here, these were recommended most highly and impressed us most.
Five Real Gems
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for stunning jewelry--no matter the price--these shops have it, along with knowledgeable salesclerks and good reputations.
Chas. Schwartz & Son, Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Ave., 202-363-5432; 1400 F St., NW, Willard Intercontinental Hotel, 202-737-4757; charlesschwartzjewelers.com. If you've seen it in a magazine ad, chances are you'll find it at this high-end family-owned shop. Contemporary pieces like the Right Hand Ring and the Hearts of Fire diamond collections sell side by side with estate gems like Victorian pink diamond earrings, cameos, and cufflinks.
• I. Gorman Jewelers, 1120 20th St., NW; 202-775-8544; igorman.com. One of Washington's most trusted jewelers, this family-owned business also sells some of the area's most distinctive gems, with a selection of contemporary, artisan-crafted jewelry you won't find everywhere else.
• Pampillonia Jewelry, 1213 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-628-6305; Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Ave., 202-363-6305; pampillonia.com. Pampillonia exudes an old-world, old-money aura. The Pampillonia family--now in its fifth generation as jewelers--knows diamonds and colored gemstones. The pieces, made of platinum and 18-karat gold at the Connecticut Avenue location, are exquisite and finely crafted, and engagement-ring settings are unique. If you want chunky gold earrings, you'll find a nice selection. Don't be put off by the expensive feel. A black-pearl pendant with a tiny diamond and platinum chain was $1,400, priced comparably to similar necklaces we've seen.
Tiffany & Company, 8045 Leesburg Pike, Vienna, 703-893-7700; 5500 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-657-8777; tiffany.com. The designs are classic, the reputation flawless. "You won't find anything mediocre at Tiffany," says one appraiser. Sure, you pay a premium for those Elsa Peretti pendants, Paloma Picasso cuff bracelets, and diamond solitaires. At least the pieces hold their value--and for some women, only that blue box will do.
Tiny Jewel Box, 1147 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-393-2747; tinyjewelbox.com. This high-end shop is known for vintage, but it also has dazzling designs by Alex Sepkus, Cathy Waterman (worn by Gwyneth and Julia), and more than 50 other American and European names. Don't see what you want? Ask. There are 11,000 pieces in inventory and not on display. This full-service jeweler also sells giftware--it's where the White House shops.
Ten MoreFamily Affairs
SOME OF WASHINGTON'S most respected jewelry stores are still family-owned and -operated. These shops survive by reputation, so you'll generally find honest, knowledgeable staff, a broad selection, and strong customer service, from custom design to repair.
B&C Jewelers, 3652 King St., Alexandria; 703-379-6010. This large, 51-year-old store is the kind of old-fashioned place where you can still find things like lockets, charm bracelets, and silver baby spoons.
Boone & Sons, 1025 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-785-4653; 5550 the Hills Plaza, Chevy Chase, 301-657-2144; Tysons Galleria, 703-734-3997; booneandsons.com. In business more than 40 years, Boone & Sons is recommended for watches but also carries other fine jewelry. Some appraisers say there can be a bit of hype in store ads, but you can get a good price--especially if you're willing to ask.
Continental Jewelers, 1010 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-833-3366; continentaljewelersdc.com. For 34 years, James and June Gianforte have offered expert, old-fashioned service--they stand behind what they sell, and they do repairs. Check out the small shop's watches and estate pieces.
Limon's, 7909 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-657-8585; limons.com. This store, founded in 1920, specializes in traditional, custom designs--it's said to be superb with platinum. The owner's great-grandfather and grandfather worked on the Hope Diamond.
Lynn Jewelers, 1030 17th St., NW; 202-833-2500; lynnjewelers.com. Scott Engle now owns the shop his great-uncle founded in 1946, while brother Mitchell is the manager and mother Arlene tends the books. Known for its selection of watches, Lynn also sells diamond rings and other fine jewelry. They do repairs on-site.
••Mangan Jewelers, 6649 Old Dominion Dr., McLean; 703-821-3344; manganjewelers.com. Mangan carries a bit of everything, from children's jewelry to colored gemstones. "You talk about finely cut diamonds," says one local expert, "Mangan probably carries the finest-cut diamonds in the area. It's on a par with Tiffany, maybe better."
Nupen Jewelers, 11238 James Swart Cir., Fairfax; 703-352-3552; nupenjewelers.com. In business since 1966, Nupen's specializes in colored gemstones--sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and more. It does nice custom design and repair.
R. Bruce Carson Jewelers, 8 Public Sq., Hagerstown; 301-739-0830; carsonjewelers.com. This store, founded in 1902, carries top brands such as Rolex, Mikimoto pearls, and Hearts of Fire diamonds. Tom Newcomer is hardly a newcomer--he's a second-generation jeweler.
••Shah & Shah Appraisers, 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-223-6001; shah-shah.com. It's not easy to find--on the sixth floor of an office building--but in this shop, run by third-generation jeweler Michael Shah and his wife, Faith Pettit-Shah, you get attentive service and a great education. The selection is small but select and includes lustrous pearls, Skagen watches, and Pettit-Shah's delicate creations using such stones as peridot and tanzanite. Even in the office suite's fluorescent light, this stuff shines.
W.R. Chance Jewelers, 110 Main St., Annapolis; 410-263-2404; wrchance.com. This 55-year-old, fourth-generation jeweler--three generations work at the store--is where Annapolis shops for designers such as Hearts of Fire, Tacori, and Breuning. Sales associates have been certified by the American Gem Society.
Really Personal Attention
WANT A JEWELER who will spend an hour with you to explain how to buy a sapphire or who will hand-select pieces for you?
These jewelers--some call themselves personal jewelers, others brokers--work by appointment. Most don't have stores--although they may have select inventories--but they can get you almost anything, usually with low overhead costs.
Paul Jacobs, Ascot Diamond Trading, Arlington; 703-243-8929.
Ira Kramer, Diamond Exchange of Maryland, Rockville; 301-770-0100.
Jerry Root, Root Jewelers, McLean; 703-821-2922.
Austin & Elkins, 421 S. Washington St., Alexandria; 703-684-5555; austinandelkins.com. Although Austin & Elkins is a store, it operates differently from most. The boutique, in an Old Town townhouse, is open only by appointment (except Thursday, when it's open all day), so you have a salesperson's undivided attention. The updated classics are lovely, high-quality, and not easily found elsewhere. Custom work and 18-karat gold are specialties.
PEARLS AREN'T EASY to buy. To the untrained eye, it's hard to tell why one necklace is $5,000 while one that looks similar is $1,500.
The key is to do some research and find a jeweler who understands and can explain pearls of all sorts--creamy Japanese Akoyas, black Tahitian gems, and other beauties.
These jewelers can.
••Adeler Jewelers, 772-E Walker Rd., Great Falls; 703-759-4076; adelerjewelers.com. In business 30 years, Jorge Adeler knows pearls--and he'll give you a tutorial so you understand differences in luster, shape, and thickness. Besides pearls, this family-owned store sells other beautiful gemstones, and it does a lot of custom designs. Don't like a ring they made for you? They'll take it back.
Iridesse, Tysons Galleria; 703-356-6222; iridesse.com. Part of the Tiffany family, this new store sells nothing but pearls, backed by Tiffany's reputation and staffed by its knowledgeable sales force. Beautiful designs include golden South Sea beauties and pearls of silver blue.
Mikimoto, mikimotoamerica.com. The big name in pearls is Mikimoto, an international brand whose pearls are sold by, among others, Lynn Jewelers in DC, R. Bruce Carson Jewelers in Hagerstown, and Liljenquist & Beckstead, which has branches throughout Washington. Mikimoto's pearls are graded for quality, from A up to A+, AA, and AAA. That gives you some peace of mind, although you do pay for the name.
O'Rourke, 7950 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-656-4408. In business 37 years, master gemologist appraiser Edward O'Rourke is known for high standards. One pearl expert finds the prices high, but cultured pearls are a specialty here, and they're strung on the premises. The non-glitzy shop sells other gems, too, including antique pieces. Custom work is a third of sales, and O'Rourke does good repair--he can replicate an earring to replace one you lost.
BEFORE YOU SHOP for diamonds, the first step is to do some homework. The Gemological Institute of America, or GIA, has a Web site, gia.edu, with lots of information on diamond buying, including a primer on the 4 Cs--cut, color, clarity, and carat.
If you're buying a diamond over one carat, look for one with a GIA or American Gem Society (AGS) report--paperwork attesting that the stone is a certain color, clarity, and weight. Examine the diamond through a jeweler's loupe to make sure it's the one in the report--you can tell by matching up flaws.
Stones are also certified by the European Gem Lab, but experts don't consider the grading as rigorous.
The "C" that's hardest for a consumer to compare is cut. The better a diamond is cut, the more it sparkles. If two diamonds of the same carat, color, and clarity vary greatly in price, the less expensive one may be an "off cut" or "off make" with poor proportions and symmetry.
"You'd be surprised by how many people come in and say, 'Wow, did I get a deal on this diamond.' I say, 'I hope you got a discount for this diamond being off-make,' " appraiser Edward Czarnetzky says.
AGS is the only lab that grades cut, assigning a number from 0 (which it calls ideal) to 10. GIA does not grade cut, but plans to start next year. The only way to really judge cut is to look at lots of good diamonds side by side to see which look more brilliant to you.
Some stores liberally use the term "ideal" or use their own labels to describe diamond cuts. But there's no universal agreement about what proportions make an ideal cut--there's more than one way to cut a beautiful stone. While some stores call an AGS-graded "triple-zero" stone ideal, others use ideal as a marketing term.
"There's stuff every day being touted as ideal that is not," longtime jeweler Jerry Root says.
Web sites are a good way to learn more about diamonds and to get an idea of prices. Many stores may try to match an Internet price. In fact, Washington is a great place to buy diamonds.
"This is almost like a little West 47th Street, or diamond district," master gemologist appraiser Martin Fuller says. "In the Washington area, we have more diamond sellers than most metropolitan areas. That's kept markups down."
Every fine jeweler sells diamonds, including those listed in the previous sections. Here are more places to look:
Bill Scherlag, Tysons Corner; 703-288-3893. Scherlag runs a bare-bones operation, with no inventory. Meet by appointment to tell him the kind of diamond you're looking for and he'll work through suppliers to find it--for less than you'd pay in a store. He'll refer you to craftsmen who make custom pieces.
Direct Jewelry Outlet, 101 E. Broad St., Falls Church, 703-534-2666; 1411 St. Germain Dr., Centreville, 703-266-8200; djo.com. The settings may not be the finest you'll find, but the prices on loose diamonds are very competitive. In Falls Church, ask for Alain Planche.
Five Star Jewelers, 9655 Lee Hwy., Fairfax, 703-385-3300; 4diamond.com; 5765-V Burke Center Pkwy., Burke, 703-239-1300; fivestarjewelers.net. These no-frills shops offers some of area's best prices on diamonds and gold chains.
IGS, 444 Maple Ave. E., Vienna; 703-281-1888; igsdiamonds.com. Ed Czarnetzky Jr. keeps prices low by keeping a small inventory. If he doesn't have the stone you want, he'll get it within a day or two. An on-site goldsmith/platinumsmith can do custom mountings.
Princess Jewelers, 529 Maple Ave. W., Vienna, 703-255-5050; and 11520-G Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-231-6060; theprincessjewelers.com. A decent selection of stones and settings at good prices.
Protea Diamonds, 2499 N. Harrison St., Arlington; 703-536-9822; proteadiamonds.com. A low-budget operation with prices similar to what you find online. By appointment only.
Washington Diamond, 1243 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-536-3600; washingtondiamond.com. A good selection of wedding and engagement rings and a knowledgeable staff.
Web sites. Diamonds have become such a commodity they're now easily bought online. Solid sites include niceice.com, dirtcheapdiamonds.com, goodoldgold.com, usacerteddiamonds.com, whiteflash.com, bluenile.com, and dsourceva.com.
Don't want to check all these sites? Type in your diamond specs on pricescope.com, and it pulls together prices offered online.
ALMOST EVERY GOOD jewelry store--from Pampillonia to Shah & Shah to Adeler-- can custom-make a ring or necklace or bracelet.
These are other places that custom-design precious and semiprecious pieces.
Achikian Goldsmiths, 131 Church St., NW, Vienna; 703-255-2255; achikian.com. Ken Achikian is a skilled goldsmith who can transform gold and platinum into any pendant, brooch, ring, earrings, necklace, or bracelet you desire. Great repair, too.
Aspen Jewelry Designs, 2451-17 Centreville Rd., Herndon; 703-713-6882; aspendesigns.net. See the same jewelry from shop to shop? This 11-year-old store prefers lesser-known designers, and an on-site goldsmith does nice custom design.
Creative Jewelers, 6468 Landsdowne Centre, Alexandria; 703-339-5544. Russian-born Slava Kholodnov does free-form, ornate designs in gold and white gold, including lots of Fabergé-style filigree.
Dominion Jewelers, Falls Church; by appointment: 703-237-3737; dominionjewelers.com. This custom jeweler has a loyal following for its one-on-one service and good prices. With 22 goldsmiths, it does a high volume on site. Some customers have been unhappy with the finished product, while others praise staffers Marsha Uhr and Carol Kube for fixing any mistakes.
Louizos Goldsmiths, 2972-B Chain Bridge Rd., Oakton; 703-281-7454; louizoselp.com. Louizos Papadopoulos, a third-generation jeweler, has a loyal following for his artistic eye. He works in gold and platinum and with precious gemstones.
Mary Ellen Trozzo, College Park; 301-864-4251. This 18-year-old studio can do everything from contemporary designs in gold, silver, or platinum to antique restorations.
Mystique Jewelers, 211 the Strand, Alexandria; 703-836-1401; mystiquejewelers.com. Besides selling designs from Hidalgo, Judith Ripka, and Jack Kelége, a master goldsmith creates unusual pieces.
The Nugget, 123 S. Fairfax St., Alexandria; 703-548-3010. Now in her 30th year of business, award-winning designer Mary Ehlers can custom-make anything from a filigree ring to an abstract modern pendant. Her shop also sells the creations of other good platinumsmiths and goldsmiths.
Quest Manufacturing, 2304 Gallows Rd., Suite C, Dunn Loring; 703-204-0111; questmanufacturing.com. Four goldsmiths, including a platinum specialist, are known for computer-aided custom design. Diamonds and sapphires are a specialty.
Quinn's Goldsmith, 199 Union St., Occoquan; 703-494-1662; quinnsgoldsmith.com. Four goldsmiths produce nice custom pieces, and a trained staff sells high-quality diamonds, colored gemstones, and other fine jewelry in this store.
Robert Croslin, Hyattsville; 301-699-0867. Artist and goldsmith Robert Croslin uses precious metals and gemstones to craft abstract rings and other jewelry with influences from Africa and America. Many clients go to him for wedding bands.
DON'T OVERLOOK THESE stores when shopping for fine jewelry.
Neiman Marcus, Mazza Gallerie, 5300 Wisconsin Ave., 202-966-9700, neimanmarcus.com. Contemporary names like John Hardy, Michael Dawkins, Stephen Dweck, and the ubiquitous David Yurman fill the cases of the Designer Jewelry department. There's a nice array of what one salesman described as "everyday diamonds"--circle and heart-shaped pendants casual enough to be worn with jeans. There's some upscale costume jewelry, such as trendy cascade earrings made with semiprecious stones. Prices are up to about $12,000 as compared with the separate Precious Jewelry Department (closed Sundays), where tags can climb as high as $200,000. Here you'll find statement jewelry--large stones, South Sea pearls, intricate and one-of-a-kind designs.
Saks Fifth Avenue, 5555 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, 301-657-9000; Tysons Galleria, 703-761-0700; saksfifthavenue.com. European designers from the pages of Town & Country are well-represented here: Pomellato, Chimento, Paul Morelli. There's an entire wall of David Yurman. Most pieces have a classic-contemporary sensibility, like the white-gold cable bracelets and chokers of Roberto Coin. Diamonds, pearls, and semiprecious stones abound. Ladies who lunch go for dramatic pieces like a stunning star-shaped diamond-and-platinum pendant, South Sea Island pearls, and chunky gold-and-enamel earrings.