by Charles McGuigan
There’s a good chance that if Manuel Kambourian had not emigrated to New York in the late 1800s, the Kambourian clan of jewelers and rug merchants in Richmond would not exist today. Not long after Manuel left his homeland, Turks began rounding up Armenians and systematically killing them in the most abominable fashions imaginable. Between 1914 and 1923, Turks exterminated 1.5 million Armenians in what became known as Hayots—the Armenian Holocaust— the first genocide of the twentieth century.
But Manuel made it to New York and set up a rug-cleaning plant, then moved to Richmond, and, in the late 1890’s, opened an Oriental rug dealership. His ancestors back in Armenia had been rug merchants, as well as jewelers, for several generations.
Though one of his son’s would follow in Manuel’s professional footsteps, another son, Haig, would choose a different path. “He didn’t want to be a rug merchant,” says the man’s grandson, also named Haig Kambourian. “He wanted to be a jeweler, and so his dad, Manuel Kambourian, sent him off to Paris and New York. My grandpa worked as an apprentice in Tiffany’s workshop.”
Haig’s grandfather, after completing his apprenticeship, went to work for Schwarzchild Jewelers on West Broad Street in downtown Richmond. A few years later he asked for a very small salary increase—five cents more an hour. The owner of Schwarzchild refused the request.
“So he packed up his bench and left the same day,” Haig Kambourian tells me.
We are sitting with his sister, Melissa, also a jeweler, in the back room of Kambourian Jewelers on West Cary Street.
“My great grandfather donated land next to his rug store at 15 West Grace Street to my grandfather,” Melissa says
That first Kambourian Jewelers was just a few blocks away from Schwarzchild’s. “Grandpa was a genius jeweler,” says his grandson, Haig. “He had the quality of Cartier. He made a million dollars in that store on Grace Street, which could have gone to Schwarzchild.”
In 1980, Haig’s father, also named Haig, took over the family jewelry store on Grace Street, but soon moved his shop out to Midlothian Turnpike. It was there, some 25 years ago, that Melissa and Haig Kambourian began learning the art of making fine jewelry. “We were both around sixteen years old,” Melissa tells me.
We briefly move out to the showroom, minimal in design and elegantly appointed with Oriental carpets and fruitwood showcases. The stars here are in the illuminated cases, some of the most beautiful jewelry you’re ever likely to see.
“Ninety percent of what you’re going to find in our cases we’ve made,” says Melissa. “We do have one outside line that is a customizable line.”
Haig nods. “We also have a few top-level estate pieces that are handmade by somebody else,” he says. “But almost all of our inventory is made by hand by somebody in our store here in Carytown.”
Every piece of jewelry here is one-of-a-kind, and the craftsmanship flawless. This is the sort of jewelry you would expect to find at Tiffany’s in a bygone era, at Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, or the studios of Faberge.
“Our end product is very, very high end,” says Haig. “A real person in America sits there and engraves each line by hand, polishes it with thread in every crack. It’s not something that just goes into a tumbler. The labor is intense. You can feel the quality in your hand when you hold one of our pieces.”
About ninety percent of all the business at Kambourian Jewelers is custom work. It’s all done in the workshops in the rear of the store.
In the back room, Nathan Kambourian is bent over a jeweler’s bench, intent on his work. Nathan is Melissa’s son, a sixth-generation Kambourian, now an apprentice jeweler. One of her other sons, Joey, also works in the family business as a jewelry appraiser. As does Melissa’s cousin, Becky.
“We have four jewelers and one apprentice onsite,” Melissa says. “All of us can make jewelry. We’re a full-service store, so we can do anything jewelry related. We can handle your appraisal for insurance or estate purposes. We do custom designs, we do restorations and basic repairs. We are one of Richmond’s only full-service jewelers. Nothing ever needs to go off our premises. We can create anything. You never have to wait for an appraiser, you walk in and there are four people who can appraise your jewelry.”
Haig tells me that chain jewelry stores tend to offer lower grades of jewelry. “When you buy at one of the chains you’re buying mass-produced, manufactured goods, and you are probably paying top dollar,” he says. “Even the designer quality stuff is still mass-produced. It is not hand done. You do not get one-of-a-kind.”
All too often consumers believe they’re getting a great deal at such stores. What they’re getting is inferior merchandise pawned off as the genuine item, according to Haig.
He invites me to consider diamond jewelry. “Diamonds aren’t any cheaper for chain stores than they are for me,” he says. “The only discount they can get is if they buy unwanted inventory from dealers, and then keep them in their store.”
Haig says that most consumers don’t understand exactly how diamonds are rated. “Clarity is important,” he explains. “So, SI-1 is SI-1, but there’s a better SI-1, and a worse SI-1. You’ve got to know where the inclusion is placed. If the inclusion is in the center of the stone that makes a lot cheaper SI-1. If it’s off to the side, you’ve got to pay more.”
Some of these corporate jewelry stores will tell the consumer they are getting a great deal, says Haig. “It says right there in the wholesale price list that it’s $3200 a carat,” he says. “But really, in the market, they should not pay $3200 because that inclusion’s in the center. So the consumer is really paying $3200 for a $1200 stone.”
Other SI-1 diamonds may have a milky quality called fluorescence. “I would never put a fluorescent stone on a customer of mine,” Haig says. “It’s a beautiful stone on paper, but because it has fluorescence, in the market, that’s a very inexpensive stone. Diamonds are what they are.”
And despite some urban legends, diamonds are anything but common, at least not the kind used in fine jewelry. “People have it in their minds that diamonds are just rocks, but they’re very rare,” says Haig. “Diamond substance is not rare, but gem-quality diamonds are very rare.” He mentions some of the rarest of the rare—pink diamonds—from the Argyle mines of Australia. “Some of those are worth millions,” he says.
He mentions one of the largest and most costly diamonds he ever set.
“It was 21.87 carat yellow diamond, oval,” Haig says. “This one was $21,000 a carat. We made the setting and everything. It had to be perfect.”
Melissa and Haig know more than a little about diamonds. In fact, they may well know more about diamonds than any other jewelers in the region. “In diamonds we’re a doctorate,” says Haig. “There’s nothing about a diamond that anybody knows about more than we do. We know the liquidation value, every value on every part of the market.”
“A lot of that comes from being in the industry for years and years and then learning to buy them,” Melissa adds. “You learn to sell them, and another level which my brother is an expert in is buying them.”
It’s not unusual for Haig to travel to New York’s Diamond District—that notable block of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues—to purchase stones for clients. “We’re in New York all the time,” says Haig. “That’s the biggest diamond market in the world for polished goods. There’s billions of dollars in people’s pockets in that one block. I think the estimate is that at all times there’s $500 million in cash crossing the streets, back and forth.”
Haig’s reputation as a buyer in New York’s Diamond District affords him the opportunity of getting extremely good values for his customers. “I’m known as a cash buyer, and I negotiate a good deal based on the clarity characteristics,” he says.
For a number of years Haig also sold diamonds on New York’s 47th Street. “We did 2,000 carats a month,” he says. “A large volume of stones we purchased from pawnshops, dealers and from the market. We sorted then, graded them, and sold them in the market in New York.”
Melissa talks about other gem stones that carat by carat can command the same prices as diamonds. “Rubies, sapphires, and emeralds can match per carat prices with diamonds,” she says. “Even some aquamarines.”
When a client comes in to order a custom piece of jewelry they can sit at the counter. “And we’ll draw things out for them until we have a very good idea what they want,” says Melissa. “We still also do the hand fabrication with raw materials. And we can still do the hand-carving in the wax. We do just about any method.”
However, the preferred method these days is CAD (computer-aided design). “Once we have the right design, we can do a 3-D print and produce a plastic model that the customer can try on before it’s made,” says Haig. “Then we grow it in wax, and then we cast the wax model, so the customer gets exactly what they see.”
I go over to the bench where Nathan’s been working all the while. I’m impressed by his patience and his perseverance. I ask how he feels about working in the family business.
“I really like that jewelry making is an older craft, and it’s cool to be learning it,” he says. “And because it’s my family’s thing, that makes it even cooler, continuing in the tradition. I really like that it is a family thing. It makes it more personal, it makes my work feel more honest and genuine, since I’m working for my family rather than some strangers.”
Then I turn to Haig, who’s leaning against a wall, arms folded across his chest.
“What do you love about this business?”
Haig Kambourian doesn’t pause for an instant. “It’s just this,” he says. “Having somebody compliment your work. That’s equal to the money, more important than the money. Having someone appreciate what you’ve made for them. Someone going, ‘How did you make that?’”
Melissa smiles, pats her brother’s shoulder, looks over to her son.
Tues–Fri, 10–5; Sat. 12-5
3141 West Cary Street 23221