October 2010

GEM JEWELRY: A Jeweler's Jeweler

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: John Brackett

It’s highly likely, when you walk into the Gem Jewelry store in Port Royal Plaza that you will:

A) Be greeted by the very charming Misty Graham

B) Be secondarily welcomed by the charming, but far shorter, Roscoe (a friendly Jack/rat terrier)

C) Be blown away by the 24 certifications (all framed) that proclaim Michael Graham to be far more than capable to work on your precious jewelry, gems and watches and assess the value of your gold.

Twenty-four plaques on the wall is understandable if you’re an 80-year-old tinkerer who’s been doing nothing but lapidary correspondence courses for the last 50 years or so, but Michael Graham is a 40-year-old father of three, who looks all of about 25, who’s been in the business of jewelry and watch-making for less than two decades.

The certificates on the wall, however, confirm his experience, knowledge and skill in: diamond grading; colored stones grading; insurance replacement value; colored stones; gem identification; diamonds; detecting fracture-fitted diamonds; detecting treated emeralds, rubies and sapphires; basic repair and setting of jewelry; international repair of jewelry; advanced stone setting; platinum fundamentals and pocket watch repair. He is even confirmed as a master of the art and science of watch-making.

That’s a hefty list of accreditations (and we might even have missed one or two). The only item in the gem-jewelry-watch repair family he doesn’t work on is clocks, and that’s only because he hasn’t been certified on clocks… yet.

“I realize I don’t look old enough to be doing this,” said Graham, who defies the little old man with the visor and jeweler’s loupe stereotype. “But how many people really end up working in a field they love and in the field they went to school for? I always loved rocks.”

Graham has been a gemologist—and now a graduate gemologist—and a horologist for almost 20 years, a fact even he finds hard to believe. And, along with wife Misty, he’s owned his own store for nearly 10 years. It all started with that love of rocks, which grew into a passion and from that has become a career.

Michael grew up on Hilton Head Island and Misty came here from Belmont County, Ohio. She worked in daycare for four and a half years before joining Michael in the gem and jewelry business. Michael paid his dues at places like Friedman’s and Saks Fifth Avenue in the Shelter Cove Mall. He managed two stores for a while and was the “bench jeweler”—kind of a jeweler-under-glass, as he calls it—for Friedman’s before that store closed.

“I learned I didn’t want to do that anymore, and then the store closed about the time I learned of my brain tumor,” Michael said. Surgery removed a malignant tumor about the size of a racquetball and Michael, figuring there wasn’t much to lose but wanting to stay in the business, took a chance and went into business for himself, first working out of his home, then taking a “portable bench” on the road to work on jewelry onsite. In 2001, he opened the Gem Jewelry and has been in the same location since. (The surgery, by the way, was a success—there has been no recurrence.)

A lot has changed in the jewelry and gem business in the years since the store opened, most significantly the value of gold. The price of an ounce of gold in 2001 was hovering at about $250. Today it’s selling at almost $1,350 an ounce.

That, combined with the overall state of the economy and the aging demographic, has pushed the business of gold front and center for the Grahams’ Gem Jewelry store. They still sell about 15 watch batteries a day and take in a fair amount of watches and jewelry for repair, but estate sale gold, all of a sudden, is big business. Some comes into the store in boxes and sandwich bags, a mish-mash of 14-carat, 18-carat and 9-carat gold. Some people bring in 16-carat gold fillings, and others bring in five-ounce gold bars.

“In those cases when it comes in a bag or a box, we put it all out and start sorting through it with a loupe and a rare earth magnet.” said Michael.

“The magnet will separate the brass from the gold,” Misty explained.

Gem Jewelry takes a percentage of the value of the gold as their fee, then Michael refines it, gets it as close to 24-carat gold as he can, and sells it on the commodities exchange like a stock. In instances when customers want the gold refined for their own use, to be re-purposed for rings, bracelets, necklaces or other jewelry, Gem Jewelry can provide a significant value increase for the new piece, sometimes three times the value of the original gold.

The business of gold is relatively new and surprisingly lucrative, but providing jewelry and watch repair services for longtime customers continues to be a large part of the overall business.

“We get discovered all the time, but people who’ve been here for a while know us,” said Misty. “They know our kids, they know our business and they know they can count on us to do the job right.”

Most of Gem Jewelers’ customers are looking for someone who can do the simple things that jewelers do. They come from Sun City, Sea Pines and all over. They’re middle aged and younger kids and sometime the request is as simple as having a ring sized, adding a link to a bracelet or repairing a chain.

But sometimes the business goes high profile, as when Michael was asked to appraise 500-year-old Thai rubies the size of softballs so the jewels could be insured by a bank. He was invited to view and test the rubies and authenticate statements of origin, and he was able to confirm their value at roughly $500 million.

That was fun, but Michael says the highest form of flattery he receives is referrals from other jewelers, especially those he’s known for a while.

“I’m honored to be considered a jeweler’s jeweler,” he said. “Sometimes if others can’t figure it out, they send the piece to me.”

Jeweler’s Jeweler. That might look nice neatly framed as certificate number 25.

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