My love of jewels, cabochons, beads, gemstones, rhinestones, vintage jewelry and other baubles goes way back to my early childhood. So it was with great anticipation and near glee, when I stumbled upon a terrific article heralding a wonderful hidden treasure trove of such things in NYC. The 17 Apart article prepared me to some degree, but when my friend Barb and I actually ventured into CJS Sales last month, we were dumbstruck. This was a dream come true for me – reminding me of my youth, but on a much grander scale.
When my younger sister Janet and I were very little – probably 3 and 8 respectively, we had a secret stash of jewels in a little cardboard jigsaw puzzle box. We carried this beloved stash on outings, including when our mom traded in her massive light blue Chevy station wagon for a new car. Much to my dismay – Janet was really too young to panic – after we drove out in our new vehicle, I realized it had been left behind, hidden under the seat. Luckily, we were able to reclaim it and we had this box for at least another 5 years, adding to its content here and there.
A few years later, when my childhood friend Myra offered to give my sister Janet some old costume jewelry from her Oma (grandma), I secretly wanted this for myself. I didn’t dare ask her, because I knew she would judge me and say no. It was around this time, at age 10, that I became fascinated with gemstones. One of my favorite holiday gifts from the Sears Wish Book was a rock tumbler that I used in our basement. For months I tumbled quartz and other inexpensive stones and my family endured the whirring of the motor and stones tumbling in the plastic barrel. I also fancied myself a prospector – digging up garnets in our backyard – of course these were not gemstone grade, but the type used to manufacture sandpaper and the like.
When I was in my first year at RISD, I discovered Gemorama, a mail order company with great prices. In business since 1969, the website is still live, but I discovered that they may already be closed (the 800 number is disconnected). I would order mainly cabochons and some sterling settings – always looking forward to the little packages that would arrive at Box 282 in the RISD mailroom. Yes, I still remember that box number – in fact, memories of RISD are more vivid than things that occurred yesterday. During my last year in Providence, a classmate told me about a wonderful findings company called Wolf E. Myrow, in the Olneyville section of town. I wrote about this terrific place in an earlier blog. Of course, Providence was known as the costume jewelry capital of the U.S., with countless findings houses and manufacturers.
In the early to mid-1980s I graduated to fine jewelry, working for Marshall Finkelman in the Maller’s Building, fine-tuning my knowledge of diamonds and colored gemstones and designing some awesome high-end pieces, like the one below featuring an enormous black opal.
Fast-forward about three decades to my visit to CJS Sales, a business open solely to the wholesale trade. While I knew I wouldn’t find the organized rows and bins of findings I had encountered at Wolf E. Myrow, I was still very surprised. Carl Schimel, the owner and founder was the only one there when Barb and I arrived. I explained that I had contacted his daughter Elyse the week before and showed him my pocket watch collage necklaces.
Carl gave us a tour of several rooms, jewels, findings, bulk chain, and more … spilling and bursting out everywhere. He explained that all items were sold in bulk by the pound, with each area differing in price a bit. So in other words, in theory, you have to buy an entire bag or box of findings/jewels. Carl wasn’t sure that I would find tiny enough elements for my collages necklaces, but I had no doubt when I saw that there were thousands of loose items all over the floor.
The room with the bulk chain was unbelievable and just too much to tackle – thousands of chains in huge mounds and spilling forth from shelves. Barb and I could barely believe our eyes – this room could provide fodder for a weird, jewelry-themed nightmare.
I tried asking Carl some questions about his first business Kim Craftsmen, but he was very tight lipped, stating that he doesn’t talk about or share any details about his businesses. I’m inquisitive and interested in people and what makes them tick, but I respect that. I did find out, however, that he started Kim Craftsmen in the 1950s when he asked for an increase in his allowance from his dad. His query was met with a resounding no and his allowance was taken away altogether. There were thousands of these Kim Craftsmen pieces at CJS, lurking in boxes and scattered about, but I didn’t find any of the iconic rings that are most treasured. I did get a few pieces for posterity and to document for this blog. I was impressed that even the earring posts were marked Kim.
The floor in the first room we tackled was literally covered in several feet of jewels. There was barely an inch of floor showing, so as we walked, the scattered items crunched under our feet. This was a bit hazardous and although I didn’t fall on all the uneven surfaces, I did draw blood – many brooches had pins jutting out. Within minutes, my hands were filthy. On the way there, I told Barb that we should pick up some hand sanitizer, and indeed we stopped at one pharmacy along the way, but didn’t buy it. I was actually experiencing déjà vu from the day before – a weird analogy, but finding anything specific in this gigantic, jam-packed Pandora’s box was like locating the graves of Triangle Fire victims in the astoundingly crowded Mount Zion Cemetery – I was getting a little frustrated by the happenstance, crapshoot quality of this treasure hunt.
By the time we made it back to the front room, Elyse had arrived and was sitting behind a big desk, looking very elegant amid all the clutter. In the time that had passed, David had also arrived; a glamorous guy who was employee of the month in February, according to the little bulletin board. I introduced myself and showed Elyse my necklaces and told her what I was looking for. She did her best to find items for me, but was slightly distracted and being pulled in a few directions by a phone call from her mom and discussions with her dad and David.
While Elyse found some items, a lot of what she pointed out was definitely not my aesthetic. Even with her assistance, finding anything became a very elusive pursuit. For instance, there was one really cool looking old glass flower basket cabochon that Barb got, but we couldn’t locate any others. There was a beautiful metal Art Nouveau-looking finding – but again, we did a search in the general vicinity and came up empty-handed. She did find a bag of beautiful, multicolored Asian-looking guilloche enamel squares that will look gorgeous in my jewelry and mixed media collages. She also pointed out some 1920s French black mourning glass pieces – we found the antique newspaper they were packed in quite charming. And towards the very end, she uncovered glass cameo face profiles, intended to be mounted on a background stone. Elyse wanted $30 for a lot of 40 or so, but we only selected a few. As far as other small cameos and foil opals, I didn’t find any, which was kind of disappointing – both Elyse and Carl said they had them – but where???
I got sidetracked a few times in my focus. The first time, when Ralph Belotti, a high-end jewelry model maker stopped in, we had an interesting 10-minute conversation. Although I am not a Disney fan, I admired the workmanship on a sterling silver, marcasite-encrusted Mickey Mouse pendant he had created for high-end boutiques at Disney World. My photos came out a little blurry due to the dim lighting.
I chatted with Elyse about being a psychologist when she was perched atop the huge stack of cardboard boxes looking for items for me. She scaled this huge mound of boxes containing finished jewelry (many her father’s designs) as agile as any mountain climber.
And finally, towards the end, a financier came in and was talking to Carl and Elyse about buying a Judith Leiber bag for his wife. Lying around were a huge Judith Leiber key and frame that were apparently display pieces. A few jokes were exchanged, but by then we were pretty much done and it was mutual that we were verging on overstaying our welcome. Although Carl and Elyse had mentioned weighing our take, we had a relatively small amount so she quoted us $30.00. This was a little high in retrospect, but the experience was well worth it – CJS provided some remarkable visuals and made me feel like a kid again – and you can’t put a price on that.
CJS Sales Ltd.
390 Fifth Ave, 4th Fl
New York, NY 10018
Hours: M-F 9 am-5 pm