When Leadbelly wrote his song, "Washington is a Bourgeois Town," he probably didn't think about the implications for jewelry retailing.

"It's not quite recession-proof, but it has its build-in safeguard because of the federal agencies, and it's certainly a high-income community," said Martin Stein, vice president for Melart of Silver Spring, the area's largest jewelry chain.

"There's a lot of disposable income and therefore it's a good jewelry purchasing town."

Stein was talking about the Washington metropolitan area -- such a good area for jewelry retailing that national chains have moved in rapidly in the past several years.

Washington's potential "has been noted by the industry as well, because it's becoming much more competitive," Stein said.

One of the national chains that has moved into the area is J.B. Robinson Jewelers. The firm, based in Cleveland and a subsidiary of W.R. Grace & Co., took over one local company, Winthrop Jewelers, and now has five stores in the Washington area.

"Washington and Houston are the two most attractive areas for jewelry stores," said Larry Robinson, president of J.B. Robinson. He said there is "a big taste difference" in the two markets, with buyers in Houston going for more ornate pieces.

"The highest per capita purchases are in Houston, but Washington is attractive because of the growth and stability in income," he said. He also said that increasing interest in jewelry among working women helps strengthen the market.

Robinson called Washington area malls among the most sought after nationally. "Rents here escalate at an annual pace three times higher than the best malls in the Midwest," he said. "But the sales per square foot are so high in these malls that the retailer can afford the rents and still come out okay."

Melart has 15 stores, most in suburban malls, but three are downtown. The chain "projects toward middle America," Stein said.

Stein said that customers are increasingly interested in gold and diamonds because of recent talk about their investment value. He also noted a major increase in requests for appraisals in the past six months, primarily for insurance purposes.