In discreet glass cases behind the barred doors of Dan Diener's store on M Street NW sit 100 leading indicators of tough economic times: diamond rings, Rolex watches, silver candlesticks and Lalique crystal statuary.
All of them once belonged to people and all of them have been hocked for a little fast cash.
"We're the barometer. People come here who can't go to the banks," said Diener, proprietor of Washington Pawnbrokers, the self-proclaimed fanciest District pawnshop.
"Last week alone I had eight Rolex Presidentials come in. We're talking about watches that retail for $12,000," the burly Diener said as he pointed to a daily tally sheet that showed two more Rolexes had rolled in that morning. Their owners had walked out with $1,000 and $3,500, in cash.
In the last three months, Diener's store has been flooded with developers, real estate agents, lawyers and others seeking to finance lifestyles that their incomes can no longer cover. Business is up 30 percent to 40 percent, he said.
The pawnshop does what banks will not: It makes loans regardless of a customer's financial condition. The only thing that counts is the value of the item submitted to hock -- and Diener decides that value.
People leave their goods for four months or more. At the end of that time they can pay principal and interest (as much as 5 percent per month) and pick it up, or they can make an interest payment and leave it, or they can fail to pay and see it go up for sale.
Diener's front display window is filled with diamond rings of a carat or more, emerald earrings, pearl chokers and other precious jewelry, while the cases inside hold more jewelry, gold chains and antiques. The really high-ticket items are in the safe and a tiny closet in back is stuffed with fox and ranch mink fur coats, Picasso originals and five sets of sterling silver flatware.
Where 10 percent of the customers formerly failed to return and redeem their merchandise, the default rate these days is closer to 20 percent or 25 percent. The goods they forfeit thus become Diener's -- leaving him with only one financial worry.
"If the economy keeps getting worse, who am I going to sell this stuff to?"