Nine days after her husband was shot and killed in a robbery attempt at his downtown Washington jewelry store, Sylvia Burk returned to reopen it.
But now, 2 1/2 years later, she is selling the store her husband ran for 40 years. It is, she admits, a surrender of sorts. Not to the fear of crime, but to the new high-stakes pressures of the jewelry business.
Burk has watched the sprialing prices of gold and silver at her store at 614 13th St. NW and says, "I just dread coming out to tell people the price of things today. People look at you like you're weird or a thief."
Burk's decision to sell, to a buyer she will not reveal, involves more than thin skin, however. Because of the erratic fluctuations in the price of precious metal, jewelers are faced with both a better chance to make money -- and a better chance to lose it. Without the expertise of her husband, a German immigrant with "hands of gold," Burk admits that "the zooming market has set us in a spin."
Local jewelers have reacted to the recent rush to invest in precious metals with a wary enthusiasm. Business has never been better, they report. But with the price of gold and silver changing daily, restocking merchandise has become a continuous gamble.
"The jewelry business is not a game for just jewelers any longer. You have to be a keen businessman as well," says Martin stein, vice president of Melart Jewelers, the largest jewelry chain in the area with 15 stores. "We've had a very good year. But it's a tenuous situation."
At Melart, and other area jewelry stores, managers say gold items are selling better now, with the price of gold at more than $810 an ounce, than they were when the price of gold was $35 an ounce. But the high price of materials and restocking inventory has pinced smaller stores and almost crushed the area's independent gold and silver artisans.
"It's a sad tale, but that's the power of scale," says a local metals wholesaler who supples precious metals to local artisans. "The small businessman is the one who always catches it."
Michael Schwartz, a gold and silversmith in Washington for the past 10 years, says "a dramatic proportion of may clients are no longer my clients. They can't buy [gold items] for kicks anymore. It has to be very meaningful now. I may be moving into something entirely different . . . I can't deal with it anymore."
Schwartz says enrollment in the jewelry making clases he teaches in Bethesda has increased dramatically. But at the same time, he says, customers are not as interested in quality design as they are in the value of the raw materials used.
"People are bringing in very beautiful pieces of jewelry to cash in for their weight value. In my business I can use it, but I discourage it. The world is going to lose some of the finest metal work that ever happened and that's sick."
While some independent artists say they will abandon gold and silver to work with less precious metals, a few of the smaler jewelry stores have decided to sell out. In the past two years, half a dozen area jewelery stores have been bought by national chains.
"Most of the old Washington jewelry stores have disappeared," says 75-year-old Bernard Burnstine, the first president of the Washington Jewelers' Association and a former director of the National Jewelers' Association. "I've outlived most of them."
Burnstine's grandfather opened the family first jewelry store in Washington 113 years ago.Burnstine now has an office in the Homer Building, directly across the street from Burk's. He remembers Ernest Burk as "a very fine watch maker and a real character," Burk's wife, Burnstine says, "doesn't know enough about the jewelry business to really run the store." s
Sylvia Burk doesn't completely disagree. "I don't pretend to have all his knowledge," she says. "We were a team. He took care of the craftsmanship. I did the styling. It was really a momma and papa store."
Her husband's death, the fluctuating metals market and the change in the store's downtown neighborhood have all contributed, Burk says, to her decision to sell the store.
"It no longer has the same feeling it did before. We had a little epic going here. People would stop in to visit. We'd make tea. It was a very elegant place."
While Burk has accepted the fact that her store soon will be gone, some of her longtime customers, haven't.
"I fell in love with this place," said Ruth Fennell, who has been stopping by the store on her lunch hour for more than 25 years. "I feel lonesome inside when they talk about leaving."