By CT Liotta
Artisan jeweler Joseph Sermania, wearing magnifying glasses flipped to his forehead, turns to his wife, Janice. They stand in their small jewelry store at 1719 E. Passyunk Avenue and try to complete an impossible task: recalling the most memorable experience they’ve had since setting up shop 14 years ago.
“I’ll give you one,” Joe grins. “There was a guy who was shopping at the men’s clothing store next door. His wedding was that day, and he was finally buying his suit. When he finished, he came to me and asked, ‘do you sell wedding bands?’”
“Wasn’t he a size 13?” Janice added.
One gets the impression that Joe and Janice could tell a story for every week they’ve been in business, bouncing memories off one another as they recall names and projects and dates.
The storefront is intimate. Small cabinets house curated collections of rings, necklaces and bracelets. Behind the sales counter is Joe’s bench, where customers can watch him fire his torch and perform delicate, precise work.
In 1981, when Joe was 24, he opened his first business on Jewelers Row. He had watched, worked with, and learned from master jewelers—including his older brother Sal—since age 11. He already had 13 years of experience to his name. “I don’t think I ever told my kids, but when I was a student at St. John Neumann, I’d arrange my schedule so I could finish class early and go work in the afternoon.”
Janice Sermania, a self-declared “Goretti Girl”, married Joe a year earlier, in 1980. While their children were in school, Janice would string beads and pearls and show jewelry at home. “In those days, we’d bring jewelry to people’s houses and do shows,” she added. “They’d cold call us, and we’d show up with gold at their dining room tables.”
Joe was working for Gemini jewelers when they offered to sell the Passyunk Avenue storefront in 2004. “Jewelers Row was changing, but buying here was a gamble,” said Joe. “The street wasn’t what it is today. We had lean years. It was right around the time gold prices spiked, and everybody was interested in selling instead of buying.”
Joe was undeterred. He bought the building and stayed the course. Customer by customer, six days a week, he and Janice got to know the community’s unique needs. Today, he continues to restore family heirlooms, customize and create rings, and help people find perfect gifts for every occasion. The business has sold engagement rings to multiple generations of families. No job is too small—changing watch batteries, fixing worn bands and untangling and un-knotting necklaces are as important to Joe and Janice as making major sales.
“It’s a happy business,” said Joe. “People buy jewelry for happy reasons.” It’s also emotional – people have seen family rings and gems cleaned and restored and cried tears of joy.
“He loves what he does,” adds Janice. “His job and his hobby are the same. He can spend ten or eleven hours a day at his bench.”
Much has changed since the early 1980s. Fewer jewelers are “working on the bench,” firing torches, crafting jewelry by hand, and getting to know and understand customers. Sermania stays up-to-date, working with vendors, keeping with trends, and using conflict-free diamonds and supplies from earth-friendly refineries.
“The experience has been incredible,” said Joe. “The changes to the neighborhood have all been for the good. If you ask how I ended up on Passyunk Avenue with a successful business, it was really just luck.”
Janice gives him a side eye and a thin smile that says everything Joe doesn’t. “He’s one of the hardest working men I’ve ever known.”
Sermania Jewelry is located at 1719 E. Passyunk Avenue.
Hours vary, check their website for details: http://sermaniajewelry.com.
Customers can make appointments by calling 215-462-2332.