170 Years Young

J. & S.S. DeYoung Inc. is known as a top-of-the-line purveyor of quality period jewelry and gemstones, but the company actually began its existence by focusing on diamonds.

In 1835, a young diamond cutter named Simon DeYoung left Holland and arrived in Boston, where he helped introduce the trade of diamond cutting to the United States.

“At the time, diamond cutters would work in teams of five,” says Janet Levy, current principal of DeYoung and fifth generation of the company family. “They all would handle the diamond—one would cleave it, one would round the girdle, and so forth.” Simon was part of one of these teams, and he eventually went to work for Henry Morse, creator of the country’s first diamond-cutting factory.

Simon’s son Jacob apprenticed with Morse in the 1870s, but following the death of his father and mentor and the closure of the factory, Jacob set out on his own and became an independent diamond dealer and broker. Buying old mine–cut diamonds from other dealers, he would have them recut for sale to local stores. He also began to buy some secondhand jewelry for resale.

Jacob’s son Sydney is credited with expanding the business and switching its primary focus to antique and rare jewels. After serving in World War I, he joined with his father to form DeYoung and Son. The pair sold antique pieces to major Boston retailers and also began dealing in colored gems and natural pearls. Sydney helped push their market beyond Boston and into New York and other cities.

Sydney also bought extensively from the New York auction houses, bidding with determination for items he knew through experience to be important.

Sydney retired from the company in 1983 and died in 1986, but his business philosophy and love for his work is fondly remembered and appreciated by the family. Janet notes that he always bought the highest-quality, most unusual items, and she particularly recalls his excitement, revealed by a look in his eyes, whenever he saw a special piece. “He got such pleasure out of seeing something special,” she says.

In an April 1985 interview with JCK, Sydney said, “When I bought something, it was because I loved it myself. And if I loved it, I knew I could sell it. I had faith customers would pick better-quality jewelry.”

Sydney’s nephew Joe Samuel—Janet’s father—had worked alongside his uncle for many years and took the business forward following Sydney’s death. His primary contribution to the company was “salespeople,” says Alan Levy, Janet’s husband and partner. “He came into the business in 1949, and at that point America was like the China of today—roads were being built, there wasn’t a lot of crime …” Joe saw the potential in his expanding country and added what Alan says was a new level of manufacturing, travel, and distribution to the company.

Joe, like Sydney, also had a love for the pieces he sold. “At that time, art-deco jewelry was only 20 years old, and it was seen as passé,” says Alan. “Joe let people know that it wasn’t. Some of the finest colored stones were mined in that time, from the 1890s to the 1950s: Kashmir sapphires, Burmese rubies—some truly extraordinary stones.”

Joe retired several years ago, but Janet and Alan still speak with him almost daily. He’s 80 years old and lives in Boston, spending the majority of his time with Marie, his wife of 55 years.

Janet and Alan bought the business from her father in 1998. They married in 1984, but their history dates back further. Their parents had known one another for almost 40 years—Alan’s father and his business partner were financial advisors to Sydney and Joe.

Although Janet’s mother originally suggested to Alan’s mother that he take Janet out, Alan says, “It wasn’t an arranged marriage. My mother-in-law claimed that she picked me, but she didn’t—it was really her daughter.”

Janet and Alan brought the historically Boston-based company to New York City. They moved 16 years ago, and the company is now entirely based in New York—it’s a necessity for their contemporary business. They still maintain an office in Boston, however, staffed by Aster Dye, who has been with the business since Janet was a child.

In keeping with prior generations, the two love their job. “It’s a wonderful business,” says Janet. “It’s high-end treasure hunting—you never know what you’re going to find.”

It was Sydney who coined the company’s advertising slogan “The Source of the Unusual” in the 1960s, and DeYoung continues to promote itself in this way—although the business is also evolving to include new technologies and buyers. According to Janet and Alan, today’s business model has changed since the days of the traveling salesman, as the danger on the road has become too real, and the insurance to cover it too expensive.

While Joe had three salesmen who traveled throughout the country, nowadays the company attends more U.S. and overseas trade shows in order to meet people. Images of their items are sent to potential buyers via e-mail or on a compact disc, and goods can be shipped overnight. “I wish my Uncle Sydney could come back so he could see the business today,” says Janet. “To use the new technology and yet still be doing the same thing—looking for the very best.”

The company’s customer base is also changing and becoming more international, with clients in Geneva and other foreign cities. “Our business goes on 24 hours a day—we operate in three time zones,” says Alan.

Recent years have seen them do more business in the Asian market. They do two trade shows in Hong Kong, and Alan travels to the area about six times a year. When it comes to selling to that sector, he says it’s all about beauty and quality. Asian customers are “not into a particular brand,” he says, although Janet notes that there is certainly an awareness of signed jewelry.

American customers are also evolving beyond brand. The last “wave was with technology money,” says Alan. “They bought certified diamonds and had a brand mentality. Now these people have a growing sophistication—they’re realizing that they need to invest in beautiful jewelry.”

The company still does some things the old-fashioned way, however. When searching for the right piece, Janet and Alan will “wait and wait until we find it,” they say. And they’re always looking for items that will stay in style. “Timeless design is a true test,” says Janet. Anything too avant-garde or “weird” can easily put off a customer.

“We buy our jewelry from small American family jewelers and private estates, and we sell all over the world,” says Alan. “When we buy, we try to give the highest price possible, not the lowest. Joe always taught us that—you can’t sell something if you don’t have it.”

“We capitalize on whatever the current trend is,” he continues, “and we try to keep in mind Uncle Sydney’s words—’No matter what it is, if it’s quality, it will sell.’”

The company also has a long history of donation and has a special relationship with the Smithsonian Institution. Sydney donated a rare pink diamond to its gem collection, and later bequeathed a 5.00 ct. red diamond.

DeYoung also recently assisted the Smithsonian in its quest for a fine ruby. Janet and Alan were able to introduce the Institution to a customer who eventually donated a 23.00 ct. Burmese ruby to the museum’s gem collection.

The company has also donated a collection of some of the Henry Morse factory’s old books and tools to the Gemological Institute of America.

Above all, Janet and Alan Levy see their business as a personal service to their customers, and they strive to build a genuine relationship with them. “We like to talk to people,” says Alan. “We’ll never have a voice-mail system. When you call us, you’ll talk to a person. Often people are surprised to find that they’re actually speaking with a principal of the company! But we always try to keep our business on a friendly, personal basis.”

Having a business that spans 170 years gives them “the advantage of history,” says Janet. “We still have files of important purchases made over the years,” but most importantly they see the basic company standards of integrity, correct valuation, and discretion as “a gift, given from prior generations.”

As for a sixth generation? “They’re in college and undecided,” says Alan.

JCK senior editors William George Shuster and Gary Roskin contributed to this article.