The Kid Who Runs a Jewelry Store

T he lady, in her mid-40s, sauntered up to the display case and frowned at the rings, earrings, necklaces, and pendants. “Those aren’t real!” she snapped. She stood there a minute longer and then, gesturing toward a ring, said: “Let me see that, real quick.”

The 13-year-old manning the stand took the ring out. He set it on top of the display case. He explained why the clarity and color – “it was a VVS2, an H color” – made it especially valuable. “This is a very nice stone,” he concluded.

“What would you know?” she hissed. “You’re too young to know anything about diamonds.”

She asked what the price was. He told her. “That’s absurd!” She turned on her heel and marched off.

Lee Salinas recalls he was “back on one foot and ready to fall.” He says, “Like, wow. I was breathing hard.”

The lady apparently had friends. They came by to stand near the display case, nodding, lip-pursing, and engaging in the type of conversation that ostensibly is private but is intended to be overheard.

Spssss-spssss. “Those aren’t real.” Spssss-spssss.

This scenario unfolded two years ago at the Idaho State Fair in Boise, where Brilliante Diamonds and Jewelers had rented booth space. It wasn’t Lee’s first experience with the occasionally boorish behavior of adults. Shortly after the Salinas family opened their store, they were the only jewelry stand at a Christmas crafts show.

Same deal. Those aren’t diamonds!

Upset, Lee talked with his mom about it. She advised him to “keep your mouth shut. You know your stuff. You don’t have to prove they’re real.”

Lee Salinas, now 15, knows diamonds. He talks knowledgeably about gold and silver. He designs bracelets, rings, pendants. At the moment, he’s working with a 40-ct. kunzite. (“People look at it and say: ‘Oh my God, is that a diamond?’ ”) He wants to surround it with diamonds so it resembles a favorite piece owned by the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The Salinas family opened Brilliante Diamond and Gold Jewelers in Boise three years ago, refurbishing a space that had once been an office. “My mom said: ‘I know you love jewelry,’ ” he explains, adding: “I’m not one who likes to stay at home and do nothing after football and stuff.”

So Lee, only 13, became manager. As such, he buys, tracks inventory, and handles financial matters.

Lee found out about diamond clarity from the store’s gemologist. (“I’d go when she’d be appraising items.”) He learned about gems on buying trips to Hawaii (“for Tahitian pearls and white pearls”), Japan, and Hong Kong. (“Everywhere you walk there were massive, massive jewelry stores. And their diamonds would be no less than a VS2.”) He learned by selling people diamonds in their homes.

“My dad would start out. He’d talk to them about the four Cs. He’d get out the GIA chart. Just in case he might have missed anything, I’d start talking. I’d be helping him out. Then the appointment would go toward me.”

Now it’s Lee who often does the explaining. Since the store opened, he’s added a line of silver, financed out of his own pocket. (His favorite silver piece is a pendant with a 56-ct. blue topaz. “And it’s real!”) He teaches a class on how to select diamonds.

“I love it when I designed something and someone comes in and says, ‘I really like that ring!’ ”

Last August, around the time of the State Fair, the Idaho Statesman ran a story headlined: “Young jeweler learning every facet of diamond business.” Suddenly people were dropping by the Brilliante Jewelers booth, asking Lee: “Are you the kid in the newspaper?”

Just before that, a close friend explained to her father, who needed to buy jewelry, that Lee managed a jewelry store. “He said: ‘Bring me a card, then I’ll believe you. Bring me more than a card and we’ll take it from there.’ The next week the article came out. He finally believed me.”