Interview: Sam Morataya of Afram Jewelers

Longtime readers may recall my occasional reference to “my watch guy” or more specifically, Sam Morataya of Afram Jewelers. Located in downtown Washington, DC, the store is right up the block from the White House, Treasury Department, and conveniently, my office. I’ve frequented Afram for years, even before I was a true watch nerd. In that time, I’ve gotten to know Sam and Miriam, his wife and co-owner, and Eva, Miriam’s cousin who is always there to greet me. Sam has become a friend and is a regular at my DC watch dinners. This year, things got especially weird for this small family business but they’ve handled the challenges with resilience and grace. I thought I’d share their story with all of you. 


Afram Jewelers

TB: First, we will need some introductions. Please tell us about Afram Jewelers and how you became a part of it.  


SO: Miriam’s father, AJ Afram, is from Lebanon. When he was 18 he opened his first watch store in Beirut, this was in 1948. He attended a Swiss watch school and became a watchmaker before immigrating to America in the 50s. Here, he started at Sears in the watch repair department, then opened Afram Jewelers in 1971 on 15th Street, where the Sofitel Hotel is now. This was not a great area back then, but he could afford the rent in the small ground floor shop. He had a selection of watches and straps, and offered watch repairs. When we moved into our larger store, we discovered his record book from the first few months of business, and the entries for the first few days were “no sale”, then he sold a watch strap ($5), and so on, until he built a great reputation and customers started asking for jewelry. Eva started working with him in the late 70s, and we are so lucky she has continued with us. Miriam grew up going to her Dad’s store on Saturdays, occasionally in the summer. She never intended to eventually run the business, but after college (we were about to get married), she went to work with her dad for the summer. She realized how great the store was, with such loyal customers, and she decided to become a gemologist and expand and continue the store after her dad retired. When I came to work at the store, it was just sales at first, but Miriam and her parents suggested I consider going to Horology school. I had always loved puzzles, and they thought I might enjoy watchmaking. They were right!  I went to the excellent watch school at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, in Columbia, Pennsylvania. I continued my training at Omega, and now specialize in mechanical watches, especially Omegas. For sales, jewelry is our main focus now, we don’t even carry watches anymore! Watch repair is a big draw, and our goal is to turn our watch repair customers into jewelry customers.


Afram Jewelers


TB: You're not the only ones. It seems that watches are disappearing from traditional jewelry stores everywhere. What is happening?  


SO: The internet, of course. Not only are people content to buy watches online with no in personal customer service, but fewer people are buying watches at all, since time is everywhere, on all our electronics. With phones and smartwatches, the traditional watch is becoming a quaint collectible for most people. In most cases, good quality watches are more expensive than technology options, so it is a tough sale.  For traditional jewelry stores, we just can’t afford to carry a selection of 50-100 watches in one brand and make any money, since the grey market on the internet is so strong; we can’t match those prices.


TB: What watch and jewelry services do you offer?  


SO: I offer full service watch repair for quartz and mechanical watches, along with watch appraisals. Miriam is a GIA Graduate Gemologist, and she does jewelry appraisals, and we have a jeweler and do repair and custom design work.


TB: I know I’ve only got part of the story, but didn’t you service Joe Biden’s watch when he was Vice President?  


SO: Yes! I serviced his Seamaster Professional, and a Vulcain mechanical alarm watch during his years in DC. He invited Miriam and me to the Vice Presidential Christmas Party, which was very exciting since most of the other guests were big shots in DC. When we were standing in line for our photo with the Bidens, each couple was given an index card with names/titles on it to hand the photographer.  Ours said “Watchmaker and Wife”… that’s a fun joke between us now. We have a picture of us from that night with the Bidens in the store.  


TB: I think it is fairly accurate to say that this year has been insane. Let’s start with the pandemic. How did Afram adjust?  


SO: Well, we followed the DC shut down order and closed March 20.  It was very stressful.  We are not really an online business, our niche is face to face personal service, in our beautiful boutique store.  We started posting more on Instagram and Facebook, and have made a few good sales by email to our customers.  It was tough, having no real income for three months.  We did get a PPP loan, so that will help out for a few months.


TB: On June 1, I checked Instagram and was horrified to see that your store had been looted the night before. Can you walk us through that?  


SO: We didn’t see it coming. That weekend, seven jewelry stores were robbed during the protests and riots. We got the call Sunday night at 10:30 that our alarm detected glass breakage. It was a whirlwind. The police never came, and the robbers had plenty of time to use a blow torch and tools to get past our security gate and then smash and grab everything they could, including watches off the testers and an entire small safe with watch repairs in it. We paid a crazy amount of money to an emergency board-up company and the store was boarded up by 1 am, but most of the damage was done. The next day I went down and was overwhelmed by the damage. They left the blow torch burning on the tile floor, but luckily it went out before anything caught fire. All the stores in our building suffered damage, but our losses were the worst. We realize that it was not protestors who did this, it was a group of jewelry store robbers, opportunists who scoped out our store the day before and came back with the tools they needed. There was no police presence on our street and they had plenty of time. 


Afram Jewelers

TB: The next day was June 2, #blackouttuesday, when many used social media as a quiet show of support for the protests. I must admit, I was blown away to see Afram posting “I can’t breathe” and a message of solidarity for the movement. Given that your shop had only just been collateral damage, was there any hesitation in your decision to do that?  


SO: No hesitation. Miriam felt it was even more important to show our support publicly after what happened. Our store and the jewelry and watches are just things, and we would never let our concern for things come before our support for causes we believe in. The criminals who destroyed our store certainly did not care about the cause, and we will not help them ruin the message.  


TB: What is the status of Afram Jewelers today, as both an online and brick-and-mortar store?  


SO: I can’t deny that we are worried. It is a scary time for small businesses, especially those offering luxury items. I am hoping our watch and jewelry services will get our customers to come back, but with so many people teleworking, we are worried that most of our customers will not even be in DC.


TB: Are you still taking in watch repairs?  


SO: Yes! Sadly, all my repairs in progress were stolen during the robbery, so I am ready to accept new repairs. I am grateful that none of my watch equipment was damaged, and I have my bench set up and ready. Anyone interested can email me at aframjewelers@aol.com to set up an appointment.


TB: When do you plan to reopen? And once you do, will you maintain your online business?  


SO: We can’t survive as an online business, it’s just not our thing, although we will continue offering custom design and jewelry ordering services by email. We have cleaned up, our new showcases are coming in next week, our front door glass will finally be replaced, so we have a reopen date: August 4! We will be open limited hours, Tuesday to Thursdays, 10-5.


TB: I know you see some crazy stuff come in for repair, including some convincing counterfeits. How do you handle them?  


SO: First of all, we are all good at spotting fakes. If a suspicious watch comes in for repair, I usually open it while the customer is still there, to give them the good or bad news right away! I overhauled one fake Hublot, Valjoux 7750, just to see how good the replica movement was, and it was pretty good. The problem is, genuine parts do not fit these counterfeit movements, so repair is not feasible.  


TB: How should people care for their watches? Is there one repair issue that makes you say, “I wish people would/wouldn’t do this.” 


SO: Swimming is a big issue, make sure your watch is sealed after any service if you plan to get it wet, also screw in that crown! Also, don’t try to change the date on a quartz or mechanical watch after 9 pm, that is when the gears are starting to change automatically, and when people try to maneuver the crown during that time, it forces the gears, which bends the teeth.


TB: As an Omega expert, what advice do you have for collectors. Any underrated gems to look for or problematic movements to avoid?  


SO: A big problem used to be the Omega chronograph that shared the same movement with the Steve McQueen Tag Monaco that had two modular movements meshed into one, this was in the early 2000s, and these movements were not reliable, very hard to service. 


TB: Oh, great. That's the model I own.


SO: The newer versions are much better, and serviceable. Otherwise, the Omega co-axial movements are awesome, great watches to last. Especially Seamsters and Planet Oceans.


TB: I’ve seen some of your personal watches and I know it is a pretty varied collection. What are some of your favorites?  


SO: My favorite is my Omega Seamster professional.  This was a gift from Miriam back in 1999 when I graduated from NAWCC, and it is still my go-to watch.


Omega Seamaster

TB: What’s on your buy list? Anything, in particular, you’ve had your eye on?  


SO: I am jealous of your Nomos, Loren, and that is something I have my eye on! It’s a great value for a nice quality watch.


TB: Thanks! And nope. Not for sale. Any parting words for our readers?  


SO: I treasure my own watch collection and look forward to passing my own on to my kids. They each have their favorites. It is wonderful that The Time Bum is keeping watch appreciation and collecting alive and well. Loren, I always look forward to your visits in the store and really appreciate the watch brands you have introduced me to, thanks for this opportunity to share our story. ⬩


Afram Jewelers

1427 H St NW

Washington DC  20005

www.aframjewelers.com

(202) 347-0332

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