Rafik Papalian is a jeweler.
Rafik Papalian didn't want to be a jeweler when he was 9 years old, and did not want to learn the trade by helping his father repair jewelry in the basement of the Tehran, Iran, where the Armenian immigrant family had settled.
Papalian's biography is the stuff of movies. He has come a long way since he left his family in Iran, lived in Bombay, India, and London, and entered the United States with an Iranian student visa and a backpack on July 2, 1977, at the age of 17. He recalls warmly the older customs worker who processed him, and asked where his baggage was. Speaking very little English, Papalian answered nervously that all he had was his backpack.
He managed to complete his high school in Haverhill, Mass., by paying his tuition through pizza shop jobs, and worked his way to an electrical engineering degree from Lowell University. Several years later, an uncle moved to California from Armenia to start a jewelry business. Papalian moved there with his future wife to help. They married, started their family of four children, and moved back to New Hampshire four years later.
He opened a jewelry store in Haverhill but closed it when it was robbed several days later. He opened a variety store in Plaistow, and started making jewelry repairs on the side. Eventually he rented the present store and has said "we've had nothing but success since then." Papalian said that he opened in a "bad economy," but that doesn't "stop people who buy jewelry ... He has said “When we have 6 percent unemployment, that means 94 percent are working. I keep my expenses at a level where I'm comfortable. I control my budget."
Fast forward 35 years through some dogged determination and professional detours, and Papalian, a proud American citizen since 1983, is an example of the American dream as owner-operator of Papalian's Jewelry in Plaistow.
Papalian’s is a self-described full-service jewelry store, whose products include diamond engagement rings; wedding rings; diamond earrings and tennis bracelets; mother's rings; men's jewelry; fine gold jewelry; and precious and semi-precious stone jewelry. One of his specialties is custom jewelry, and he can even create a piece from a photograph. He also sells children's jewelry, anniversary gifts and gifts imported from Italy, as well as selling and repairing watches.
A certified gemologist, Papalian also does on-site jewelry repairs and appraisals for estates and insurance. He can reset stones in new or old rings, resize rings and do engraving. Papalian also buys jewelry, such as estate pieces, and works with customers who want to trade in jewelry to upgrade. He either melts the pieces down and remakes them into other pieces or sells them to customers or other dealers.
Papalian estimates that about 50 percent of his business is in engagement and wedding rings - many to professional athletes, with about 20 percent in gifts, 20 percent in repairs, and 10 percent in watch sales.
Papalian said that he works with manufacturers in New York City on his custom pieces. He said that he has 4,000 to 5,000 jewelry molds that he has designed, assigned an identification number to, and placed with New York manufacturers. He tweaks the various designs, adding or subtracting details or stones, and then orders them. He usually inserts the stones himself unless he feels another expert can do it better.
For his diamond business, Papalian works with one factory in Israel that he has worked with for 22 years. He said he makes "sure that they all come with papers," adding that 80 percent "could be certified" and he "knows the cutters and where they come from."
Papalian said he is proud that he has loyal, long-time customers who he knows by name and that he is known for his service and his honesty. He advises people shopping for jewelry, and is quoted as saying to "Make sure the person behind the counter has knowledge ... You are buying my expertise at my store ... Tell me what you want and I'll go find it."
The 1,250 square-foot shop includes a showroom in front, with a workshop and offices in the back, all protected by an alarm system.
The shop is run by Papalian and three part-time employees, with some help from his children around the Christmas holidays. Papalian said he works in the shop about 40 hours a week, including specific appointments, and balances the jewelry shop business with his family and his growing real estate development success.
Papalian said that the United States "is a wonderful country to come to. I am first generation. I thank the country for the great experience I have had. There have been some rocky roads, but I'm here and I'm proud of what I've done."
- Complete Business Index, By Nancy Shuffleton, Rockingham News, April 29 2005