Jewelers Row


Jewelers Row in Center City Philadelphia emerged in the 1880s and over time became home to more than two hundred jewelry retailers, wholesalers, and craftsmen. Many of these businesses were owned by the same families for generations. By the twenty-first century, Jewelers Row had become regarded as the oldest diamond district in the United States, second in size only to the jewelry district in New York City. Located within the East Center City Commercial Historic District, Jewelers Row embodied Philadelphia’s commercial legacy, linking small-scale, family-owned manufacturing businesses with the city’s well-established financial institutions and a retail industry synonymous with quality merchandise.

A black and white photograph of 700 Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
This building at 700 Sansom Street, one of the remaining original structures of what was once Carstairs Row—named after the architect—was at one time a jeweler’s shop. (

Situated in the heart of the original city plan for Philadelphia, on Sansom Street between Seventh and Eighth Streets and on Eighth Street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, Jewelers Row reflected the architectural and developmental history of the city. These blocks were originally laid out by William Penn (1644-1718) and his surveyor general, Thomas Holme (1624-95). Following Penn’s death in 1718, his son Thomas Penn (1702-75) sold the land in 1726 to Isaac Norris Sr. (1671-1735), a prominent merchant and statesman. The property remained in the Norris family for much of the eighteenth century, until its sale in 1791 to merchant and financier Robert Morris (1734-1806). In 1794, Morris began construction of a mansion, designed by the French-born architect and civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825), on his newly acquired Chestnut Street lot. However, between the expenses incurred during the American Revolution and a series of failed investments in land speculation, Morris fell into bankruptcy, and his unfinished mansion became known as “Morris’s Folly.”

After the city government confiscated the land to pay Morris’s debts, in 1798 the block of Walnut Street from Seventh to Eighth Streets was purchased in a sheriff’s sale by the Quaker philanthropist and real estate developer William Sansom (1763-1840). He tore down the mansion and bisected the property with an eponymous east-west street. He contracted with Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820) to construct speculative housing on the north side of Walnut Street, while the Scottish architect Thomas Carstairs (1759?-1830) was hired to construct housing on the south side of the newly developed Sansom Street. Between 1800 and 1802, Carstairs proceeded to build a block-long series of twenty-two identical Georgian-style row houses known as Carstairs Row, modeled after earlier patterns of row houses constructed in the squares of London, Bath, and Dublin. To attract tenants to this relatively undeveloped area of the city, Sansom paved the street at his own expense.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, increasing industrial and commercial development, spanning an area from Walnut Street in the south to Arch Street in the north, spurred interest in creating new residential districts. Following the consolidation of the city with Philadelphia County in 1854, the city’s wealthier residents moved westward to the more fashionable Rittenhouse Square and new neighborhoods across the Schuylkill River in West Philadelphia. The row houses they left behind in older and increasingly working-class and ethnic neighborhoods became available for commercial uses. The Chestnut and Market neighborhoods became major intersections for horse car, omnibus, and later electric trolley routes from West Philadelphia and Rittenhouse, linking wealthy Philadelphians to the city’s retail and financial institutions.

A black and white photograph of the 700 block of Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
This view of south side of the 700 block of Sansom Street shows several of the jewelry shops in 1963. The building in the background is the Curtis Publishing Company building, built in 1910. (

Before it became a jewelry district in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the 700 block of Sansom Street was the center of a thriving engraving trade, which benefited from its proximity to an established printing industry, including many publishing firms on Sansom Street or nearby on Chestnut Street. The engraving business, with its high level of technical expertise and precision, formed a natural relationship with jewelry and watchmaking crafters and suppliers, who used a similar set of skills and tools. Over time, independent engravers continued to prosper due to the booming publishing industry, but they did not increase in number. Meanwhile, scores of diamond wholesalers, setters, crafters, lapidaries, and similar luxury industries moved onto the Row, bolstered by several waves of Eastern European and Jewish immigrants who settled in Philadelphia between the 1880s and early 1900s. For example, about a dozen engravers plied their trade on the 700 block of Sansom between 1879 and 1908. At the same time, the number of jewelry and diamond sellers and manufacturers exploded from five to more than seventy-five and eventually surpassed two hundred establishments by 1930.

As the jewelry industry flourished, architectural alterations changed the look of the Row, with out-of-fashion Georgian exteriors replaced by in-vogue Victorian styles. More businesses relocated from elsewhere in the city, resulting in the Philadelphia jewelry industry becoming increasingly centered upon the Row. Although prominent jewelry retailers such as Biddle and Co. continued to operate elsewhere, in the early twentieth century more than 50 percent of diamond dealers and more than 80 percent of diamond setters and cutters worked on the Row. Dubbed Jewelers Row in commercial advertisements and local media by at least the late 1910s, the area’s reputation as the locus of Philadelphia jewelry-making was further cemented over the next several decades, culminating in the construction of the Art Deco Jewelry Trades Building on the west end of the 700 block of Sansom Street in 1929.

A color photograph of 700 through 708 Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
This view of the east end of the 700 block of Sansom Street, photographed in November 2016, shows the various facades of Jewelers Row. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Unlike other local industries, such as styled-textile manufacturing, a combination of factors made Jewelers Row well suited to survive through periods of economic distress and market volatility. Despite cyclical periods of stagnation and contraction, skilled jewelry craftsmen enjoyed a path to proprietorship that was relatively easy and more economical when compared to other industries that relied on rapid technological advances to thrive. At the same time, unlike larger markets such as New York City, Philadelphia’s smaller size allowed the luxury industry to better combat over-competition or product oversaturation. Being structurally and functionally divided among final goods makers, component suppliers, and ancillary specialists also benefited Philadelphia jewelers, as it both prevented assimilation by larger predatory entities and avoided disruption during periods of labor activism, while the relatively localized market limited interregional competition. Moreover, Philadelphia’s reputation as a thriving and fertile marketplace facilitated the rise of jewelry wholesalers on the Row who redistributed seasonally styled goods to both smaller shops and larger retail outlets. Finally, the presence of established family-owned firms and a deeply rooted Jewish community ensured a strong sense of loyalty among customers who prized Jewelers Row for its imaginative designs and quality craftsmanship.

Once established as Jewelers Row, the various traders and artisans fought to uphold the district’s reputation while also competing with larger regionalized retailers. Throughout the early twentieth century, merchants feared losing business to outside the Row. The Sansom Street Business Men’s Association formed in 1913 to advance the interests of local shopkeepers and even employed detectives to deter crime. These concerns became increasingly strident over the latter half of the century as suburbanization resulted in a decrease in commercial traffic to Center City businesses. Particularly detrimental to downtown business districts such as Jewelers Row, new shopping malls on the periphery offered many of the amenities and services that had previously attracted consumers to the downtown, but without the burdensome commute. To combat this, local jewelers leveraged their district’s storied heritage, forming the Jewelers Row Association in 1986 as a cooperative effort to compete with suburban jewelry retailers by enhancing the visibility, reputation for quality, and aesthetic appeal of the Sansom Street properties.

A color photograph of 704 Sansom Street in Philadelphia.
704 Sansom Street, home to Christian Michael Jewelry and Maryanne S. Ritter Jewelers in 2016, displayed signs in the windows of the third story of the building to show support for the Jewelers Row preservation effort. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

In 2016, Jewelers Row became the focus of public attention when a proposed redevelopment of part of the 700 block of Sansom Street by Toll Brothers sought to demolish and replace several of the buildings with a high-rise condominium.  Some of the local businesses and historic preservationists resisted the plan, which developers argued would revitalize the area by attracting new, middle-class residents and also bring much-needed revenue to the city through property taxes. Opponents fought to protect the architectural heritage of the block by nominating three of the five buildings proposed for demolition (704 and 706-708 Sansom Street) to be designated as historic structures by the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, joining several other addresses on the Row that already possessed landmark status. The battle reflected the complex identity of Jewelers Row itself: a mix of old-world craftsmanship, family-owned businesses, and architectural history, combined with modern concerns of urban decentralization, changing demographics, and privatized development in a city looking to the future while at the same time seeking to preserve the legacy of its past.

Lance R. Eisenhower is a doctoral student in American history at Lehigh University and holds an M.A. in history from Villanova University. He is a Lecturer of History at Montgomery County Community College. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2017, Rutgers University


Robert Morris

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Robert Morris purchased the property on which Jewelers Row was later constructed. Construction of his mansion there began in 1794 but was never completed. Because Morris also helped finance the revolution and encountered other financial troubles, the mansion was never completed and earned the name “Morris’s Folly.” Though Morris lost his fortune, he was a prominent founding father.

700 Sansom Street

In contrast to conventional, individually constructed homes, the design of architect Thomas Carstairs was a novelty in the United States. Row houses, however, were urgently needed to provide housing for the new immigrants flooding into the growing metropolis. Dubbed “Philadelphia rows” when built elsewhere in the country, some citizens initially objected to the uniformity of the designs. Ultimately, though, the dignity and elegance of these long, Georgian-style architectural units soon became common throughout the city in the nineteenth century. Carstairs row houses represented an important contribution to Philadelphia’s architectural legacy, and the identical design of the Row’s houses stands in contrast to the varied facades of other residential units of the time, such as were constructed in Elfreth’s Alley.

This corner building on Sansom Street, added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1981, is one of the original structures on Carstairs Row. 730 and 732 Sansom Street were added to the register in the same year and are the only other remaining structures from Carstairs’ construction in 1799.

724 Sansom Street

N. Barksy & Sons, photographed in 1963 at 724 Sansom Street, was one of the many jewelry shops located on Jewelers Row. Though operating under the name Barsky Diamonds in 2017, the store was in business for over one hundred years at the same location. To the left of N. Barsky & Sons is Baltin & Co. Jewelers, and to the right is the Deutsch Building.

700 Block of Sansom Street

The many facades of the buildings on Jewelers Row, seen in this photograph from 1963, were the remnants of nineteenth and twentieth century alterations to the structures. Many of the shops then were jewelry shops, as they were in 2017. In the background of the photograph is the Curtis Publishing Company building, constructed in 1910, an anchor of the area’s publishing history.

700 to 708 Sansom Street

At left on the corner of the 700 block of Sansom Street is an original Carstair Row house from the nineteenth century. Many of the other row houses on the block have changed in design, giving Jewelers Row a distinct architectural history. The section of houses to the right of 700 Sansom Street at left, with addresses of 702 to 708, are among buildings that would be demolished to make way for a Toll Brothers condominium project. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

704 Sansom Street

The jewelry shop at 704 Sansom Street displayed signs in the windows of the third story of the building to show support for the Jewelers Row preservation effort. Clockwise from the top left corner, the signs read “Protect Philly’s Legacy,” “Occupied By History,” “You Can Always Make More Money But You Can Never Make More Time,” and “#SaveJewelersRow.” (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

“Save Jewelers Row” signs on display in the doors and windows of businesses along Jewelers Row in late 2016 reflected a campaign by to protect the historic block. Several of the business owners who rent or own space on Jewelers Row advocated for the preservation of the block after Toll Brothers proposed the construction of a condominium high-rise. (Photograph for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Public Meeting at the Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent

The Philadelphia History Museum at Atwater Kent hosted a public meeting in September 2016 about the history and future of Jewelers Row, prompted by a Toll Brothers project that would replace several Sansom Street buildings with a high-rise condo building. Present at the meeting was Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia; Bob Skiba of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides; and Hy Goldberg, president of the Philadelphia Jewelers’ Row Association. Skiba presented a history of Jewelers Row, Steinke discussed the Preservation Alliance’s attempts to protect the entirety of the block, and Goldberg explained his support for the Toll Brothers project.

Besides members of the of the public, others in the audience were shop owners and renters of Jewelers Row, including individuals who voiced their concern and opposition to the Toll Brothers project. In 2017, the project progressed with Toll Brothers’ demolition permit approval. The construction company released a rendering of its condominium project in January 2017.

(Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Murtagh, William J. “The Philadelphia Row House.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 16 (December 1957): 8-13.

Tatum, George B. Penn’s Great Town: 250 Years of Philadelphia Architecture Illustrated in Prints and Drawings. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961.

Scranton, Philip. Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

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