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The Jackson Heights Gold Rush

March 23, 2003. New York Times

On weekend afternoons, the streets are filled with brides by the dozen: young women amid a flock of relatives, all methodically perusing the windows of the jewelry shops in preparation for what many say is the most important purchase of their lives.

There is much to choose from: huge filigreed necklaces wide enough to cover a woman's chest and shoulders, not to mention tiaras, anklets, armlets and bangles, along with rings for fingers, toes, noses, and ears - all wrought in gleaming yellow 22-karat gold.

Gold jewelry plays a crucial role in a traditional South Asian wedding ceremony, and for South Asian families throughout North America, Jackson Heights is the place to come for gold.

For more than 15 years, the intersection of 74th Street and 37th Road has been the heart of South Asian Queens, so much so that local residents call it the Indian mall. And among stores that offer the latest Bollywood spectaculars on DVD and sweet shops selling stacks of syrupy, spiral-shaped jalebis, the most eye-catching places are the gold jewelry shops.

A decade ago, there were only a handful, but today dozens of gold jewelry shops are clustered within a two-block radius of this intersection. It is as if the 47th Street diamond district had been transported to Jackson Heights and reborn with a South Asian accent.

Because late winter is the high season for South Asian weddings - the weather in the subcontinent is good during that period - Jackson Heights has been flooded with shoppers on a quest for the specialized jewelry ensemble required in traditional Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani wedding ceremonies.

Customers include not only South Asian immigrants from New York but wedding parties from around the country, who typically make a special stop before flying to ancestral homes in the subcontinent for the actual ceremony.

Since Jackson Heights jewelers work with suppliers all over Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Britain, customers often find a greater selection of styles in Queens than they do even in large South Asian cities.

And because selecting wedding jewelry is usually a family affair, on weekends during February and March, Jackson Heights is full of extended family groups.

By tradition, the jewelry must be 22 karats, a purer form of gold than is commonly sold in American stores.

"This is because the bride's jewelry is a part of the dowry," said Arvind Bhai Maganlal, who along with his wife, Asmita Ben, has owned Mita Jewelers on 74th Street since 1990. "The groom's family, they have to know what they are getting. The bride's family will say to them, my daughter will bring into your home this much jewelry, this much cash. And because the wedding jewelry is 22 karat, they know exactly what they are getting."

In fact, it is common for the groom's family to have a prospective bride's jewelry weighed and assessed, to make sure the gold is the proper quality.

"Our women can always tell if the gold is pure," said Ehsan Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi immigrant from Jackson Heights who was helping his wife choose jewelry for a sister's wedding. "I don't know how they know it, but they always know. For our women, it must be 22 karat."

In Bangladeshi culture, the dowry system is intended to protect both parties in a marriage. The groom's family receives a sum of money up front, and the bride keeps possession of her wedding jewelry, which she can sell if the marriage fails or if her husband cannot support her.

"Jewelry is a kind of insurance for a woman," Mr. Chowdhury said. "Say the man says to his wife: 'O.K., I don't want you anymore. We will get a divorce.' The woman has her insurance, her jewelry, and so she is protected. She can sell it, and maybe she can open a business for herself. You have your insurance companies in America, and this is our system."

The basic items are the rani haar, also known as queen jewelry, which is a set of earrings sold with a large matching necklace. The rani haar set typically costs $3,000 to $5,000.

But as South Asian communities in New York and elsewhere in America have become more established, tastes in weddings and, by extension, wedding jewelry, have been changing. Many young couples choose to celebrate their weddings here, rather than return to their parents' homelands. And a wedding in the United States means that gold jewelry plays a less crucial role in the marriage transaction.

"In the olden times, women wore necklaces of 300, 400 grams, very heavy,'' said Mr. Maganlal of Mita Jewelers. "But these modern girls go for something smaller." He shook his head slightly in disapproval. A trend toward lighter, finer earrings and necklaces is hardly good news for a man in the gold business.

"Sometimes you even see the bride's family come to choose the jewelry together with the mother-in-law," Mr. Maganlal said. "This is not the old tradition."

As if to prove his point, Mahin Hossain, who moved to the west Bronx from Bangladesh 18 months ago, showed up at his shop one day with her niece, Rifat Ahamed, and a half-dozen other relatives to buy jewelry for a forthcoming family wedding. They were the family of the groom, Mahin Hossain's nephew; the bride would arrive from Michigan the day before the wedding.

HAVING been married the previous summer, Ms. Ahamed, 17, was an old hand at choosing wedding jewelry. "It takes the whole entire day," she said. "First you have to look at every shop, and then they bargain."

After leaving Mita Jewelers, the little parade of relatives led by the bride's prospective mother-in-law window-shopped their way along 74th Street. At Alankar Jewelers, they spent 10 minutes examining a large rani haar set before moving on to Silk-n-Gold, two doors down.

"The mother-in-law decided she doesn't like it," Mrs. Hossain said. "She wants something more gorgeous for her new daughter-in-law."

For her own wedding, Ms. Ahamed and her mother had settled on something a little more modern than the traditional rani haar.

"I wore a choker," she said. "All the gold jewelry is so heavy and hard to wear, plus you're wearing a sari. It gets hard to move, with everything." Ms. Ahamed performed a little mime that suggested a shy bride, moving stiffly, head bent, as if weighed down by unfamiliar clothes and heavy jewelry. "And on top of that, you just keep thinking, I'm getting married!"


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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