Under the shadows of the papel picado near the corner of 24th Street and South Van Ness Avenue is a sliver of an enterprise: “Jewelry: Jose R. Sanchez — Diamond Setter.”
Inside, behind sheets of plastic that encase a small work table, hang gold chains with crosses and boxes filled with a variety of jewelry: Rings, pendants and watches.
Sanchez has worked in the same store for the last six years, coming in at 9 a.m. and leaving around 3 p.m. Earlier, he worked at the Phelan Building as a jeweler for some 17 years. On a recent day, he sat at his work table, setting diamonds into a ring.
“I’m slower now, because my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be,” he said in Spanish, taking off his glasses. While he gets customers every now and then with more complicated work, he spends most of his time in the store, fixing watches and other jewelry knick-knacks.
Born in Mexico City — or, as he called it, El Distrito Federal — Sanchez started working when he was 12. His father, who also worked as a handyman, told him to do handy work, so that’s what he did.
“At that time, whatever my father said was law,” he said. “So, here I am.”
When he came to the United States at 25, Sanchez was looking for a “better life.” He lived in Houston for 30 years, working at jewelry stores as a diamond setter and mechanic. He never took a day off.
“I had a family to provide for; they were my only motivation,” he said.
His family moved to California 20 years ago, and has lived in San Rafael and Richmond. But Sanchez has always worked in San Francisco.
Now, he continues the work that he’s done for over 60 years. And he doesn’t plan to stop. His prices for his services are cheaper than the other stores in the area, charging six dollars per stone he has to set. His primary customers are Spanish-speaking immigrants, who come in looking for lower-priced yet classic pieces.
“After the pandemic, everything changed,” he said. “There are people who still don’t have money, who still don’t have a job.”
Now Sanchez spends his days helping a customer find the nephew’s birthday gift or looking for the one cog that makes the watch turn, always with a smile.
“I do this work because, as you all say it, ‘it’s my life.’”