Irene Peña of Latin Jewelers on Mission Street. Photo by Lingzi Chen, taken April 20, 2023.

The most popular items at Latin Jewelers are probably the earpieces.

“We sell a lot of earrings,” said Irene Peña, daughter of the shop’s owner on Mission Street. “You know — our culture.” Babies often have their ears pierced right out of the hospital, she said, a cultural mainstay throughout Latin America. “I don’t know any women who probably don’t have their ears pierced,” said Peña, smiling.

It’s not just the Latin Jewelers store — and it’s not just women. On a recent Friday afternoon, two young men walked into Diju Jewelry on 24th Street to buy a necklace and two pairs of ear studs. They have been customers here for six years.

“In Mexico, first day,” said its owner Diana Medina of the popularity of earrings, vividly mimicking the sound and motion of piercing ear holes. “Pew — ”

Religious medals are also popular, Peña said, standing behind the counter near the entrance, gesturing to the glittering Virgin Mary and crucifixes.

While traditional jewelry businesses are no longer as lucrative as in years past, they do keep a fiercely loyal customer base, with some jewelry stores seeing generations of family members come into their shops. These customers often return long after the families themselves have moved away from the Mission.

“I’ve seen generations of people walk through the door,” said Peña of Latin Jewelers, pointing to the entrance. “We’ve seen the parents, and then their kids, and then their kids come in.”

A family came in as Peña was explaining the store’s jewelry financing service. She paused the interview, stepped aside to greet them and gave the woman a hug.

“We’re a legacy business of San Francisco,” she said referring to the city program that recognizes and supports “iconic and long-standing” businesses. 

three persons in front of a store
Irene Peña’s parents holding her in front of the Guadalajara Jewelers. Photo provided by Iren Peña.

Latin Jewelers has existed for 50 years. Peña’s parents started the business in 1976, on Mission Street near 21st Street, when she was two. Back then, it was called Guadalajara Jewelers, and started as a part of a franchise. In 2008, the owners decided to become fully independent. 

To turn a new page, the store moved one block up to the current location, at 2344 Mission St. between 19th and 20th streets, and was changed to the current name.

Peña first started helping at this family business when she was 16, earning $15 an hour. “My parents instilled in us a work ethic,” Peña said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, you get to go to work late and slack off,’” she smiles. “You know this is where your food comes from at night.”

Now Peña and her brother are operating the business, and their parents no longer come to the store regularly. As they grow up, so have their customers: “And a lot of them are still around.”

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Lingzi is our newest reporting intern. She covered essential workers in New York City during the pandemic and wrote about China’s healthcare and women’s rights back in college. Before coming to America to pursue her dream in journalism, Lingzi taught in the Department of Chinese Studies in National University of Singapore.

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