A pawn in the recession game

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THE insides of a computer, gold teeth, bona fide decades-old Rolex watches and stunning solid-gold Indian wedding-wear – these are just some of the treasures people have been willing to part with during the recession.

Because of the economic climate and the price of gold the pawn industry is booming. It’s a business that still suffers from stigma, but – as with most things in life – the closer you look, you realise things aren’t always that simple.

At high street pawn brokers Herbert Brown, I was given a glimpse of the fascinating workings of a pawn shop, where people from all walks of life come to buy and sell their wares, either for a one off cash payment, or more commonly, to get a loan deal.

Rebecca Bailey, store manager at Rugby’s branch, explained: “We get all sorts of people here, from affluent businessman to people who have cash flow problems. People use us for all sorts of things, from making sure they can afford to pay their bills or their staff on time, to using us to safety store valuables when they go on holiday.

“We also see a huge range of items people are willing to part with, most of it is gold or precious stones but some of the stranger things include gold teeth, the insides of a computer and what they wore on their wedding day. We’ve seen all sorts of strange things.”

Pride of place in the shop’s window is a ladies’ watch that’s valued at well over £5,000. It’s a 1968 Rolex that Rebecca delicately lifts from the display to show me. I ask her how she can be sure it’s real.

“There’s lots of ways we can tell if Rolexes are real. For a start, faces on Rolexes won’t be scratched,” she said, running her thumb over the watch’s face.

“They’re made from sapphire crystal that has a distinctive feel to it and will shatter rather than scratch – not that it’s very easy to do that. The Rolex logo at the top of the face and the tiny window that displays the date will also be perfectly aligned and the body will often consist of a whole piece of metal rather than several that have been joined together.”

“You can also tell if the insides are motion-powered or battery powered by shaking it gently and feeling how the insides reacts to the motion. This one is real, so it will pull slighty as if it has a tiny pendulum inside.”

There are lots of similar methods to test for real gold and diamonds, some of which surprise me. As we gaze into an authentic diamond she points out that there is a tiny piece of a coal that’s just about visible to the trained eye. Rather than being an unwelcome blemish, this, I’m told, is a reassuring sign the stone is real. “There is no such thing as a flawless stone – there’s almost flawless – but completely perfect doesn’t exist when it comes to diamond. There will either be coal, or smaller diamonds visible within it.”

“Unfortunately, people try to get all sorts of fake items past us,” Rebecca said.

“We’re trained to spot fake items and some can be more convincing than others. We get people attaching a fake gold chain onto a real golden clasp where the hallmark is to make it look like the entire chain is real, for example. Sometimes people even change individual links on chains, swapping gold ones for fake gold. We have to be very fussy about what we take.”

A small chemistry set that’s kept away from the shop floor is evidence of this - and if staff are unsure of what to make of an item, the testing kit will give them an accurate answer as to whether gold or diamonds are real in a matter of minutes.

About 80 per cent of people who take their valuables to Herbert Brown will get them back one day.

“A lot of our business is giving people quick solutions to cash flow problems. Because there’s often valuable collateral involved, it means we can give them a loan that can be cheaper and more convenient than a high street bank’s.”

“It’s in our interests to get people to get their items back one day. It often works out better for them and it works out better for us too. It can be very hard taking items off people that you know has sentimental value to them, and it’s also hard telling people that granny’s old ring isn’t worth quite as much money as they imagined.”

Although the price of gold has just begun to decline, I can’t imagine this age-old business is one that will be disappearing from the high street anytime soon.