Every other week we feature small business owners in Jackson Heights, Queens, to learn how they are managing through the pandemic and how they are preparing for coming months. If you live in or visit Jackson Heights, we hope you will consider showing these businesses some love — they are working hard to survive.
This community reporting project is produced in partnership with the New York University Studio 20 graduate program. Each business owner profiled will then refer another small business owner in the area, creating a chain of connections throughout the community. This week we are highlighting Sona Mandi Jewelers.
What Sona Mandi Jewelers does: Sona Mandi Jewelers (in Hindi, that means “Gold Market”), carries a selection of traditional and modern South Asian jewelry, specializing in adornments for weddings and other auspicious celebrations. Some of its best-selling items include intricate gold necklaces, bracelets and chains, which are a popular purchase among South Asian brides.
How it survived: Owner Kamal Kumar has had to make sacrifices to maintain his business.
After closing down Sona Mandi for two months in the spring of 2020, Kamal cut stuff and shortened hours, and now, he closes his doors every Tuesday. A year ago, Sona Mandi was always full, and revenue was almost four times what it is today. “More than 200-300 people came in a day,” Kamal says. “People now come just to visit, to get out of their home, to look around. They don’t buy anything. Some of them come to say hello, and that’s it.”
Not only has the pandemic affected customer traffic, but Kamal says the price of gold has been fluctuating daily due to the unstable global economy. Because gold itself is a relatively stable asset, many turn to gold as a worthwhile investment to avoid the losses of a potential stock market crash. When the economy suffers, the price of gold rises. This means Kamal must either increase his prices and potentially drive away customers, or maintain gold prices and lose profits.
Before the pandemic, “the price of gold was $1,400 an ounce. Now it’s $2,000 an ounce,” Kamal says. Yet because Sona Mandi sells luxury jewelry, many customers are less likely to buy his products in an economic crisis. “People don’t have money, so we lose our business,” Kamal says. “We are just from hand-to-mouth now.”
The success of the store carries special meaning for Kamal, who started his first jewelry store not far from Sona Mandi’s current location, at just 19 years old. Kamal traveled to the US from Ludhiana in the state of Punjab, India, where his family owns and runs jewelry stores. Kamal says he learned about the business from his father, who taught him everything he knows about jewelry. Back then, “I was accompanying my dad in India,” Kamal says. “When I came here I was so young…I just opened a small store. [Sona Mandi] is the big one, but I started very small.”
Kamal says he first came to the US in the early 1990s to “visit America, but somehow I got stuck here, and I don’t want to go back.” When he decided to stay in New York, his parents gave him their blessing. Kamal says he worked several jobs, including stocking a fabric store in Queens, in order to make enough money to invest in a small jewelry storefront. Eventually, Kamal opened Sona Mandi, which he has overseen and maintained for the last 20 years.
What Kamal wants you to know: Business wasn’t always this difficult for Kamal, whose customers in pre-pandemic times would spend between $15,000 to $50,000 on gold jewelry for weddings and other celebrations. Kamal says traditionally, the mothers of brides will come in with their daughters to choose out jewelry together for the wedding celebration. “The mother has more power to buy the jewelry. She’s the one who decides what to buy or what not to buy for her daughter.” Kamal imports from the Middle East, Singapore and India, but most of his pieces arrive monthly from Calcutta, India — a major production hub of traditional and elegant hand-crafted bridal jewelry.
The loss of regular foot traffic caused by the pandemic has made it difficult to keep up with the expenses needed to maintain the store. The pandemic has also halted large weddings and other celebrations — the main source of much of Kamal’s revenue. Kamal says he has applied for a PPP loan but has not yet received an update.
Despite these challenges, Kamal says the jewelry market is still more lucrative in New York than it is back home in Ludhiana. “When I came here, I saw that it’s easier to make money here than in India. I say it’s better to stay here. If you want to struggle, struggle here instead of struggling over there. It’s much easier here than in India.” Kamal says he used to go back to visit his family between two to three times a year but hasn’t traveled back to Punjab “for some time.” The death of both of Kamal’s parents in the last few years also slowed down his travel to India.
Although Kamal has been dealt severe financial blows this year, he has high hopes for Sona Mandi post-pandemic. He plans to expand outside of New York and wants to explore options as far away as Florida. “It’s a nice place, nice weather…there’s a good market there,” he says.
Kamal, however, has no plans to leave New York. His wife and two children, aged 14 and 17, have created roots in Long Island, where he and his wife settled after arriving in New York. When asked if he ever buys jewelry for his own wife, Kamal laughs. “I bring her in and say, ‘Whatever you like, take it. Everything is yours.’” His daughter has plans to study computer engineering and artificial intelligence when she goes off to college next year. Kamal, with pride, says she’s aiming for an Ivy League.
Location: 37-44 74th Street, Jackson Heights, NY 11372