Welcome to Secret Philly, an occasional series in which Billy Penn will visit hidden or exclusive places in Philadelphia and write about them.
Make time if you’re planning to browse the jewelry at Halloween.
Fifteen or 20 minutes isn’t enough to see everything that jewelry designer Henri David has got going on in his custom-crafted displays, some hanging along the walls, some built into the second floor balcony, some set in tall pillars. “Got to put stuff somewhere,” he quips when asked of the store’s elaborate design. He compares it with going to the mall and the run-of-the-mill displays often found there. “They could move out tomorrow, and it wouldn’t look any different,” he says. “This? We’re not going anywhere.”
Normally our Secret Philly stories take you someplace inaccessible or unusual; Halloween isn’t that kind of secret. It’s one of those places for those that know; everyone else might not have the faintest clue of its existence, as no signage hangs on the Pine Street rowhouse where David has long kept shop.
“We have never ever, ever, ever advertised,” says David. (There isn’t an official website either.) “Friends tell friends. And in my brain, that works the best. I don’t want a neon sign; I’m not interested. When I bought the building, they didn’t tell me it was historical— I’m not allowed to have a sign. They didn’t tell me that part. But it hasn’t hurt us.”
Paul Struck, Halloween staffer and David’s partner, explains that there isn’t a prototypical customer. “We have 20-somethings that barely have a paycheck that buy from the case or custom-made, or we have the Rittenhouse Row or some of the big celebrity clients. There isn’t a profile,” he says. “People come in and they expect us to say ‘This is what you have to spend,’ especially [on] engagement rings. And that’s not true. It should cost what you can afford without putting you in debt.”
‘If I can’t have fun, I’m not doing this’
When David was 12, he was a costume boy for a theater company, and one day, he recalls, they dispatched him to find some rhinestones. He dug it. Then, one of the producers introduced him to a jeweler, with and the training began before David even really knew it. He told him, “You’re going to be a jeweler,” David remembers hearing. “I said, ‘No, no I’m not.’”
Forty percent of the jewelry in Halloween is made in-house by David and his staff. “We have a lot of antiques because I love them and search the world for them. But the rest is all from small companies all over the world,” he says. Except for chains, “It’s got to be handmade, or I’m not interested.”
Outside of jewelry, David is known running the Halloween Ball that he founded in ’68, as well as serving as emcee of the Easter Promenade that he’s led since the ’80s. But among his jewelry, David is incredibly fond of the eccentric, often light-hearted pieces that he calls “my whimsies.”
A Henri David whimsy gets made when David looks at an unusual gem and sees something. Maybe the pearls will look like bottles, so he’ll know he can arrange them, place them on a mirror and make a piece that looks like a vanity. Or perhaps the pearls might resemble the top of the balloon giraffe. He gets an impression; he completes the picture.
“I found this pearl, and it reminded me of a pig’s belly, with her little udders. She’s got a baby.” He says, showing the finished piece. “That’s what that pearl had to be. And because I can, I did it. My people in the Far East save the strange pearls for me, because nobody else wants them, and they wouldn’t [know] what to do with them.”
“These reminded me of ears, so I did Mr. Potato Head,” he shows another. “It just sort of happened that way. If I can’t have fun, I’m not doing this.”
Whimsies come from other stones too. Was that a snow scene in a small slab of druzy agate? Honey, it is now. David travels three to four times each year, maybe half the time is spent looking for what he finds out of the ordinary or beautiful.
Upstairs, whole displays can embody a single theme, like lizards, or kitchenware, or “under the sea.” “Here’s a garden,” he points out. “Here’s means of travel— ships and planes and boats.”
Downstairs, there is a case he calls “my heart of hearts.” Halloween is a place to go crazy if you like a good brooch, but it offers a rare mix too. There are lockets and charms, inside the heart display, but David starts noting what else is in there. “Matchbook, pill boxes, a bookmark, hearts go anywhere they want.”