Boris is living the American Dream. After fleeing from Russia in 1976, Boris and his family trekked through train stations and immigrant centers across Europe, before finally arriving in New York City. A jeweler by trade, Boris refined his craft in the Diamond District ‘til he was able to open his own engraving shop. CONVICTS caught up with Boris and got his word on communism versus capitalism, the reason hand-made is always better than 3D-printed, and the identity of the best jewelry engraver in Midtown. Hint: it’s Boris.
How’s it going? To start, can you tell us who you are?
My name is Boris. Just Boris is OK. I am citizen, of course, originally from Russia, Odessa on the Black Sea. When I immigrated, it was old Russia. Now it’s coming apart, but I’ve been in New York for forty years today.
Where did you learn to engrave?
It was very hard to find people to teach me because there is no school for engraving. My father was killed in the war in Germany and my mother, she supported me. I went to different factories to find a job and was lucky that one factory took me where they engraved, but after one month working was not interesting anymore. So I tell my boss I wanted to do something more interesting, so he gave me a picture-I remember it was fox-and I engraved it and started my career. But I saw I had no future in Russia, people just usually do what government tells them to do.
Can you talk a bit about leaving Russia and coming to New York?
It was not an easy time. It was 1976, many people tried to escape but the problem was we had a Communist Party. I wanted to emigrate and I said, ‘I am not bad person’ and they said ‘No, you are the best!’ so they wouldn’t let me go. I go in Russia to a prosecutor and she called the secretary in the factory where I was working and said ‘You must give him signed papers.’ I was still working one or two days before we just go to train to to emigrate.
What was the journey like?
We went to border and they checked us upside down. Even pockets. We went to Czech Republic and we went to station after station. We stayed five days in Austria, we got all our documents then we went to Italy-this was a hard time-because there was one wagon only of immigrants from Russia. We stop at a station in the city they drop us on a big clean place. No building, nothing. Rumors come saying, ‘It’s war time’ and we were just with luggage, we only had like ten minutes to move out from our train to a bus was that waiting for us to bring us to a hotel. Of course, no one spoke Italian no one spoke English so they gave us two days to find a place not in Rome, but in a small village.
And how did you get from Italy to New York?
This was easy. We were waiting for a consul from the United States who was based permanent in Italy and they gave us a day to visit them. They checked us one by one-me and my wife went separately-and they checked to make sure we weren’t spies. I forgot when I was born-it was not funny-because I was nervous. So we got permission after two and a half months and a Jewish organization paid for us because we had no money. They bought a ticket for us and we flew to New York.
What was it like coming from communism to the center of capitalism, New York?
Communism and capitalism were different. Capitalists were very rich people that could afford expensive things but we have good apartment, nice apartment. It’s my family my wife, mother and son.
What do you most enjoy about New York City?
I like work. I have no time. I like museums of course, the Metropolitan. Some museum I have no time even to look at, the history museum, I never go there. I visit galleries downtown, Soho. And yes we like New York. Because where I lived, in Odessa, it was a big city, poor city. It’s not like New York, but 1.5 million people.
What’s the Russian community like in New York?
I live in the Bronx. We have very small community. I know not many people. The only that I know are on 47th street. Sometimes the jewelers and engravers invite me to birthday parties and say ‘Are you Boris the engraver?’ and I say ‘Yeah.’ They say ‘Oh, my pleasure to meet you.’ I say well I’m a normal guy, I’m not crazy.
No, no, people respect what I’m doing, you understand? I don’t care about what they say. I’m not here to be famous. I like to be American, I tell you.
Switching gears…what do you think about when you’re engraving? Are you thinking about the weather, or totally immersed in your work?
No, no, no, no, no. When I engrave I think about no weather. If your hand is not steady you’re gonna make a mistake.
How steady is your hand?
I’m no alcoholic. Sometime I drink in a party only but no, I’m not shaking. If I’m shaking, I’m finished. I’d have to stop working.
Why is engraving things by hand better than engraving with a computer?
It’s much cleaner, no question. For a jeweler, people bring him a job only if they want it by hand because it’s more precise, because they’re looking in the microscope. If they see some small lines they turn to you and say ‘It’s no good.’ Our quality better than any machine.
What do customers look for with their engraving?
People don’t want to pay so much money, but you want each piece to become like a museum piece.
Is there competition or jealousy between you and other jewelers?
No, no, no. I’m never jealous.
Who’s the best jeweler around?
You mean now? I’m going to feel bad if I say I’m good. You know what I’m saying. I am, but it’s okay! If somebody want to compete, I can compete with anybody at any time.