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Family-owned M Jewelers takes pride in offering handmade jewelry in Kensington: “It feels like home here”

The Ma family’s lives were upended in 2016 when a fire at a neighboring discount store swept through their store.

The Ma family, including Soon (left), Young (center), and Steve (right), poses for a photo at M Jewelers at 2327 N. Front St. (Photo by Khysir Carter)

Jeweler Young Ma always appreciates the opportunity to craft something special for his customers.

“I feel very happy when customers ask for handmade jewelry,” said Ma. “When I see their excitement or see them smile, that gives me enjoyment.”

Ma, his wife Soon Ma, and his son Steve Ma, own M Jewelers at 2327 N. Front St. The Soon family has worked in the jewelry store, previously called Kang’s Jewelers, for over 20 years. 

For the Ma family, the ability to offer high-quality, hand-crafted jewelry to Kensington residents has always been a point of pride. When their most recent lease ended at their previous storefront, the family was set on staying in the neighborhood.

“People in this neighborhood normally have to leave this neighborhood to get what they need or to go shopping,” Steve said. “It makes us feel good when a customer can just walk a few minutes to shop here, and we can help them find what they’re looking for.” 

The Ma family first came to the United States in the early 2000s from Daegu, a city in South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province. (Screen capture via Google Maps)

Immigrating to the United States

The Ma family first came to the United States in the early 2000s from Daegu, a city in South Korea’s North Gyeongsang Province.

Young had always appreciated the U.S. for helping South Korea during the Korean War. When he served in the Korean military, he met many U.S. Marines who would talk about living in the country.

“The Marines would tell me how America is a good nation – it’s not perfect – but I heard a lot of stories about American values,” he said. “And that’s why I wanted to live in America, I always dreamed of American life.”

After completing his military service in South Korea, Young worked as a landscape architect and Soon worked as a nurse. Soon had family in the United States and felt that moving here could be a positive educational opportunity for their children. So in 2000, when Steve was just 13 years old, he and his sister Katie were sent to live with their aunt – Soon’s sister – in Philadelphia, where they began school.

Soon came to visit her children a few months later and decided to stay. Her sister offered her a job at the jewelry store that she had recently purchased on Front Street. It was Kang’s. 

Meanwhile, Young remained in South Korea, where he continued to work to support his family. He also began apprenticing with a friend who worked as a jeweler to learn the trade. After only a few months of training, he moved to Philadelphia to rejoin his family and begin working with Soon at the jewelry store.

“It wasn’t a big transition because I had to survive when I first came to America, and I was very interested in jewelry,” Young said. 

In 2016, Kang's Jewelers and its neighboring stores experienced a significant amount of damage after a fire started on the 2300 block of Front Street. (Photo courtesy of the Ma family)

Family business on Front Street

In the years that followed, Soon and Young continued to work at the jewelry store while Steve and Katie went through school. Soon developed strong relationships with many of the customers. She kept a wall at the store dedicated to hanging photos of their regulars. 

Eventually, in 2008, Soon and Young purchased Kang’s Jewelers from Soon’s sister. However, in 2016, the Ma family’s lives were upended when a fire at a neighboring discount store swept through their store. Young and Soon were working in the shop when it went up in flames.

“We just picked up the dog and ran; we couldn’t take any of the jewelry,” said Young. “I couldn’t tell if it was reality or just a dream. I asked myself, ‘Is this real?’” 

Steve arrived at the scene soon after. Against firefighters’ orders, he ran into the store and attempted to grab what jewelry he could. But they could only salvage so much, and the business was uninsured. What burned in the fire was lost, and the family was forced to shut down their store.

“It was shocking for me,” said Soon. “Watching my store burn was very traumatic, but then the hardest thing for me was not working for a year.”

The experience was devastating for the Ma family. Nearly everything they had invested in was lost. The jewelry store was closed for nearly a year. Then Steve, who was managing some telecommunications stores in Kensington and Frankford, decided to leave that job to invest himself in the family business.

With the help of Steve and support from family, Soon and Young were able to reopen the jewelry store later that year. They moved into a building on the other side of the 2300 block of Front Street and renamed the store M Jewelers after the family’s last name. 

Soon Ma (right) serves customers in an undated photo taken at Kang's Jewelers on the 2300 block of Front Street. (Photo courtesy of the Ma family)

Memories of Front Street

When Steve thinks back on the weekends he spent at the store as a teenager, he remembers how hard his parents worked and the challenges they faced.

“When I was young, I didn’t like coming to Front Street because I saw my parents working too much,” he said. “The language barrier was high, and I saw them having a hard time communicating with customers. I always thought that when I grew up, I’d make my parents open a business in a different location.”

Still, Steve’s difficult memories are matched by fond ones of that time, especially when he thinks of what Front Street used to feel like when he stepped outside his parent’s store.

“I do miss the old times,” he said. “People barbecued outside every Saturday and played music. I couldn’t walk on the sidewalk there were so many people; it was really busy.”

Front Street was once a packed, bustling commercial corridor with a dense mix of businesses, Steve said. There were restaurants like Soko Lovers, Four Sons Pizza, and Ben’s House Steaks, clothing stores like Arnold’s, Gear N’ Up, Live in Color, and Olympia Sports, other jewelry stores like Dave’s Jewelry and Kim’s Jewelry, multiple discount stores, as well as chain stores like Rainbow, Foot Locker, Payless ShoeSource, and Dunkin Donuts. Not many buildings on the block sat vacant then like they do today.

As Steve grew older, his appreciation for the neighborhood deepened. The longer he remained in the neighborhood, the more he said, he recognized aspects he had overlooked in his youth.

“I found out that this neighborhood is rich in culture, it’s very diverse and full of history,” said Steve. “And I realized that by staying here and working for my parents, I could help make this place better.”

Steve Ma poses for a photo outside of his family's business, M Jewelers, located at 2327 N. Front St. (Photo by Khysir Carter)

Remaining on Front Street

Nearly a decade has passed since Kang’s Jewelers burnt down, and the Ma family has faced other hardships since

In 2015, another fire, which started in a Payless ShoeSource store neighboring M Jewelers, damaged the Ma’s second storefront. In 2020, M Jewelers was looted, along with other shops along their block during the civil unrest. Throughout that span of time, many of the businesses that once populated Front Street have closed. But the Ma family has remained and they intend to stay.

“It feels like home here, to be honest,” Steve said.

For over 20 years, the Ma family has witnessed neighborhood disinvestment and decline and are now watching new developments emerge. Today, they say they are optimistic about the changes they see. They also hope that new businesses will begin to reopen along the corridor and that Front Street will return to the vibrance it once knew. 

“All that we know is having a business here, we cannot imagine anything else,” Young said. “What we know is selling jewelry, fixing jewelry, and making jewelry in this neighborhood.”

Editor’s Note: This news article was written and reported on by NKCDC’s Commercial Corridor Manager Lee Nentwig through a community partnership with Kensington Voice. For the next few months, Nentwig plans on spotlighting small businesses in Kensington and the surrounding neighborhoods with support from Kensington Voice staff.

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