By Allison Jones, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - The cash-for-gold competition between two Toronto businesses is heating up as gold prices soar, but jeweller Jack Berkovits says he never thought he would see a rival's employee charged with trying to have him killed.
Berkovits tells a bizarre tale involving a man he thought was a customer informing him he was hired "to blow your brains out," and even the alleged conspirator is an unlikely figure — a 71-year-old woman.
It's been a frightening experience for Berkovits, even though for him it almost defies credulity.
"It's not my understanding that it's common nature for people to go and kill for their boss," he said in a phone interview from Miami, where he is travelling.
Though Berkovits said the competition between his company, Omni Jewelcrafters, and the Jewellery Buyer — right across the street — has been more aggressive of late, the current situation for him began two weeks ago, when meeting with a customer.
Berkovits and the man sat down at a coffee shop — the customer didn't want to meet in the store — and made small talk for a while before the man said he thought Berkovits was a nice person and he couldn't "do it."
Berkovits said he asked what he meant, and when the man said he couldn't kill Berkovits, the stunned jeweller asked why the man would want to kill him.
"Because I was hired to blow your brains out," he recalled the man saying.
Police allege Maria Konstan, 71, an employee of the Jewellery Buyer, hired the would-be hitman. Television viewers in the Toronto area are well-acquainted with the pervasive "Harold the Jewellery Buyer" commercials featuring an eclectic cast of characters and low production values.
Konstan faces two counts each of threatening death or bodily harm and counselling to commit an indictable offence, as well as one count of threatening to damage property. Her case is due to return to court Aug. 20.
Harold "The Jewellery Buyer" Gerstel has not been charged in the case and did not return a call seeking comment.
Konstan used to come into Omni Jewelcrafters for coffee — the jewelry store is part coffee shop — and was friendly, Berkovits said.
"She seemed pleasant enough, and then when the war broke out ... she was very militant from that day on," he said.
"Cursing at my employees, standing in front of our store blocking access to our store — she became (Gerstel's) cheerleader."
The "war" Berkovits refers to started about 15 months ago, when he began advertising that he too was in the cash-for-gold business, he said. Omni Jewelcrafters had been buying jewelry from the public for 35 years, but until recently Berkovits found it in poor taste to advertise that.
"The buying of jewelry generally (was) a transaction that used to be done with people who needed money desperately," he said.
"When gold increased as it has over the last several years, a lot of very, very reputable people who are not desperate started selling their jewelry and it became less of a stigma."
Gold is up 9.4 per cent over last year to $1,199.30 an ounce and last year it was up 24 per cent.
The cash-for-gold business provides a great "counterbalance" for jewellers, Berkovits said. When times are good people buy jewelry. When times are tough they want to sell jewelry for cash, he said.
Combine that with the price of gold and the fact that it's an easy business to set up, it's no wonder so many are getting into it, Berkovits said.
"You're seeing jewelry retailers putting out signs all over the world that we now buy gold," he said.
Gerstel used to be one of two or three cash-for-gold retailers in Toronto, and now that there are dozens if not hundreds of others his competitive tactics have become more aggressive, Berkovits said.
He hired people to stand on each corner at the intersection near their shops wearing Harold the Jewellery Buyer sandwich boards and sometimes they would even park themselves directly in front of Omni Jewelcrafters, blocking the entrance, Berkovits alleged.
Relations between the two prominent members in the area's Orthodox Jewish community weren't always so strained, Berkovits said.
"We've known each other for many, many years," he said.
"I actually gave him tips on how to advertise ... He used to come to me and ask me for tips. I taught him the business."