Gut instinct, charming manner and a Yul Brenner-like profile have served Yossi Dina well over his 53 years. The former Israeli army commando and son of a Tel Aviv baker has, after a quarter-century of collateral lending in Los Angeles, been dubbed "Pawnbroker to the Stars." Don't bother bringing him grandpa's pocket watch in hopes of a quick $100. Befitting its address, Dina's South Beverly-Wilshire Jewelry & Loan specializes in loans sometimes million-dollar loans backed by Bulgari watches, van Gogh paintings and vintage Porsches. Dina and his staff do more than help out temporarily cash-strapped film stars and Bel Air matrons. His loans have helped finance film productions and have enabled art galleries to quickly pounce on a hot acquisition. Even some high net worth individuals, weary of stock market volatility, are investing cash into Dina's businesses, such as the Dina Collection, which showcases estate sale gems from the likes of the late Lana Turner, a former customer. The onetime workaholic has learned to scale back in recent years, and spends down time with nearly daily sweat-drenched Bikram yoga classes and with runs on the beach outside his historic Malibu beach house, built by singing and film legend Al Jolson in the 1920s.


Question: You don't appear to wear too much of your own jewelry, do you?

Answer: No, just watches, but important watches. And this good luck charm (hanging from his neck on a leather cord), which was a gift. I don't like jewelry on me, which is a funny thing to say about someone who sells very expensive jewelry. It's a personality thing. I might wear a watch with a lot of diamonds to an important event to show off, but it's for fun. I wouldn't do it every day.

Q: Do you sometimes keep a piece of art for yourself?

A: A few times a year I'll take something home for myself. I like impressionists. I collect watches, about six or seven right now. I just bought this Patek Philippe 2499 for $400,000.

Q: Did you get a deal on that?

A: It was a deal because it will keep going up in value, big time. And if I ever need the money, I can sell it.

Q: Any of your family in the business?

A: Nobody in my family wants to be me. They hate my business. I offered my brother the chance, and he said he would not take it as a gift. They don't want my stress, they don't want my life. You have to love this business; you have to have a passion. You cannot just do it because you have to do it.

Q: What does it take to be good at what you do?

A: I have a good instinct for what people like and will buy. I look at you and I know what I can sell you. I would not waste my time showing you a piece like that (pointing to a $50,000 watch), no offense.

Q: No offense taken, but this store, not to mention your office, looks pretty humble to be selling preowned Harry Winston necklaces like that one you just showed me.

A: I'm working on that. I've been in this building 15 years and we really outgrew it five years ago. I have items in storage that I bring out for important customers as needed. We are moving down the street to a new building, hopefully by June. It will be large enough to keep the jewelry and the pawnshop separate. I'll have a larger office, where I can serve champagne, give the big customers a good experience. You know, if you are spending $500,000 you want to be treated like you are at Harry Winston's. I can't do that here.

Q: Your office also looks rather low tech for the millions of dollars that flows though it. How do you keep track of everything?

A: I have a cell phone, but I don't use a computer. I have an e-mail address, but my employees print out the e-mails for me to deal with. I suppose I will learn when I start going back to Israel for part of the year and need to keep track of the business. Right now I use spiral notebooks, the 150-sheet ones. I write down everything I have to do, daily notes. I go through one every two weeks.

Q: How's that working for you?

A: I'm sure a computer would be better. I'm always losing paper, losing numbers. But you know, I always catch up.

Q: Aside from your price points, what makes you different than the stereotypes many people have about a pawnbroker?

A: What makes me different is that I appreciate this stuff. I don't try to kill people. I don't cheat people who come in and are desperate. I might give them 80 percent sometimes of the value (which is more than typical) because I know I can sell it for a lot more eventually. Average pawnshops look at this piece (the Harry Winston necklace) and they see diamonds and gold. They look at that piece, and it's only worth $100,000 to them. But I look at this piece, and I see that it's a Harry Winston and it's a beautiful piece. I know what the market is. I know that I can sell it for much more.

Q: How did you come by that knowledge?

A: Experience. I didn't grow up around this stuff. My father was a baker in Jaffa and I had eight brothers and sisters. My father died when I was 13 and I went to the kibbutz to help my family out. After school I worked as a farmer in the afternoon, growing cotton. It was a good life, difficult, but good. After graduation I was in the army for three years. I was a parachutist with the commandos. And then I worked two years in Paris for the Israeli government. Security work.

Q: How did you end up in L.A.?

A: I went to university to become a criminal lawyer, but during summer break I came to America to visit my bother in New York. Five of us got in the car and drove west to Los Angeles. It took two months. We ran out of money in Arizona and I sold my ticket back home. I was stuck.

Q: What did you do?

A: A friend with a jewelry store had me selling gold chains and other jewelry door to door, in Inglewood and some not-so-safe places in town. It was $5, $10, $20 jewelry. I eventually got very good at it, and opened my own first store on San Vicente Boulevard 27 years ago.

Q: Where did you get the money?

A: I had investors. I still have investors today, but on a much larger scale. Say you have $100,000, the bank is only going to give you 4 percent. I give my investors 14 percent. They know they cannot lose. I also get money from banks, because they trust my business. I may be down $500,000 in an account today but my bank won't bounce my check. They know the money will be there. It's all about building good relationships.

Q: How did you become knowledgeable about art?

A: A few years after I opened my first jewelry store, I was dating this beautiful girl named Susan. Her father was a big collector and she was a big buyer. I used to go to auctions with her, see the art at her house and fell in love with art.

Q: How did you branch out into the collateral loan business?

A: I never went in to the business to be a pawnbroker. I sold mainly new jewelry for the first three years. But people would come to me and cry that they didn't want to sell this piece of jewelry, it was in the family but they needed the money. So I started saying, "You don't want to sell the jewelry? Let me loan you the money with the jewelry for collateral." Later, I bought jewelry from other pawnshops and estate sales to sell privately to other people. I eventually got the idea that if I opened my own pawnshop, people would not have to sell their jewelry.

Q: How has the economic downturn affected your business?

A: Pawnshops are a leading indicator of where the economy is going. The people who buy from me today are the people who have a lot of money. It's easier for me to sell a $200,000 watch these days than a $10,000 watch.

Q: Because the person who would be in the market for a $10,000 watch doesn't have the money to buy one?

A: Yes. It's been that way for more than three months. But the rich people, they always buy. Foreigners are among my best customers. They appreciate a good deal and with the dollar down, they are able to get more of one now.


Q: What's the most unusual thing you've loaned on?

A: An English lord's title, 10 years ago. He actually sold it to me for $50,000, but I gave him the chance to buy it back. Wish I had never done it. I could have sold it for millions of dollars. I was stupid.

Q: Do you acquire Hollywood memorabilia?

A: I once did a loan on a best picture Oscar. And I just acquired a Maltese cross that Lucille Ball used to wear all the time.

Q: I understand you personally own a pair of Yul Brenner's slippers from "The King & I."

A: And the dress (robe). I wore them to a (legendary agent) Freddie Fields party eight years ago. My date dressed as the teacher in the film. I had a $400 makeup artist come over to the house, for the first time in my life.

Q: What amazes you about your business?

A: The beauty of this business is you don't know what you'll get here. People never know what they have, though with the Internet they often have a better idea. But I had his lady come in the other day with this beautiful ring. She says she doesn't want to sell it, but she figures it's a $5,000 to $7,000 ring, she doesn't need it and her daughter doesn't want it. I asked her, "Do you know what kind of stone this is?" She says, "Yeah, it's a ruby." I said, "No darling, it's a red diamond; $1.5 million." She almost died on me.

Q: Is that part of what jazzes you about the business?

A: What I love is the deal. It's like sex to me. I love what I do. It's a sickness, but I know how to separate my business from my personal life. I go home at 6 p.m., nobody knows my number. I don't work Saturday or Sunday anymore. You have to have a life. I used to be a workaholic; I'm not anymore.

Q: When did start paying more attention to work-life balance?

A: Four years ago. I used to be here until 10 p.m. I don't know why I changed, maybe my age. You figure out at a certain age that you can't take the money with you.

Q: You used to work on Saturday, the Jewish Shabbat?

A: It was my best day, when I was in the shop. I didn't feel I could close the store on Saturday. But people always told me, don't work on the Shabbat and it will triple your business. When I finally stopped working myself on Saturday, my business doubled just like that. I still keep the shop open on Saturday, but I'm not here.

Q: What is your spiritual life like?

A: I go to temple on Saturday, and I pray every day. I've been a yogi for 28 years, and I meditate. I believe in karma and it guides how I run my business. Sooner or later, what you do will always come back to you.

Q: So yoga is one of the things you do for fun?

A: Yoga is not fun. I've been five days this week and I'll probably do six. I have done Bikram yoga for 28 years, I was one of (founder Bikram Choudhury's) first 100 students. I have a very stressful business. It's a therapy for me. I need it.

Q: So now that you go home four hours earlier, what do you do with that extra time?

A: I enjoy taking my girlfriend out to dinner and watching the sunset. I live in Malibu. I have an amazing house on the beach that was built by Al Jolson. You know the movie "Spanglish"? That was my house on the beach. I like to get home early so I can have a glass of wine and watch the sun set. I like to cook dinner. I have friends, three or four couples, where we have dinner at a different house each week. I'm not a flashy guy. I drive a very simple car, a Range Rover. You don't get tickets in a Range Rover in Malibu it's a ladies' car. When I used to drive a Ferrari, I'd get a ticket every other day.

Yossi Dina

Title: Owner

Business: South Beverly-Wilshire Jewelry & Loan

Born: 1954; Jaffa, Israel

Most Influential Person: A captain in the Israeli army who taught him the importance of mental discipline in getting what you want

Career Turning Point: Taking a job
selling jewelry door-to-door in South L.A. after his money ran out during a trip to the U.S. in the 1970s

Hobbies: Yoga, running on beach,
collecting art and watches, cooking for friends

Personal: Never married, lives in Malibu

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