Smartly dressed and obviously professional, the woman slipped discreetly into Liverpool's foremost pawnbroking establishment, Miltons. Once inside, she wasted no time - taking a beautiful pear-shaped diamond engagement ring off her manicured finger and laying it on the counter.
Brushing her lush dark hair aside, she confided that she needed £3,000 to pay the school fees. The pawnbroker nodded sagely as he peered at the flawless diamond through his jeweller's loupe. The well-spoken woman, who is in her early 40s, lives in an affluent area of Liverpool - but times are hard, and cash is in short supply.
She was embarrassed, but needs must. Indeed, this is an increasingly typical tale. 'The lady came in six weeks ago, requesting a small amount to pay the school fees,' says Haywood Milton, director of Miltons. 'She wanted a discreet, personal service.
She has not yet redeemed the jewellery, but we do expect her to come back for the ring, which was worth in the region of £9,000.
He adds: 'She knew that our service is beautifully simple - it gets people out of a hole when they need a quick bit of cash.'
And, indeed, it is Britain's hard-up middle classes who are increasingly beating a path to the pawnbroker's door. Now, clients are more likely to have a Land Rover and profitrelated bonus than a red gas bill or empty fridge.
'We're seeing professional yummy-mummies in here every day of the week at the moment, coming in to pay for the family summer holiday,' says Milton. 'They're not on the breadline, but they're short of cash to put down the deposit on the villa or for the flights to the Caribbean, and other lines of credit have dried up.'
The credit crunch appears to be biting even at the top end of the scale. A man recently brought an item of jewellery worth a six-figure sum to Miltons, in order to pay the £30,000 deposit outstanding on a new Aston Martin. 'He had a short-term cash flow problem,' says Milton. 'Although he is obviously rather wealthy.'
Another of Milton's clients - a leading light on the Cheshire footballers' wives circuit - admitted that she was funding breast enlargement surgery by hocking her jewels.
Welcome to the world of the upmarket pawnbroker. They are charming, sympathetic, have extremely deep pockets, and are currently very, very busy.
Jim Tannahill, director of Suttons and Robertsons in London's Belgravia, which will lend up to £1m, has seen a huge rise in professional men and women bringing in diamond rings, watches, and other jewellery in return for quick cash.
'A middle-class gentleman in his early 50s came in this week asking for £1,000 in exchange for a pocketwatch and chain,' says Tannahill.
'He was a well-dressed family man, but he needed the cash to help make his monthly mortgage repayment.'
Tannahill says it has long been the case that when the denizens of Belgravia are short of ready money, they make their way to his firm.
Indeed, the company's shop is located conveniently close to Victoria railway station, where once aristocratic clients could pop in for an advance on their way to Monte Carlo.
'This industry is as old as the hills,' he says. 'We are simply lending money using some form of asset to secure the loan. We trade mainly in jewellery, because it is easy to store and retains value.
'Pawnbroking has a rather Dickensian image of the little old lady needing a few pennies for the rent, but we have always operated at the other end of the market.
'Historically, the lords and ladies of Eaton Square would bring their trunks of silver into town to raise a bit of cash, and then they'd take them back for the weekend if they were entertaining. It was a way of keeping up appearances.'
So just how does this ancient industry work?
Pawnbroking dates back 3,000 years to ancient China.
Its famous symbol, the three golden balls, belonged to the coat of arms of the Medicis, the Italian money-lending group that operated throughout Europe.
At Suttons, set up in 1770, loan amounts from £1,000 upwards are given against valuables. Customers have six months to redeem their items and pay three per cent interest on top of the loan - so a £50,000 advance costs £1,500.
The firm has been described as the 'Harrods of pawnbrokers'. In the pledge office, customers are given valuations in a small row of booths with panelled doors, like telephone kiosks in some grand traditional hotel. A little green light indicates whether a booth is occupied.
Below the ancient shop lies a dusty vault full of thousands of small packages containing bracelets, necklaces, earrings and the odd Rolex. Each one represents the temporary solution to a pressing financial problem.
They are carefully labelled with the amount advanced - the average is £2,000 - and a description of the item.
The names on the shelves read like the roll call at an expensive prep school. 'Collins: £5,000, single stone diamond ring. Bingham-Elliot: £2,300, Cartier Pasha watch. Baker: £1,500, diamond set charm bracelet.'
Behind an explosive-proof steel door is the 'silver room', inside which is an old safe. Tannahill opens it to reveal the most valuable jewellery.
A huge diamond ring, deposited by a Russian, secures a £75,000 loan. Dazzling diamond earrings made have earned their owner £100,000 in spending money.
Another diamond ring secures £50,000, which is being used to bridge the finance in a bar-restaurant venture. Beside it sits an exquisite Faberge diamond bracelet set with cabochon sapphires, wrapped in a tatty piece of tissue paper.
A large pink diamond has recently been returned to its owner, who comes from an Arab state. 'It was something to behold,' says Tannahill. 'God alone knows how much it was worth. We lent £250,000. It was a big thing, 40-50 carats. We'll probably see it again, we get a lot of repeat business.'
Indeed, one lady regularly brings in a £200,000 Edwardian diamond tiara, to release a bit of cash when she needs to pay a bill. One family has been pawning the same necklace for three generations.
A pawnbroker generally lends up to half of an item's second-hand resale value, and any items not reclaimed are auctioned off after six months in order to pay the debt.
Rolex watches are prime pawnbroking collateral - they hold their value more than other brands. At any one time, Miltons will have half a million pounds on loan secured by Rolexes alone.
There are no forms to fill in, or awkward bank manager's questions to answer. 'It's a paid-back loan as far as we're concerned,' says Tannahill. 'And we can give you cash today - it's far easier for a lot of our clients than having to go into the bank.'
He points out that modern banks are no longer pleasant to deal with. 'I like to think that once people have got through that initial thing of walking through the door, they feel it's a very friendly process here,' he says.
'Banks are depersonalising their services more and more. They aren't interested in street corner banks. People have to make appointments to see their bank managers. If they come to us they get an instant decision and it's face-to-face.'
Both Suttons and Miltons report that more than half their customers are women - perhaps tempted by the discreet service and looking for a safe place to keep their jewellery.
Some of their clients are instantly recognisable. 'We do get a lot of famous faces in,' says Milton. 'Some footballers - they're usually bringing in an expensive watch.'
New Bond Street Pawnbrokers in London's West End lends against luxury cars, on a 30-day buy-back basis. They will also take artworks and antiques. Hatton Garden Pawnbroker in London's famous jewellery street has given loans on items ranging from a Lamborghini sports cars to a foot-long 17th century ornamental ivory phallus. A broker in Essex took a boat as security.
Friday is the busiest day of the week - many builders use a pawnbroker to raise money to pay labourers when they have a shortfall between incoming and outgoing cash.
At the most prestigious end of the market, pawnbrokers are reporting that business is up 25 per cent over the past two months.
Des Milligan, from the National Pawnbrokers Association, says that with banks lending less money, pawnbrokers have become the lender of choice for many. 'The industry is very busy indeed at the moment,' he says. 'Pawnbrokers are an easy way for people to raise cash in the short term. It is the middle classes who appear to be short of ready money at the moment, which has led to this rise in business.'
Wealth watchdog and Sunday Times Rich List compiler Philip Beresford says that it is little wonder that middle-class business at the pawnbrokers is booming.
'The coping class has become the crisis class in the last year,' he says. 'In their desperation to do the two most important activities for a middle-class family - keep a roof over their heads and pay the school fees, everything is up for sale.
'Many families have already done everything else - they've downsized their bills, abandoned holidays, stopped shopping at Waitrose - and yet still the inexorable rise in the cost of living is killing their finances. And so the pawn shop beckons.
'Even the very affluent City bankers and brokers in London are feeling the squeeze at the moment, with redundancies galore, bonuses slashed and yet very expensive commitments such as school fees and huge mortgages.
'To them, the pawn shop is particularly appealing. Many of the trinkets accumulated over the years of fat can be used in these lean times. It keeps the wolf from the door.'
Beccy Boden Wilks, from National Debtline, which provides independent financial help, says a pawn shop can in fact be a slippery slope.
'It is really worrying that people are using pawnbrokers in order to pay the mortgage or school fees,' she says. 'That means you can't afford your outgoings and need to re-evaluate your finances. There are cheaper ways of borrowing.
'People need to know they might not get their valuables back. If something happens and you can't get the money together in the allotted time, you might end up losing the family treasure.'
That seems a risk many are willing to take. Holly Simpson recently took a diamond and emerald bracelet into her local pawnbrokers. A trainee solicitor, she is buying her first flat in West London. 'I needed to raise a deposit and was £2,000 short,' she says.
'I knew that I would be able to pay the money back from my income within the next few months, but my bank wouldn't lend me any more. The bracelet was left to me by my granny, and she wouldn't have minded.'
She bought the flat and reclaimed her jewellery, proving once more that diamonds are indeed a girl's best friend.
The transaction is not always quite so easy, reveals Tannahill: 'Sometimes, pawnbrokers have to break bad news. 'We do have a terrible problem with fakes,' he says. 'It could be that you come in ready to pay the school fees, and leave determined to seek a divorce.
'Not every diamond engagement ring is all that it seems. That can be a very tricky situation - ladies do get rather angry.'