HOUSTON (AP) _ Pawnbroker Jean Davis twirled a diamond-fringed, 18-karat gold men's Rolex watch, one of dozens left at his store by the oilpatch's newly poor.

''They hate to see that Rolex go,'' he said. ''But the last thing to go is the wife's Rolex, because that could cost a divorce.''

Once a status symbol of high-flying, money-making good times, Rolex watches have become a common sight in Houston pawnshops, some of which have posted signs offering to buy or pawn the high-status timepieces.

Most pawnshop owners say the boom in second-hand watches began about 18 months to two years ago and shows few signs of letting up.

''This was a guy in the oil business,'' said Davis, waving the newly acquired, diamond-decorated ''President's'' watch that sold new for nearly $15,000. Another watch belonged to a stockbroker, yet another to a real estate agent, he said.

Each one came with a tale of financial downfall, Davis said.

''Nobody wants to come in and just borrow money, they want to come in and tell you how they got poor,'' he said.

''They all come in with a story, and if I don't hear the story, they won't sell the watch,'' said Anthony Petkas, who runs A&P Pawn & Jewelry. ''If they would just come in and not give me any stories, I'd give them more money.''

The pawnshop operators have observed a ripple effect in the area's economic downturn.

''First you saw the executives, then you saw their bosses,'' said Davis, whose firm is called Diamond Liquidators. ''We're now seeing a lot of real estate people come in, since the oil people have already gone bad.''

Berle Landow, who opened his pawnshop about a year ago, says his Rolex business has been strong.

''The day I opened they started coming in with them'' Landow said. ''Usually it's the same story - oil industry.''

''I think people are going back to the real life,'' said Gary Morgan, owner of Morgan Pawn Shop. ''Right now, there is no flash, no cash, no work.''

Most Houston shops prefer to buy the Rolex watches and limit loans to $300.

Pawnshops usually offer sellers about 30 to 40 percent of the watches' original value, and resell them for about 50 percent of their original value, shop owners say.

The most common Rolex watches sell new for between $1,000 to $10,000, although they can sell for much more with diamonds and other options, according to John Flaherty, attorney for Rolex in New York.

Landow, who buys three to four Rolexes a week, said he has a waiting list of ''average lay people'' eager to buy a second-hand watch - ''the guy who still has the $4-an-hour job.''