Sunday, April 11, 2010
ALL THAT GLITTERS: NEW YORK'S DIAMOND DISTRICT
A detour through Forty-seventh Street between 5th and 6th Avenues is an extraordinary assault on the senses. Flanked by two huge Diamond-tipped pillars on either end, stumbling upon The Diamond District is like finding a bazaar amidst all the midtown media conglomerates and office buildings.
Business is conducted in several languages; Russian, Spanish, Chinese. Each doorstep reveals merchants on cell phones or smoking a cigarette. Men wearing heavy gold chains hand out flyers as they bellow monotonously, “We buy diamonds, we buy gold.” Wildly different architectural styles stand side by side: Beaux Arts, Art Deco, International Style. Armored vehicles with precious cargo lumber in and out. Couples walk hand in hand, oblivious to the chaos. The women eye the rings while the men eye the pretty girls, peering out from shop windows as they arrange the sparkling goods. Hasidic men dressed in black stride past tourists wearing I LOVE NY t-shirts. If rumors are true, the brown paper sacks tucked under the arms of men dressed in understated suits may be hiding a glittering cache of gems or just a pastrami sandwich.
And at the end of the street a Pomeranian dog named Pepe is perched on a chest by a kiosk. But only on sunny days. “Pepe don’t like the cold,” his owner explains.
I have been fascinated by this block for years, and never seemed to find much historical information about it, apart from a few lurid headlines and some facts and figures about diamond sales. But talking with two dealers from Rick Shatz Inc. who have been in the diamond business for 30 years provided some insight. In an office filled with black velvet lined boxes of “Fancy Yellow” diamonds, photos of family on the walls and stacks of paperwork, Rick and “Uncle Fish” talked about the industry, past and present. They explained how diamond-cutting techniques were traditionally passed down from father to son. As they spoke, they cut each other off and filled in each other’s blanks with the type of familiarity that long-term friendship inspires.
They both agreed that the internet is the greatest catalyst of change in the diamond industry.
“It used to be that there was a personal connection,” said Rick. “A guy would travel all over the world, carrying his diamonds for sale. Now there’s no need. You can get on the internet, put in an order, and in a day get what you want. It’s good for the consumers, who are more educated about diamonds than ever. But there is a loss of personal connection. It used to be that a son would buy an engagement ring from the same man that his father did. There was a sense of tradition. That has faded a little.”
After leaving their office, I took Steve Kilnisan’s Diamond District tour, the only one-hour, one-block tour in the City. Turns out that the Diamond District is a true rags to riches tale. According to Mr. Kilnisan, in the late 1800’s it was a rag district, where rags were cut, washed and sold. By the 1920’s publishing houses had moved in. Playwright Eugene O’Neill used to have a working studio there, where he’d make last minute revisions and rush back to the theatre district. Diamond shops began springing up by the mid-1950’s. The area nearly shifted again in the 1990s. After 42nd street had been revamped into a family-friendly center, the adult entertainment industry tried to set up shop on 47th street. This was avoided by registering the synagogues in the area, like the tiny Radio City Synagogue. By invoking a zoning law that states no adult oriented business can be within 500 feet of a house of worship, the Diamond District was spared an influx of peep shows.
After the tour I popped into the National Jewelers Exchange. On the second floor there is a kosher restaurant called "The Diamond Dairy of New York". Deals are made over tuna fish sandwiches and noodle pudding. A seat by the window overlooks the diamond exchange below. Jewels shine as they are brought out from behind glass cases. Customers in all manner of clothes; fatigues, heels and suits come in and examine the goods. There is laughter in one stall and serious discussion in the next. Angie the waitress, wearing a big red flower in her hair and matching lipstick surveyed the scene with me. With a little sigh she said,
“Beautiful aren’t they? All those jewels. I come in here to work every day. Sometimes I succumb and buy something. I got the prettiest garnets the other day. How they sparkle! I figure, you can’t put it all in the bank, right?”