Wednesday, December 31, 2014
It's only a block long in the heart of the New York City's theater district and within three blocks of Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and St. Patrick's Cathedral, but West 47th Street between 5th and 6th avenues is where most diamonds imported into the U.S. find a brief home.
It's where they're bought, cut into sparkling jewelry pieces and sold.
If you've done your homework, know what to look for, are careful and good at haggling, the conventional wisdom is that you can save up to 50 percent on diamond and other jewelry purchases in the Diamond District when compared with what department and chain jewelry stores charge.
Few areas of the dynamic city have greater security. Inconspicuous video cameras cover the area like a blanket as police in street clothes and privately-hired security personnel keep an eye on shoppers and pedestrians.
On a sunny fall afternoon, the area had the feel of an ancient bazaar. Wall-to-wall people straddled both sides of the street. Brightly-lit windows displayed all kinds of diamond jewelry, and when stopping to look at one, invariably we'd be approached by a hawker, urging us to enter his place.
In several establishments, attempts to take pictures were discouraged by tough-looking, plainclothes security men.
About 2,600 independent businesses populate the narrow street. Many dealers are Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who still consummate their sales the old-fashioned way — with a handshake. By-laws of the Diamond Dealers Club, which arbitrates disputes, stipulate "any oral offer is binding among dealers, when agreement is expressed by the accepted words 'Mazel and Broche.' " (Yiddish for "good luck and blessing.")
In anthropologist author Renee Shield's book, "Diamond Stories: Enduring Change of 47th Street," she writes, "The diamond, a pebbly object transformed into a twinkling, astronomically priced jewel, has allowed Jews to transform themselves from rejected refugees of one country to respected businessmen of another."
Fleeing the Nazi Wehrmacht as it moved toward Antwerp and Amsterdam in the early '40s, they brought with them an expertise in cutting, setting and polishing diamonds. New York's Hasidim were attracted to the newcomers, and what grew into a lucrative business where they could work, pray and socialize with individuals with similar traditions.
Forty-seventh street was part of the city's garment district before World War II. Literally speaking, what has emerged in 70-plus years from those common interests is an extraordinary rags-to-riches tale, chronicling the development of the one-block area as America's diamond capital.
Some 60,000 jobs could be affected if the district were ever to fade away. Some 35,000 people work on the block itself and 25,000 more support its businesses. Examples: gemological institutes, restaurants, security companies and delivery services, among others.
Talk to merchants and you learn these are not the best of times for the trade. Globalization has wrought increased competition from lower- priced labor operations in China and India.
Internet entrepreneurs plus the availability of look-alike manufactured gems also have impacted the street, and "Blood Diamonds," a 2009 movie, depicting how diamonds fuel warlords' crimes in West Africa, did not help.
The business used to be simple, dealers say, but a retail sale today usually involves considerable paperwork, including a gemological certification, appraisal, written guarantee and receipt.
For assurance of a diamond's authenticity and rating, one need only go around the corner to 580 Fifth Ave., headquarters of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), considered the benchmark diamond authority.
"We don't appraise them," said an institute spokeswoman. "That's a different specialty. We only grade and certify a gem's quality."
The GIA grading price depends on the size of the diamond. It can range as little a $32 for a 15-point stone to $105 for a carat. The going price on the street for an appraisal is $75 per carat.
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