Inside the Diamond District
by Christina Parrella, 08/20/2014
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Although only a tiny sliver of Midtown, the Diamond District is home to around 2,500 independent jewelers who are renowned for selling some of the world's most precious—and expensive—jewels. Nearly 95% of the diamonds that enter the US pass through the neighborhood, making the area an ideal destination for both consumers and wholesalers—in short, anyone looking for diamonds and jewelry before luxury brands, which purchase these same stones, mark them up to full price.
Located on 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the thoroughfare is a haggler's paradise. And whether you're motivated to purchase, comparison shop or just gawk, you'll find plenty of sparkling wares on display—both loose diamonds and finished pieces—as well as artisans who can help you design your own setting for a stone.
Although the glittering personality of the block has been firmly established since the middle of last century, in earlier times other parts of the City were home to a concentration of dealers. Up to the 1920s, the Financial District's Maiden Lane was the nexus of the diamond industry, a designation it had held since the mid-19th century, when merchants first set up shop downtown. (Many brides-to-be would insist their engagements rings come from there.) Skyrocketing rents forced the industry to relocate further north during that decade, mainly to Canal Street and the Bowery but a few eventually up to Midtown, where some large jewelry buildings had been constructed on 47th Street. During World War II, a time when many in the trade fled Europe for New York City, the migration to 47th Street became complete. Today the neighborhood is filled with expert jewelers, knowledgeable about all aspects of the trade.
Michael Kaufman is one of these master craftsmen. Since 1966, when he started in the industry, Kaufman has cut and finished thousands of diamonds, using a process that has been passed down through generations. He's also seen the number of diamond cutters on the street dwindle from a few thousand to, according to his count, barely 100—meaning he's in possession of some rare skills. (The shift in the industry is due to labor costs; cutting a stone by hand in New York City is much more expensive than it is overseas.)
Kaufman takes pride in his work. As he explains, the business of cutting a stone doesn't come from a how-to guide. "You learn your foundations, and then you have to steal your knowledge," he says. When a client or jeweler brings a stone to him, Kaufman cuts it for maximum weight and clarity, and builds a complementary setting for the finished stone. "Everything in this industry is a secret," Kaufman says. "People pay for the illusion."
While Kaufman operates behind the scenes, there are a number of retailers on the strip with whom shoppers can interact. Two such jewelers, Richard Friedman of I. Friedman & Son and Jack Grant of Jack of Diamonds (the former renowned for creating pieces for the Kennedys; the latter responsible for pieces that were used in the film Rosemary's Baby), hope the district will remain an irreplaceable experience for both New Yorkers and visitors. "It's a great block," Grant says. "Various groups from around the world come here and meld into the fabric of the City."
If you're looking to buy a diamond, make sure to come prepared before venturing into an exchange. Keep the following in mind:
Know the four Cs of diamonds: cut, clarity, color and carat weight. Diamonds are graded based on these four qualities.
When you do buy, consider a GIA-certified diamond, which means that the Gemological Institute of America has examined and certified the stone. Buyers can be assured of the quality and authenticity of the jewel. The GIA does not assess monetary value; for that you need an appraisal based on the four Cs from a jeweler.
Look for the Buyer's Bill of Rights displayed in storefront windows. This certificate indicates that the shop has agreed to abide by a code of principles laid out by the 47th Street Business Improvement District, which in turn has checked out the retailer with the Department of Consumer Affairs.
Most shops are open Monday to Friday from 10:30am to 5:30pm, though a number do business on Saturday and Sunday too. For more tips and information, visit diamonddistrict.org.