Jewelers Suite JHJ Magazine

The Street –How NYC’s diamond district evolved into the jewelry trade’s epicenter

Written by Diana Jarrett

In midtown Manhattan, on a single stretch of West 47th St. stands a microcosm of the world. Friends converse, and business is conducted, often on the street itself. Tiny luncheonettes tucked inside street level corridors cater mainly to the Kosher crowd, serving at breakneck speed so diners can resume their dizzying work pace. Often, million-dollar transactions are sealed with a handshake and “mazel and bracha.”

Shoppers forging a path through countless small booths occupying each building may stop at one, asking if they have something like a diamond chain. The salesperson behind the counter could say, “yes, wait just a minute,” while they go to another booth or even down the street to find what the customer wants. Both merchants make a bit on that deal. It’s all a part of a unique business tempo dominated by Orthodox Jews much as it would have been in eastern European markets of centuries ago. During particularly bustling times, one hears a cacophony of languages spoken synchronously along the busy sidewalks while deals are being completed.

This 21st century diamond destination has seemingly been impervious to the urban transformation affecting every other square foot of real estate in Manhattan. Somehow even the Covid-19 lockdown in New York City came to terms with keeping ‘The Street” humming.

“Here, in New York City’s Diamond District,” reported Bloomberg in June 2020, “where you can buy everything from a gold chain for a few hundred bucks to a diamond-encrusted Hublot for $709,005, business continues unabated — the coronavirus be damned. It was true during the height of the pandemic. And it’s still true now, as the rest of the city gingerly steps out from lockdown.”

For the novice, it helps to understand the nuanced underpinnings of how the Street works. New York’s diamond district operates like an expert choreography of closely networked middlemen. Diamantaires oversee the buying and selling of massive hordes of new diamond goods not unlike the way traders buy and sell down on Wall Street. The convenience of diamond’s hefty value to their physical size makes them supremely portable. While trust in a transaction is essential to keep things flowing, occasionally a bad apple infiltrates the street and absconds with high value goods taken on memo.

Yes, diamonds are extremely portable, and desirable anywhere in the world—and they might be untraceable as well. Recutting a stone and breaking up jewelry pieces could result in anonymity with absconded goods. But the Street also has a way of dealing with these unscrupulous souls. Word travels quickly from the Diamond Dealers Club on 47th Street to bourses around the globe. It’s not unheard of to witness business men on the street standing in front of a police car where a just caught bad-actor was taken into custody. But first—they stall the squad car long enough to allow everyone a good look inside—before it drives away.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change” Albert Einstein is quoted as saying.

Throughout time-pandemic not withstanding—47th Street has found ways of continuing to thrive no matter what, and has resisted folding during periods of economic downturn. It’s a fascinating facet to this city’s unique character. There simply is no other place like it. But it wasn’t always on 47th Street—and it wasn’t always in its current iteration. It has evolved over time—which was key to its survivability. Change happened elsewhere in New York–and it happened in the diamond trade.

The diamond district went through a few metamorphoses before arriving in its current iteration. It was always bustling, just doing it in another part of the island. Its current setting on West 47th Street was the result of diamond merchants migrating farther north from lower Manhattan near Canal Street and the Bowery during the 1920s. There are still some old remaining jewelry shops on Canal Street today, mixed in with other merchants of course.

Then, around 1931, lower Manhattan near Fulton and Nassau became occupied with diamond dealers, as was Maiden Lane, one of the earliest streets in New York, dating to the 18th century.  When rents there began heading north, so did the jewelers. Drastic leasing hikes with the consolidation of the financial district sent diamantaires packing. Its current location became even more important when thousands of Jewish diamond dealers fled war torn Europe during World War II. So, by the early 1940s, the Street was a dominant force in our trade. The Diamond Dealers Club, a members-only diamond exchange moved there as did its own synagogue—and the rest, as they say is a sparkling history.

This remarkable little slice of Manhattan is a must-see for those in our trade when you’re in the city. Its endurance and sustainability during New York City’s continuous evolution stands as a fascinating testament to perseverance. When nearby Times Square suffered its grungy decline in the 1970s and 1980s, high crime peaked, with peep shows providing the backdrop for street walkers—the diamond district remained staid.

A visit to 47th street today just around the corner from posh 5th Avenue’s tony retailers, takes one back to another—more lively time and place than those subdued manicured stores on 5th.  Gemological Institute of America (GIA) established an educational campus on the Street as well as locating GIA Lab there. According to GIA, 90% of the diamonds in the US have passed through this portal. Currently, they estimate there are 2,600 jewelers in the diamond district.

Whether or not you ever traded in New York, and in particular on the Street, you get the sense of throngs of untold stories that unfolded here, with every step you take. Certainly, it is navigating the invisible challenge of operating during a pandemic to find its equilibrium like everyone. Still, the diamond district is a living tribute to the value of family business, the importance of community and most of all, the virtue of trust.