Tuesday 21 May 2019

How to buy a rock

“To try on a ring is to be reminded of one’s complicity. Beauty is often linked to violence in some way," writes J Jezewska Stevens in The Paris Review. Read on: 

There’s a self-contained atmosphere, a throwback sense of endurance, on West Forty-Seventh Street. It’s an attitude that fewer and fewer Midtown streets can claim; most of Manhattan seems to be converging on the sterile luxury of Hudson Yards. But on this modest one-block stretch, bookended by Fifth and Sixth, there are no experience spaces, whitewashed cafés, or glassy high-rises that double as malls. The storefronts are cramped, indifferent, tinged with elbow grease. The famous arcades, where narrow aisles maximize the number of jeweler’s booths, are brassy but austere—at least in comparison to the corporate mansions of Tiffany’s and Cartier. On Forty-Seventh, the whole street buzzes with the modest energy of the hustle, which only serves to heighten the intrigue of the diamonds on display.

When The Daily asked if I’d be interested in writing a piece of participatory journalism inspired by my story “Honeymoon,” I thought immediately of the Diamond District. My friends are getting engaged. They’re married with children. I find myself, like the newlywed narrator of that story (who happens to work behind a jewelry counter), at a stage of life when the idea of diamonds weighs heavily on the mind. I wondered if the District might strike me differently than it did a few years ago, when I used to pass through it on my old commute. I was working then as an analyst and coder on Forty-Eighth. The hours were demanding, and more than once I found myself walking through the District after midnight. I remember the naked mannequin hands, the ghostly grated windows. There was a sense of possibility in the abandoned displays.

Now, in the lunch-hour rush, in the first manifestation of spring, the street is anything but deserted. When I arrive, hawkers in gold chains and jeans hover in doorways. You buying? Selling? Buying? A weary shopper steadies herself against a length of scaffolding to swap a pair of lacy heels for a set of leopard-print flats, while a vendor directs a client around the corner for a meal. Kosher Deluxe! A woman in knee-high black boots, trailed by a beau in Burberry plaid, is immediately engulfed as she tries to cross the street. She’s ushered into Fantasy Diamonds on the corner of Sixth Ave.

The diamond trade has a long and venerable history in New York, and it hasn’t always been centered in Midtown. Until the twenties, the heart of the industry lay just north of Wall Street, on Maiden Lane. Additional outposts prospered on Canal, where a few noble holdouts can still be found today. At the fin de siècle, when financial institutions began to edge their way into the neighborhood, rents rose, and real estate developers broke ground on Forty-Seventh, erecting art deco lofts with the express intention of attracting diamond vendors. After the Nazi invasions of Belgium and Netherlands, a wave of refugees brought a fresh influx of jewelers and wholesalers to the city’s diamond community, which had by this time firmly consolidated in Midtown. Today, as then, the district remains largely Dutch, Belgian, Jewish, and Orthodox; on Shabbat, many of the booths are closed.

A stone’s origins are often elusive. Over 90 percent of diamonds imported to the United States now pass through Forty-Seventh, and as of 2003, according to a piece of Bush-era legislation known as the Kimberley Process, those stones are supposed to be conflict-free. But when a diamond changes hands eight to ten times on the journey from gem mine to display case, this is next to impossible to guarantee. Consumers seeking absolute reassurance are probably best off dealing in the District’s antiques or buying synthetics, though even this can lead to paradox: some argue that in places like the Congo—where entire communities depend on revenue from certified mines, diamond boycotts, or shifts to synthetic stones—this only makes things worse. To try on a ring is to be reminded of one’s complicity. Beauty is often linked to violence in some way.


I visit a few times. The first is on a Saturday. The half-empty arcades turn out to be a boon for a woman shopping alone. On this quiet afternoon, vendors are more likely to speak to an inauspicious customer like myself. As a saleswoman slips an empty band onto my ring finger and sets a grade-D stone into the crown, she leans forward to deliver a trade secret. “People aren’t going to pay attention to you,” she says, referring to the fact that I’ve arrived without an escort. “Don’t you care what they think. You try on your rings.” The advice comes so quickly, and so sincerely, that in my appreciation I almost forget to tell her I’m here as a writer, not a fianceé.

All the women in the arcade are going through the same exercise. We try on empty bands (the most popular choice is white gold) while salespeople use tweezers to settle princess stones into the crowns. Whereas retail outlets like Tiffany’s or Zales might host a greater variety of designs, the same quality stone will come at a substantial markup. (For other reasons to avoid retail chains, look no further than New York Magazine’s exposé on sexual harassment and gender discrimination at Zales, Kay, and other subsidiaries of Sterling Jewelers Inc.) In other words: what we’re really shopping for here are not rings, but the diamonds themselves. The jewels emerge from small manila envelopes, nestled into hole-punched tags that record the clarity, karat, and cut; in any given price range, as the size increases, the quality falls. An honest vendor will set two stones side-by-side on a white index card to reveal a hint of yellow, or offer a magnifying glass to point out a carbon inclusion.

This street-level pluck—vendors coaxing customers, customers bargaining for deals—is the most salient and immediate theater, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole ecosystem thriving above the arcades. Tucked above the shops are diamond setters and cutters and wholesalers, upscale boutiques on upper floors that show by appointment only. From the sidewalk, the entrance to the headquarters of GIA, the premier gem-grading agency, is a notable anomaly: bright lobby, security guards, gleaming elevator bank.

The density and diversity of tradesmen means that everything one needs to make a ring from scratch can be found on this one block. For Peter Germano, who has spent over forty years in the business, this is one of the best parts of both the District and his job. “I just walk down the street,” he says, if he needs a band or setting, or if a wholesaler calls him to assess a stone just arrived from Liberia. It’s casual, brisk, efficient; he can visit on his way for coffee. But beneath the breeziness of these negotiations lies a complex network. “It’s all about relationships,” Germano says. It strikes me that his no-nonsense affability serves him well on these errands—he’s easy to talk to, but he’s not a man with time to waste. When he was just starting out, he tells me, he used to pass a storefront whose display was nearly empty. “And I thought to myself, now that’s success.” The owner paid the premium for prime, street-level real estate only to eschew advertising to passersby, suggesting an indifference to operating costs that today makes Germano smile. “I thought, I want to be as successful as that.”

Germano, who now runs a ninth-floor boutique on the corner of Forty-Seventh and Fifth, also started out at street level (“the street”), though you “couldn’t pay him” to go back. He explains the etiology of the sort of hustle I noted there: rent is expensive. Storefronts trade at twenty to thirty thousand a month, and this puts serious pressure on the salespeople at the counter. Having secured a customer’s attention, everyone is trying to prevent a potential buyer from flipping to what is called a “be back,” someone who promises she’ll come back for a ring but doesn’t. “It’s a sales game,” Germano says, and he insists that the secret is as simple as honesty. Whatever his strategy, it seems to have worked. During his years behind a booth, he managed to curate a loyal clientele. Now he no longer needs to advertise via the arcades. The rent and the view are superior up here, where he depends on word of mouth, not walk-ins.

The claim to uniqueness is ubiquitous in the Diamond District: “He’s not your typical Forty-Seventh Street guy,” Germano’s assistant told me when I called to set up an interview, “you can talk to him.” Meanwhile, in the arcades, vendors are forever warning you against the tricks other sellers will try to pull. But the assistant’s assessment strikes me as sincere. Germano is casual but authoritative, with a disarming fuggedaboutit charisma. Looking around his office, it’s hard not to be taken in by the gallery of cards, pictures, and thank-you notes that fill his walls. Couples have sent photos of proposals on mountaintops and sea-sides. A card eases open to reveal the message: I love my rockstar earrings! (The signature, “J Lo,” is a joke.)

I ask Germano if, with gentrification putting the squeeze on small retailers throughout the five boroughs, he thinks the Diamond District will endure. “Of course,” he says. Then he pauses. There are some empty storefronts up for rent. “You never used to see that,” he says. But for the most part, the District has weathered the decline of retail fairly well. He hands me a thimble-size magnifying glass to detect an inclusion in an SI-2 stone—it’s hard to buy a diamond over the internet. “But online comments help,” he says. “That’s new.” And word of mouth on the web casts a wider net. “We get a lot of people from Ireland, Israel, and the UK,” he says.

When I wrote “Honeymoon,” I did not have the famous De Beers slogan—“A diamond is forever”—in mind. I was thinking about contingency and doubt; about how love, like faith, might be understood as a constant negotiation. I was thinking about how art, like any object of desire, changes depending on where and when we see it in the context of our own lives. I was wondering whether love, like art—or like the Catholic idea of divine grace—also exists as a function of time and setting and chance, or at least more so than we’d like to admit. And if there’s some truth to any of the above, if the matters of the heart are constantly in flux, then it seems to me one has to make the decision to stay in love again and again. It’s a process, rather than a discrete moment when rings are exchanged. Like all processes, it will eventually come to a stop, or else extend forever—in that sense, perhaps De Beers was not so far off. Anyway, we all exaggerate in love. But diamonds, too, I learn, are not without contingencies. They depend on the light, on their cut and luster, the tendency to retain smut. Germano steams the crown of a princess stone dimmed by the oily residue of fingerprints. I am surprised to learn that diamonds can even be repaired. “Of course,” he says.

The charm of the Diamond District, I think, is this: it’s alarmingly easy to talk. Amid the chaos, everyone is carving out a private conversation that feels secret, intimate. People here listen; they make you feel special. Back in the arcades, I see princess stones, oval stones, bands in rose and white gold. A saleswoman asks me how I shop for clothes. Do I look at how they’re made, the quality? Do I turn garments inside out to check the seams? I watch another sell a ring to a family of tourists laden with bags. The wife is debating, and they’re already late for a Broadway show. “As a friend, I’d take it,” the saleswoman says. As a friend! She’s not a friend, I think. Then it’s my turn at the counter, and I fall immediately under her spell. She’s always been a saleswoman, she tells me. She tells me a lot of things. Like any skilled fiction writer, she establishes authority by becoming more vulnerable herself: “Let me tell you something you’d never expect,” she says. Twenty years ago, she worked in cosmetics, and she was on her way to a job interview at Saks when someone stopped her right here on Forty-Seventh. He happened to be one half of the pair of brothers that owns the booth we’re standing at now. She points out the window, toward the street, to the setting of the serendipitous scene. “He asked me, You need a job? Can you believe it? Of course I need a job!” She’d been in the U.S. all of two weeks. “He says to me, I’m looking for someone like you.”

Let me tell you something you’d never expect: This isn’t my first time shopping for an engagement ring. When I was eleven, I went with my father to an Indianapolis mall to buy one for my mother. My parents have—and had—been married for many years. I remember we brought the ring home in a little velvet box. My mother has an academic’s sense of humor—she’s the kind of woman who wears plastic brontosaurus earrings to work. My parents hadn’t bought wedding rings until six years after they tied the knot, and even then only because my grandmother had dropped a bewildered hint to my aunt: “Is it a real marriage,” she’d asked, “if they don’t have rings?” She asked with the same concern she’d once directed toward my mother’s Ph.D. in biochemistry. “When will you have you learned enough that you can teach high school?”

I called my mom to ask what she felt when she unhinged that box to find such a belated, ostentatious gift, a sapphire on a white-gold band. It’s the most expensive item she’s ever owned. “At first,” she said, “when I opened it, I thought, it’s way too much. Too much for little old me.” She thought for a moment. “But then when I saw how excited your father was to be able to give me that gift, well …” She trailed off, and in the silence on the line, I was reminded that perhaps the best way to stay in love is to learn how to accept, to gracefully receive.

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