Shopping for diamonds in New York is a glittering experience

LA Times | Travel

It's only a block long near the heart of New York's theater district, but most diamonds imported into the United States find a brief home on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. This is where they're acquired, brokered, exchanged, cut into sparkling jewelry pieces and sold. If you've done ...

By Si Liberman // 12.16.08

It's only a block long near the heart of New York's theater district, but most diamonds imported into the United States find a brief home on 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. This is where they're acquired, brokered, exchanged, 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, maybe even more, on diamond and other jewelry purchases in the diamond district compared with department and chain jewelry-store prices.

As a shopper's bazaar, few areas of the dynamic city have more security. Inconspicuous video cameras dot the area as police in street clothes and privately hired security personnel mix with shoppers and pedestrians.

On a sunny afternoon the area had the feel of an ancient bazaar. People jammed both sides of the street. When you stopped to check out a window display, invariably an employee would approach with a business card and an invitation to "come on in." The stores and jewelry exchanges appeared fairly busy, and dodging hawkers was an intermittent challenge.

There are 25 jewelry exchanges, each with as many as 100 independent jewelers operating out of separate booths.

At several establishments, attempts to take pictures were discouraged by tough-looking security men in plain clothes. At Golda Jewelry Co. (29 W. 47th St.), however, the mother/daughter co-owners, Diana and Amanda, were coaxed into posing behind a display case with the suggestion that, if published, their photo could bring in new customers.

Golda is just one of the 2,600 independent businesses populating the narrow street.

Ninety-five percent of the owners are Jewish, according to Stephen Kilnisan, a stubby bearded jewelry designer and dealer who formerly conducted weekly one-hour diamond district tours.

Many of the dealers are Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who still consummate their sales the old-fashioned way, with a handshake. Bylaws of the Diamond Dealers Club, which arbitrates disputes, stipulate that "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 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 waves of anti-Semitism in the early 1940s as the German army approached Antwerp and Amsterdam diamond centers, they landed in New York with an expertise in cutting, setting and polishing diamonds. Here they could freely work, pray and socialize with people of their own faith and traditions.

Forty-Seventh Street was part of the city's garment district then. Literally speaking, what has emerged in the following 65 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 with a hefty slice of the worldwide $143 billion jewelry industry.

Kilnisan estimates that some 60,000 jobs would be affected if the district were ever to fade away. He comes up with that number, adding the 35,000 people who work on the block itself and 25,000 more who support its businesses. Examples: gemological institutes, restaurants, security companies and delivery services, among others.

Talk to merchants and you learn that these aren't the best of times for the trade. Globalization has wrought increased competition from low-priced labor in China and India, Internet entrepreneurs and the availability of look-alike synthetic stones.

In addition, "Blood Diamond," the 2006 movie depicting how some diamonds mined in West Africa have fueled insurgencies and warlords' atrocities, didn't help even though "conflicted" or "dirty diamonds," as they're called, reportedly represent 1 percent or less of those sold internationally.

Diamond dealing used to be a simple matter of trust, Kilnisan said. Today a retail sale usually involves considerable legal paperwork--a gemological certification, appraisal for insurance purposes, a written guarantee and receipt.

For assurance of a diamond's authenticity and rating, one need only go around the corner to 580 5th Ave., headquarters of the Gemological Institute of America. The GIA, considered the benchmark diamond authority, invented the industry's "four C's" diamond-grading standards (carat weight, clarity, cut and color) and the first patented jeweler's loupe, or magnifier. GIA certification can enhance a diamond's resale value.

"We don't appraise them," said Emily Bennett, a GIA spokeswoman. "That's a different specialty. We only grade and certify a gem's quality."

The GIA price schedule for grading diamonds ranges from $78 for a 70-point diamond to $14,680 for a 300-carat one. (One carat equals 100 points.) The GIA also offers prospective gemologists specialized training.

The price on the street for an appraisal is $75 per carat.

Kenneth Lejman, president of the Gemological Appraisal Laboratory of America, 54 W. 47th St., said the going price today for a flawless 1-carat diamond is $23,500, up more than 20 percent from a year ago, according to the wholesale dealers' pricing bible, the weekly Rapaport Diamond Report.

"Remember, though," Lejman added, "diamond prices are negotiable just like for gold and stocks. It's like an auction."

Liberman is a Chicago Tribune freelance writer.