Rough diamonds are mined from volcanic vents in Africa. They’re separated into parcels for the London sight-holders who have the stones cut in Antwerp, Israel, or India. The finished products are divvied out to various diamond brokers and then brought over to New York. Over 80% of the diamonds sold in the USA pass through 47th Street, making the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues a crossroads of the world for jewelry. Sapphires and rubies from the Orient are transported here from Hong Kong and Thailand, while Israelis brave the dangers of Columbia for precious emeralds. Having handle jewelry for over ten years, I sometimes act as if I were dealing with chopped liver at a deli counter. We are, however, occasionally blessed with something to get excited about, an opportunity to deal with truly valuable gems.
Several years back my boss and good friend, Richie Boy, was introduced to a big player from the West Coast. A CEO of several companies, this man had expressed interest in purchasing a Christmas gift for his mistress, a blonde from Palm Beach who was married to another millionaire.
His call was for a very rare ruby. It had to be over five carats, a natural from Burma, internal perfect, and the color of the blood bleeding from a pigeon’s nose. The vein, not the artery. In his own way he was a bit of a poet.
Richie Boy phoned several dealers and within a day came up with a stone. It wasn’t cheap. The dealer flatly told us, “875,000 dollars and I don’t want to hear any bitching about the price.”
The dealer bought the stone down. It was not big, but the color was a sublime blood red hue, and clean. Not a single flaw. Richie Boy asked me, “What do you think?”
“It doesn’t look like a house in the Hamptons with a beach view, but what do I know.”
Richie Boy agreed and decided to get two diamond necklaces for back-up. He then called the client, who said he was interested, but wanted us to meet him at the St. Regis Hotel. His room was on the tenth floor.
Richie Boy’s father, being from the old school, immediately announced that we were being set up. Neither of us disagreed, since we would be carrying over a million dollars in jewelry into a hotel room to meet people we didn1t really know.
His father wanted to kabosh the entire deal. Richie Boy, however, loaded his 9mm, I stuck a single buckshot shell into a snakebite pipe, and with this reassurance, we set off for the hotel. Since we were insured for the full value of the merchandise, both of us doubted we would pull the trigger, but the arms made us feel better.
As Richie Boy stuck the jewelry inside his suit coat, his father swore we were crazy. He was right, but we walked over to the St. Regis Hotel, half-expecting to be shot in the head, except we arrived at the hotel without incident. Two guests tried to get on the elevator with us, but both Richie Boy and I glared a warning for them to take the next car up.
Richie Boy and I walked down the corridor like we were being set up: Hands on our guns. When we reached the customer’s door, we rang the bell. A woman laughed and several seconds later the door opened. Both of us stared, because the blonde wasn’t wearing any clothes. Her boyfriend was on the couch, in a bathrobe.
“Lady, could you move away from the door,” I asked in a low voice.
The man frowned, “Who are you?”
Richie played it right and took the two diamond necklaces from his jacket. “He’s the protection for these.”
He draped the diamonds on the woman’s bare neck and she went over tto the man’s side. Even though they weren’t dressed I still didn1t trust them, but by the end of an hour Richie boy had sold one of the necklaces. We took a cashier’s check for more money than either of us could earn in several years, but Richie Boy wasn’t happy, because he hadn’t sold the ruby.
“There was no way you were going to sell that stone,” I said.
“And why not?”
“Because no man, and I don’t care how rich he is, will buy a million-dollar gift for another man’s wife,” I said.
“Don’t be so negative,” he said. “You never know.”
Thanksgiving Day plus One starts the Holiday season on West 47th Street. Accordingly the majority of the ground floor exchanges extend their operating hours and stay open every ding-dong day until Christmas. Throughout the week regular customers and natives to New York flock here, but on the weekends they are replaced by busloads of tourists from Shawallagah, PA or Dover Delaware. Armed with a box of chicken and a bag of quarters, they gawk at the jewelry and demand incredulously, “Those aren’t real diamonds, are they?”
“All of our diamonds are real and set in 14K and 18K gold or platinum jewelry,” I answer cordially, for the most part. We might enjoy poking fun at these out-of-towners, yet their purchases can only add to our profit line, so once they’re in the store we treat them as we would any valued customer, even if they’re only looking for a Big Apple charm or want to tell us about an opal ring their great-grandaunt possessed back in Schwallaga, PA. As my boss says, “Be nice. It can’t hurt.”
While my company prides itself in dealing relatively fairly with members of the trade and our customers, there are a few diamond dealers who prey on these unsuspecting tourists like wolves tailing a cripple calves and every year ABC NEWS1 20/20 puts out a report to warn about unscrupulous diamond dealings on 47th Street.
Typically during holiday season the show’s producers send out a young man to purchase a diamond engagement ring and inevitably ends up getting nailed by the same dealer on the corner of Sixth Avenue. The entire process of the sale is recorded by a hidden video camera to reveal the dealer’s misrepresentation of the diamond’s quality.
Weeks later Diane Sawyer will confront the dealer with the proof of his lies and close with a warning for the public to beware. One would expect that the dishonest merchant would be punished by such negative publicity, however the dealer points to the photo of Diane Sawyer hanging on his wall and proudly states, “Diane shops here every year. One of my best customers.”
To avoid getting fleeced, we suggest anyone looking for a diamond to head up to Tiffany’s or Cartier first and get one of their diamond buying guides, which are free and offer a great thumbnail source of information to the novice.
Otherwise caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware and remember if it sounds to good to be true than it is too good to be true.
For any questions on jewelry or the diamond trade stop by 34 West 47th Street.
The first piece of advice is always free.
I work at a ground floor diamond exchange on 47th street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the diamond capital of the world.
Diamonds are about as rare as lightbulbs on West 47th street. They come in all shapes, all sizes. The dealers and brokers on the street profess that their stones are no different from those sold at Tiffany’s and Harry Winston’s, but with the smallest amount of gemological acumen, amyone could look at the goods on offer and pick out the good from the dreck. Fortunately, for people in my business, most people don’t have any gemological acumen.
This does not mean that the experts are beyond being fooled, though.
Last week a couple from Australia were shopping around a ruby they had inherited from a dearly departed relative’s estate. The ruby was a little off-red and most dealers passed on buying the gem, or offered much less than the Aussie couple were expecting. Finally an Indian color stone merchant from Jodphur offered them $9,000 for the three carat ruby.
They produced ID, signed the police report to assure the gem had not been stolen, were paid, and went on their merry way to spend the money in New York. God Bless them, but the deal had gone too smoothly from the Rajastani merchant and he decided to bail out the stone to another dealer.
“How much you want,” this dealer, a guy who came to New York from Bombay, asked.
“I paid $10,000, give me twelve.”
“I like it, but not for 12. I more love it for $10,500.”
The Rajastani gives him the stone at the agreed price, happy that he made $1500 in less than an hour, but the Bombay dealer also senses something suspicious about the ruby. He takes it up to the Gemological Institute, the nation’s most esteemed appraiser of diamonds and semi-precious stones.
A day or two goes by and the GIA report comes back to declare that the ruby is indeed not a ruby. The Bombay dealer is devastated, until being told the stone in question is a red diamond and worth $9,000,000.
The next day the Bombay dealer was back at work. When asked, “Why haven’t you retired?” he answered, “That was only one sale, maybe I’ll get lucky again.”