A typical bride-to-be goes engagement-ring shopping with her fiancé. I went with my father. My ring came from New York’s Diamond District, a tiny neighborhood through which 90 percent of all diamonds that enter America flow. The stone was my boyfriend’s mother’s, and my father, a Diamond District dealer of more than 25 years, knew a man who made the sort of antique-style settings I was looking for. It was my first time as a customer in the district, and if you’d asked me then, I’d have told you that the diamond trade was a business like any other. Throughout the coming months, I would learn otherwise.
Shortly after our shopping excursion, my father and I were back on West 47th Street under very different circumstances. Though I knew I would never become a dealer, I wanted to understand the street and the stones that occupied his life, and so I began doing odd jobs. Which is how I found myself with thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry strapped to my body.
My father had handed me a “chest pack”—a tan pouch the size of a small hand, which rested under my jacket, between my breast and armpit. Inside was a Victorian bracelet with flowers made of sapphires and diamonds. A few of the diamonds were missing and I was to pick up the replacements, which were on consignment at the jewelry exchange down the street, and carry everything to the setter. On my way to the exchange, I passed window displays where diamond earrings hung like fruit from little cushion trees. Armored trucks stood parked while couriers sorted deliveries under the watchful eyes of guards with guns.
On this street, millions of dollars’ worth of gems are carried around every day, but often dealers who borrow goods on consignment don’t pay collateral. It is a single word—“mazal” (short for the Yiddish mazal und brucha, or luck and blessing)—that seals a deal.
I entered the exchange, which feels a bit like a casino. Dealers called out numbers: the prices and dimensions of stones. Two men played cards over a display case; another sucked on an unlit cigar. The dealer who had my father’s diamonds occupied a sprawling corner booth. He told me to tell my father he was sorry—if he had been successful in selling the gems, they both would have made money. Instead, my father would use the diamonds for the bracelet. He handed me the stones, which came in a small, unassuming plastic bag.
Though you wouldn’t know it once it’s dangling from a woman’s body, jewelry tends to look a bit dingier in the Diamond District. Bracelets are packed into plastic bags, rings come in recycled boxes, and stones are packaged in crumpled parcel paper. Even when pieces are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, subtle reminders of West 47th Street’s roughness intrude: Particles of dust cling to velvet jewelry trays, and prices on older items are crossed out and marked down.