Growing up the daughter of a gem dealer, Alicia Oltuski thought her father’s profession was like any other. Then she went to work for him.
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.
I tucked the bag into my pouch and made my way toward the setter’s office. Once the bracelet was complete, no one would be able to discern that this was the setter who had worked on it, just as no one would know that it was my father who had chosen the diamonds. After a stone is set, it is impossible to decipher who harvested the gem from the river shore, who carried it from the wilderness to the market, who cut it, who polished it, and who made the match between stone and setting. It is a long and sweeping process that prepares a gem for its wearer, and there are always consequences for someone, somewhere.
Today, the South Africa–based De Beers company sells about 40 percent of the world’s rough diamonds. The stones are recovered through a variety of methods, including underground mining and shore diving. Once harvested, the diamonds travel to one of four sorting facilities in Africa and London. First, the sorters classify them by weight, then into “makeable” rough diamonds (from which one stone will emerge) or “sawable” rough diamonds (which will eventually yield two stones). They are then inspected for flaws. This is when a stone’s fate is determined—whether it will become a jewelry diamond or an industrial one, used to cut metal, teeth in a dentist’s office, or other tough materials.
There are a handful of other big players in the diamond industry, and a portion of the world’s remaining supply is still unearthed by informal, small-scale miners. Hunched over rudimentary tools, up to their waists in dirty water in the roasting heat of Africa and South America, these artisanal diggers spend long days searching for glitter.
When a stone first comes out of the earth, it is lumpy, oily, and often opaque. Most diamonds today undergo the cutting and polishing process in India, but some still get manufactured on West 47th Street. During my time there, a colleague of my father’s took me into his cutting factory, a back room filled with Hasidic men. Most of them listened to Torah tapes while they shaved diamonds down on spinning wheels. From the street level, these factories are invisible; for a long time, the details of my father’s business were veiled from me, as well.
Over the next few years, while researching a book on the subject, I would follow the diamond men to Las Vegas and Tucson, Arizona, where they display their jewels at trade shows, and to a diamond-growing laboratory, where manmade gems are used in high-pressure experiments. I would talk to a founder of LifeGem, a company that creates diamonds out of the hair and ashes of dead people—and pets. I would be serenaded by an Elvis-impersonating jeweler at the Diamond Dealers Club, a West 47th Street trading hall where a society almost entirely made up of men spends its days pondering a girl’s best friend.
Ever since I first carried those stones, though, I’ve watched the diamond men and women closely, knowing that each one could be wearing a scintillating treasure beneath an unremarkable outfit. I’ve come to understand that once you’ve worn a chest pack, you act as though you’re wearing jewels always. And I’ve realized that the reason there are so many flashing signs in a district full of gems is that, on this block, the glints of diamonds are not enough to attract attention—there are just too many of them. And yet at the same time, I’ve learned that after you’ve been looking at diamonds for so long—in all their limpid intensity—everything else feels hopelessly unvarnished.
Oltuski’s chronicle of her time in the Diamond District, Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life (Scribner), is out July 19.