Juliana Culbert and J.E. Molly Seegers
West 47th Street between 5th and 6th avenues may appear to be just a street of jewelry stores. However this area, known as the Diamond District, is much more than its humble exterior. This one block is home to over 40,000 diamond-related businesses. The diamonds cut and sold here are New York State’s number one foreign export by value. During the first quarter of the 20th century, the center of the retail and wholesale diamond industry used to be in several different locations downtown on the Bowery, 23rd street, and Canal Street. The current location of the Diamond District came to prominence in the 1940s as a result of World War II. Hitler’s persecution of the Jews caused the diamond centers of Antwerp and Amsterdam to literally pick up and relocate to 47th street. The industry had historically been a Jewish enterprise, and after World War II, it became dominated by Orthodox Jews, making Yiddish the main language spoken in the District. The industry has always been comprised of close-knit family businesses with men handing the reins over to their sons and nephews. Women have also historically been influential in the business, but are not as prominent in the wheeling and dealings on the street. One such woman, Emily Kiechel (ky-chel), is the head of the New York office for KR Diamonds. Her foray into the diamond world actually began in fashion jewelry, but she wanted to develop her career in dealing the gems. “I worked in some fashion jewelry companies in the early 90s. Gold and silver were having their heyday, and I work on castings to quality control to helping execute all the samples, buying the gemstones, pearls…but I always liked the gemstones, so I went back and found a man to sort of be my mentor.” According to Emily, you don’t get a job in the diamond industry without connections. There is a huge amount of trust involved in this business, and many jobs are passed on among family members. Many of the businesses that have been around for generations have seen the district evolve from a sketchy area to a respected place of business. Morris Szlarski (zi-clar-ski), the owner of Kelsol Diamonds, has been in the diamond business since the late 1980s. Morris was asked to join his father-in-law’s business after graduating from Columbia with a business degree, so he has seen the neighborhood through many transitions. Through these transitions, Morris watched as the area moved from dodgy to respectable. He recalls one of the scariest incidents from just walking to his office: “There was one attempt on me to rob me on the street, which fortunately enough didn’t happen…which made me change my modus operandi to if the customer wanted to see my goods, he would have to come here [to the office].” Morris also said that the most difficult part of being in the diamond dealing industry was sorting out the good guys from the bad. Presently, the area is being protected by law enforcement more thoroughly, and the Hasidic community has also united to protect everyone’s interests. With hundreds of dealers working in the district, some of them have been the victim of jewelry heists. Many of the well-known heists were targeted, and required the thieves to spend a good deal of time on preparation of the robberies. One example of an elaborate scheme was the “Snatch” heist on New Year’s Eve, 2008. In this heist, two Diamond District jewelers had hired men to dress as Hasidic Jews to rob their safes, and then subsequently collect $7 million dollars in insurance money. Incidentally, these two jewelers were caught on camera removing content from their safe, just two hours before the alleged “robbery”. The pair had believed the security video, containing the incriminating evidence, to be destroyed, but it was found by investigators later on in the case. They were later sentenced up to 15 years in prison for seven counts of grand larceny, insurance fraud, and other crimes. Even with its tumultuous history, this neighborhood is still considered the go-to place for diamonds in New York City.
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