In Manhattan’s diamond district, Mascha Seiden is known as the Queen of 47th Street, at least the stretch of it between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. For over 50 years, she has inspected jewelry and chatted with customers behind the counter at her store, Paul Seiden Jewelers. These days, however, fewer customers are arriving.
Outside the boutique, which specializes in diamonds and antique jewelry and has a few vendors under one roof, is a sign that says, “No mask, no entry.” Like most stores in the neighborhood, it has a mandatory post where security guards check body temperatures and headwear.
But even though Ms Seiden’s shop has restrictions on customers, she herself was not wearing a mask last Friday. A coworker who wore a mask explained that Ms Seiden had lived worse and was not afraid of the virus. Ms. Seiden survived the Holocaust, after all.
The state of the Diamond District – a mix of anxious activity and provocative harshness, masked and unmasked – sums up much of what New York is experiencing today. Not only has Midtown seen tourism and office life evaporate since March, but neighborhood stores specialize in items – diamonds, gems, jewelry, watches – threatened by the online economy. When it comes to mask-related tensions, many store owners and managers are Orthodox Jews, some of whom live in neighborhoods where mask protocol has not been strict and, as such, have seen an increase in coronavirus case.
But also like the rest of the city, the diamond district continues its turmoil, despite the health and financial challenges that many workers face.
A typical early afternoon on 47th Street last week saw barkers, many without masks, standing in front of store windows draped in watches, diamond rings and gold chains, soliciting customers. “Are you lost? A yelled. “You are supposed to be here.” Another shouted: “We have beautiful objects! When customers entered their stores, traders would put on face shields or pull masks over their noses.
The whirlwind of activity does a convincing job of covering up what the century-old neighborhood has been going through since March.
A man in his 30s who runs his father’s watch store and who insisted that he be referred to only by his nickname, David, for privacy and security reasons, summed it up: As a non-essential businesses, diamond district stores closed this spring. Upon reopening, they were quickly back on board amid concerns over violence and looting during protests against police brutality over the summer. Nearby hotels and Broadway theaters, which bring tourists and therefore business to the neighborhood, remain empty.
David then addressed the tensions in the streets: “If I walk outside without a mask, which I sometimes do – I just forget – people curse me. They say, “What’s wrong? “And I say,” I’m sorry, I forgot, “” he continued. “In general, everything is at a pressure point.”
Since the 1920s, the Diamond District has maintained a thriving, bazaar-like market. He survived the Great Depression, a World War and Hurricane Sandy. His latest Hollywood treatment came with the 2019 film “Uncut Gems,” starring Adam Sandler.
The Diamond District Partnership, a business improvement group, estimates that more than 90% of diamonds that enter the United States pass through New York. Most pass through the Diamond District, which is home to more than 2,600 businesses, according to the partnership.
A majority of them are on the same block. “These places, they could be on the 11th floor of the building,” said Loren O’Neal, the owner of Dripped by Jersey, which makes custom pieces for private clients and has her office in the neighborhood.
The Diamond District has already faced serious challenges. A major financial hurdle arose about 20 years ago, said Barak Richman, author of “Stateless Commerce,” a book that explores the history and inner workings of 47th Street.
In the late 1990s, wholesaler De Beers, which for much of the last century dominated the global diamond market, began to experience a decline in its market share.
In response, De Beers changed its business model, even opening its own stores to shoppers directly. “Instead of De Beers staying in their London office and selling diamonds directly to people on 47th Street, they have started trading diamonds directly,” Richman said. “They started to cut out the middleman, and 47th Street is all middleman.”
Trends have also changed. Synthetic diamonds have grown in popularity and younger generations have started to shop for luxury goods online. “People would go to a store just to try on a ring and then order it online, where it was a little cheaper,” said Alexander Sparks, who has worked in the diamond district for 20 years.
During this year’s shutdown, district jewelry makers struggled due to the compromised supply chain. To make a single piece of jewelry, you need an army of suppliers. There are wholesalers for gemstones, stone setters, polishers and cutters. “You have to go around and collect all the coins,” Ms. O’Neal said. “The process was overloaded.”
Mr Sparks, who now owns online engagement ring company Alexander Sparks but still makes his jewelry in the neighborhood, turned to vendors in Florida during the shutdown. “I wanted to keep my New York employees in business, but they couldn’t work,” he said.
Now that businesses in the Diamond District are open again, Mr Sparks is worried that his colleagues and suppliers will fall with Covid-19. “We had a few people who got sick in my apartment building a few weeks ago, and so everyone had to be tested,” he said. “I have a friend who owns an online business, and last week one of his suppliers tested positive. “
Some customers, however, were impressed with the neighborhood security efforts. Last week, Jacci Jaye, a stylist who lives nearby, visited to select gems for a photoshoot with a jewelry designer.
“We all wore face masks and used the hand sanitizer stations that were in abundance in every store we went to,” Ms. Jaye said. “Each store and kiosk also had protective plastic barriers.” She added that security guards opened and closed doors for her and that temperature checks were carried out wherever she went.
But Ms O’Neal said she still saw many Diamond District employees not wearing masks: “I did a photoshoot about a month ago and wore my face shield because I was very worried.
Ms. O’Neal is one of several successful online jewelers with ties to the Diamond District.
“Surprisingly for me, business has been better now than before the pandemic,” said Ms. O’Neal, whose Instagram account Dripped by Jersey has 12,000 followers. “When I was allowed to reopen, people sent me a message, ‘I want this, I want that. People would ask me for watches, engagement rings, personalized pieces, everything. “
Mr Sparks, who has nearly 100,000 Instagram followers, also said his sales had increased. “I had a slowdown in March and I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m going to be crushed, ”he said. But business resumed at the end of the spring. “A lot of people are still engaged, and these are my clients.”
His friends who rely on window sales are in worse shape. “Three or four that I know have gone bankrupt,” he says.
Foot traffic is down because no one wants to try on jewelry while wearing a mask, grumbled an Allure Diamonds employee, also on 47th Street.
And forget about the international clientele. “Customers from different countries don’t come because they don’t fly,” said Olivia Siag, owner of Diamonds by Siag, a 47th Street boutique she has run with her husband for 40 years. “On Wednesdays we had people from all over because they came before to see a show. We would also have people from Florida, California, and Texas. They are not here at the moment.
Ms Siag said her store relies on repeat customers. David, the watch dealer, also depends on the established clientele of his father’s shop, which has been in the neighborhood since 1980.
Some of the old school jewelers are trying to improve their online presence, but it isn’t easy.
“It is really difficult to do business virtually in the diamond industry,” said Mr. Richman, the author. “To do it right, you have to inspect the diamond. You have to see it in person and check out what’s going on in the market. This is the reason why you have always seen physical centers of diamonds.
David’s problems with virtual affairs, while more romantic, are arguably just as important. “My daughter’s first day of school was in September and I took her to buy a necklace with her letter on it,” he said. “It was a whole day. We took the train, we walked around the city. It was beautiful and awesome. It wasn’t the $ 80 I spent, but it was the day we had together. I could have ordered it online and have it here the next day, but that wasn’t the point.