Zev Weitman’s angular frame was hunched over his sooty workbench in a cramped diamond-cutting shop several floors above the buzz of Manhattan’s diamond district. But his mind was roaming a crystalline chamber, tweaking facets to coax a brilliant symphony of light from the diamond he was working against a cutting wheel.
“I’m always improvising, always searching for the perfect cut,” said Mr. Weitman, 68, who began cutting in the district four decades ago, when thousands of jewelry businesses studded a single block of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Back then, there were also thousands of cutters like Mr. Weitman, many of them shaping and perfecting diamonds from rough stones straight out of mines.
Mr. Weitman says, only a few hundred remain in the district, focusing on repairs, rush jobs and the kind of high-end work he does. His dozen apprentices are gone, and he labors and obsesses over the stones by himself — working at the wheel or solving problems in bed, in the shower or in stolen overnight naps on his coat on the shop’s tile floor. None of his four children — nor, presumably, any of his 28 grandchildren — will follow him into his trade.
The death of the diamond district has been foretold for years. Most diamond-cutting work has been outsourced to overseas factories. Online shopping has cut into showroom sales. The pandemic lockdown derailed supply and devastated foot traffic. Inexpensive lab-grown diamonds resembling real ones have rattled a seemingly unshakable diamond economy. Many longstanding family shops have downsized or lack succession plans. Booth vacancies in once-bustling jewelry exchanges are a common sight.
And now, the inevitable: A mega-developer has demolished more than a dozen buildings in the district to make way for two huge structures, a supertall tower and a luxury hotel. This, some old-school jewelers fear, will change the unique character of the diamond district.
But there is another facet to this gloomy prognosis.
Right across the street from where Mr. Weitman was sweating out the perfect cut is a glittering storefront counter awash in rap star bling. The aura of the shop, TraxNYC, could not be more different from the Old World austerity of Mr. Weitman’s cutting studio.
Showcases are filled with jewel-encrusted pendants, and gold chains dripping from graffitied jewelry stands tended by a young, diverse sales staff that would not look out of place at a Brooklyn dance club.
In the rear of the showroom is a staircase that leads to the VIP lounge, where the unmistakable fragrance of marijuana lingers and preferred customers peruse jewelry is served up by employees along with free variations: premium liquor, pre-rolled joints, a video game console.
Where past generations of diamond cutters might have hunkered down, TraxNYC has a team of 20-somethings sitting at a common table, noisily handling online and phone sales and taking custom orders starting on the spot with design software and 3-D printers.
“We’re transforming the industry, and these are the young people who will be taking it over,” said the owner, Meaning Agadjani, 36, whose designs are popular with clients like Cardi B and Busta Rhymes.
“People may want to watch the old diamond district in movies and on TV, but the truth is people don’t want to go to the diamond district anymore,” Mr. Agadjani said. “So the old ways have to get ripped up.”
But the old ways are not gone yet. As Midtown has been transformed by tourism, soaring commercial rents and proliferating chain stores, the diamond district seems to stand out more than ever as an anachronism.
Compared to the high-end flagship shops on Fifth Avenue — Cartier, Harry Winston, Tiffany & Company — 47th Street feels like a time warp. Makeshift synagogues and kosher eaters are wedged between jewelry office suites. On the sidewalk, Hasidic diamond dealers haggle on flip phones while groups of men smoke and banter in various languages and hawkers try to lure passers-by into showrooms.
Mr. Agadjani sneakers at all that. Who needs a hawker when his Instagram posts and TikTok videos bring in millions of views a day? “We do $20 million on the daily between all of us,” he said, referring to the volume of the whole district. He has now been on the block for 18 years, and his shop does more than $30 million in annual sales.
He started the company with a high school graduation gift of $1,500 and sold jewelry on consignment on eBay. Now he focuses on popularizing his brand through social media, publicity stunts and a YouTube reality show called “The District.”
He gets lots of mileage out of beefs with rappers and reality show stars. His feud with the Brooklyn-based rapper Tekashi69 became publicity pay dirt when 50 Cent came to Tekashi’s defense and called Mr. Agadjani a “sucker.” It didn’t matter that Mr. Agadjani was ridiculed — the post went viral.
“The past is the past, and things are evolving super quickly,” he said. “While one part of the district is dying, another part is being born.”
New York’s most precious export
With all due respect to Mr. Agadjani’s swagger, he did not invent the 47th Street hustle.
The jewelry district in New York emerged in the 1800s as a cluster of shops in Lower Manhattan. Later on, Jewish diamond merchants fleeing Europe before World War II began setting up on 47th Street.
Much of the industry’s roots in Orthodox Jewish parts of Eastern Europe are reflected in the block’s own vocabulary, mostly Yiddish. A “strop” is a second-rate stone that won’t sell; it’s “khazeray” or “shlok” — garbage. Merchants share a secret code to freely discuss a “gee,” or customer. A “2-10” is a warning to keep “two eyes on 10 fingers” when serving a potential thief.
This secret world is revealed on the upper floors above the showrooms in a honeycomb of cramped workshops, retail stalls and anonymous office suites. Here, the polishers, sorters, appraisers, graders and bench jewelers toil behind locked double-door vestibules (“man-traps”) that allow visitors to be checked before entry and exit.
Even with all the challenges, jewelry, gems and precious metals from the diamond district are still among New York State’s most valuable exports, and the stores around 47th Street make up the largest diamond market in the country, a conduit for an estimated 90 percent of the diamonds imported into the United States. High-end pieces that end up for sale at Tiffany and Harry Winston often begin their lives here as raw materials.
“I mean, other than bagels, what else is made in New York anymore?” said Romy Schreiber, whose grandmother started Gumuchian Jewelry, one of the only matrilineal businesses that have endured among diamond dealers.
The district can be intimidating to outsiders not accustomed to the hard sell.
On a recent weekday, a woman holding a cardboard sign — “WE BUY CASH LOAN” — tried to flag down passers-by on the block. The woman, Mirta Kuzmana, is perhaps the only female hawker there. She can speak five languages, including her native Latvian, and makes $70 a day offline customers into a pawnshop.
“I show you the best deals anywhere,” she said to a family of tourists. They declined and sidestepped her, and she directed her sidewalk pitch to the next comers.
Across the street, Richie Winick leaned over the display case of his stall in a bustling exchange.
“It’s not as beautiful as Madison Avenue, but if you know the people you’re dealing with, you’ll pay much less,” Mr. Winick said. Now 62, he runs the jewelry company his father started almost 70 years ago. Compared with Mr. Weitman’s laborious craftsmanship or Mr. Agadjani’s social media savvy, his business is more representative of the district, though he has rolled with the times by sharing office space with an Indian firm that specializes in lab-grown diamonds.
Still, the old-school barter economy persists. Many deals are done on credit, with millions of dollars entrusted to a handwritten memo and a handshake and a blessing of “mazel und brucha” — Yiddish for “luck and blessing.”
“You can have a $10 million deal just by signing your name,” Mr. Winick said. “Where else can you do that?”
A customer appeared in his shop looking for a diamond ring for his girlfriend, and Mr. Winick went into his spiel. “Here, look at this,” he began. “This is a $200,000 stone at Tiffany’s, but you save 50 cents on the dollar by shopping on 47th Street.” The customer opted for a smaller diamond. A good choice, mr. Winick told him.
“You know the 11th Commandment, right?” he added. “Thou shalt not pay retail.”
It is unclear where modernization will leave someone like Mr. Weitman, who regards his 40-year career as an obsessive quest for the ultimate cut that makes a diamond dazzle with light. He called it a mystical pursuit that blends optical physics, the eye of an artist and the touch of a surgeon. One of his devoted following of dealers referred to him as “the man with the diamond eyes.”
In the cutting room, he resembled a painter at his canvas, pulling back periodically to evaluate his work by lifting the gem to an overhead lamp. He peered through a magnifying loupe into its tiny twinkling windows to inspect the cuts made for maximum brilliance and scintillation crucial to the stone’s beauty.
Ideas for new designs germinate without warning and are fleshed out through trial and error. But they are executed in the shop, where he can spend weeks on a single stone.
“When you’re cutting, there is nothing else,” said Mr. Weitman, who has spent all-nighters lost in his work in the shop. “It’s like watching Michael Jordan play against the Knicks. It’s excitement beyond anything you could imagine.”
Cutters work under high pressure. They must preserve valuable carat weight while managing the constant risk of shattering the gem with a single misplaced cut. “If you hit a gletz” — an imperfection — “it can shatter,” Mr. Weitman said. “Sometimes it can’t be prevented. It’s a terrible feeling.”
One of Mr. Weitman’s dealers, Charles Paskesz, 53, started as a diamond cutter, but while he was working on a $15,000 stone, it suddenly shattered. Plagued with nightmares, he quit cutting.
“I never put another stone on the wheel,” said Mr. Paskesz, now a diamond dealer with IGC Group, a large Belgian company with an office in the district.
The influencers and the artisans
The stakes are also high for the new breed of diamond dealers. A showroom down the block from TraxNYC that also caters to a hip-hop clientele that was held up by armed robbers several years back and now has security guards who look like nightclub bouncers.
Mr. Agadjani, who grew up in Rego Park, Queens, after his parents immigrated from Azerbaijan when he was 7, this is the culture he knows. “My father told me, ‘This is a place with real opportunity,’” said Mr. Agadjani, who graduated from Forest Hills High School. “I sized up America quick enough.”
At one point he dressed one of his sales agents in a squirrel costume to make another goofball post goading a rival. Nothing like a good social media beef to fllog the brand.
Mr. Agadjani’s recent social media dust-up with Scott Disick, an influencer and reality TV star on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” turned into marketing gold. Call out Mr. Disick on Instagram was a boon for the jeweler’s brand, as was the very public way Mr. Agadjani delivered a custom-made gremlin necklace to Kodak Black: He strolled onstage at a concert in Miami and fastened it around his neck as a sea of smartphones captured the moment.
Asmuch as Mr. Agadjani may distance himself from the diamond district’s more traditional business methods, he will admit one thing: Location is crucial.
“I’m not getting my jewelry from Walmart,” he said. “I have to manufacture it, and this block is a factory. Everyone is critical. One guy’s polishing, another guy’s casting, another’s soldering. This guy’s setting gemstones, that guy’s an enameler.”
Although Mr. Agadjani and Mr. Weitman seem like opposites, they are similar in their obsessional pursuit as jewelers, to the point of losing sleep.
“I’d like to meet him,” Mr. Agadjani said his team slapped some taunting graphics on the squirrel video and posted it. “Guys like him — that’s why I’m here.”