Depending on who you talk to, 47th Street, aka, the Diamond District, is either the most captivating jewelry market in the world filled with new and vintage treasures, or it is snake pit rife with rip-off artists. You either love it, or you don’t.
I am happy to say that I reside in the former category; I adore “the street,” as it is called. As an antique jewelry collector and a lover of diamonds, I have spent many happy hours here—hanging with the dealers who have opened their hearts and their showcases for me, sharing their vast knowledge and kindly ignoring the fact that I don’t open my wallet all that much.
If you are a novice on the street—and we all were once! —a few guidelines. You might want to develop a slightly thick skin, since the atmosphere is not always what you would describe as genteel. You should be wary of dealers who are too pushy—when you have something good, you don’t have to ram it down customers’ throats. Most importantly, remember that buying antique diamond jewelry on the street is about relationships, not just money. Once you are in the “family”—by which I mean, people are used to seeing you around, and you have perhaps even purchased a few items, sellers are often happy to let you take jewelry home “on memo,” which means you can live with a piece for a few days, with no paperwork, or payment, involved. And once you decide you cannot be without this treasure, you can also bargain, you can trade, and you can pay things off! The prices can be pretty friendly as well–since this is essentially a wholesale district, many of the prices are dealer-to-dealer. (I have seen exquisite baubles I recognize from 47th Street turn up on Madison Avenue.)
A Guide to Finding Vintage Jewelry in NYC’s Diamond District
So where do you start? If you are like me, you begin at Stephen Herdemian, a few doors in from the corner of Sixth Avenue at 78 West 47th. Steve has a window on the street, rather than an inner booth, which means you can gaze at his jewelry without even going in. There are vintage diamond rings here to be had for less than a thousand dollars, great for a starter collection, but there are also true design triumphs.
I ask Steve what he has at the moment that is really special, and he shows me a heart-stopping high art deco brooch comprised of one juicy marquis diamond, 26 baguettes, and myriad other diamonds, still in its original box, accompanied by the original receipt dated October 4, 1929. Twenty-four days later the stock market would crash, and wouldn’t you be happy you had tied up your money in diamonds instead of worthless stocks and bonds?
Alpha & Omega
My next stop is in the rear of the exchange at 32 West 47th, where Alpha & Omega have their showcases. Part of the fun of being deep in an exchange is lingering at the booth while a stream of hopefuls approach with jewelry to sell. I could watch these negotiations for hours—waiting to see if something awe-inspiring will be fished out of a crumped brown paper bag, which is how everyone carries their jewelry here–meant to throw thieves off the scent.
When I ask the proprietor what the amateur should look for when first considering antique diamonds, he offers a brief tutorial: it’s super important to make sure the stones are all original, or at least of the period, since sloppy craftsmanship will sometimes result in a modern rock slapped amid old mine or rose cut diamonds. And always take a moment to appreciate extraordinary work, he tells me. “Everything was made by hand back then, and no two pieces were alike.” To prove his point, he brandishes a breathtaking Edwardian bracelet boasting a bevy of old European cuts.
Time to turn the corner and head uptown to Keyamour, which is not strictly speaking on 47th Street, though dealers in the vicinity—say, from 44th to 50th, usually on or near Fifth Avenue, are also considered to be on “the street.” Keyamour is upstairs in a swanky office building at 608 Fifth, which means you need to make an appointment, but on the other hand, your enjoyment won’t be interrupted every two minutes by people pulling orphans out of grocery bags. Dana knows I want to see some antique diamonds and she doesn’t disappoint, showing off a diamond engagement ring from 1780, and reminding me that this needs to be saved for special occasions—stones of this age don’t want to join you while you are gardening or washing the dishes.
She says that part of the charm of older stones is their darker color, so judging by the traditional categories—the four Cs (cut, clarity, color, and carat weight) doesn’t really apply. Then she presents a pair of gorgeous earrings and confesses that she herself has set these stones, turning them into ear bobs. Which brings us to another subject: it’s nice when things are all original, but it’s also fine for stones to be refashioned in more contemporary settings.
Erik Originals & Antiques Ltd.
I reluctantly leave this garden of diamond delights and mosey back to 47th to visit an actual shop—Erik Originals at number 22A. Erik has always been very generous with his knowledge, and today is no different—he practically cackles with glee as he shows off a movie star-worthy mid-century Bulgari bracelet boasting a trio of diamonds, each of which is over five carats. But I am just a modest little creature– maybe I would prefer a 1950s Cartier clip? Or wait, I know! The pandemic is waning (or at least it has to be someday soon) and we will be going out more and more, which means that a 1930s 18 karat gold evening purse with a diamond clasp might be just a thing to carry my phone and a credit card.
Are you tired? I am not! Before I hop on the F train and head home, I want to visit my old pal Ronald at DK Bressler, upstairs at number 15 West. Ronald was one of my very first friends on 47th, always willing to show me his antique diamond treasures, even if there was no way I could ever afford them.
Today, he delights in unveiling from his safe a three-part diamond brooch, a symphony of round-cuts and baguettes, probably dating from just after World War Two. It is sleeping peacefully in a box marked Wolfers and Company, which he tells me is like the Cartier of Belgium, and it once belonged to the wife of a famous actor, who helpfully included a pencil drawing of how you put the three segments together or take them apart so they can be worn separately.
This is just the kind of enchanting detail that makes antique jewelry so special, and I beg him to tell me who the lucky lady was—and who was the generous thespian who gave it to her? — but his lips of sealed. Some mysteries, it seems, like the secret power of 47th Street itself, remain forever out or reach.