On a crisp fall Tuesday morning, Mah-Ze-Dahr bakery in New York’s Greenwich Village is abuzz with coffee-and-treat seekers trying to dodge the cameras for this shoot. The Only Natural Diamonds team has infiltrated the space to film Mah-Ze-Dahr founder Umber Ahmad for a new series called Carat Cake in which bakery owners and chefs reveal the intricate and often overlapping layers that exist among stories involving love, diamonds, and pastries.
“We should be able to continue after this cappuccino and before the next latte,” jokes Ahmad in between takes. Such is the vibe of this casually upscale eatery which serves to-die-for chocolate chip scones, exceptional cookies, and sumptuous chocolate ganache cakes. “Mah-ze-Dahr,” an Urdu term that describes “the magic or the essence that makes something special,” celebrates Ahmad’s Pakistani heritage and serves as the ethos of her ever-expanding empire (five locations and counting). Here, the former investment banker, jewelry collector, pilot, and voiceover actor—yes she is that talented—delves into what makes life so sweet.
How did Mah-Ze-Dahr Bakery start?
Umber Ahmad: I am not a baker or a chef by training or trade. I am a lover of food and a person who has grown up with multiple cultures in a lot of different places around the world. My family is from Pakistan and we settled in northern Michigan in a community full of Finnish, Swedish, and Polish immigrants. Every summer my family would go to Pakistan for two months and then my parents would pick a country and we would live there for a month. So I was given an opportunity to find out what food meant to other people. It was how we learned about the world. As I grew up, food became a language. It became a way to love people, and show your intention, and it was ultimately what I wanted to do.
“Mah-ze-Dahr,” an Urdu term that describes “the magic or the essence that makes something special.”
How did your love of baking develop?
UA: My love of baking developed from my Gram. Gram was originally from Finland and she helped take care of us as we grew up. She became our third grandmother. Gram would wrap me in blankets and she’d plop me up on the counter and she would start making cake or bread or cookies or brownies. And while she would be doing that, she would be telling me stories. She’d tell me stories about what it was like growing up on a farm or what a newlywed life was like, how she slashed her husband’s tire on the first day of their marriage because he said she couldn’t drive. I loved that and every one of those stories and moments with Gram was connected to baking. That’s how I became a lover of baking and pastry.
You have this love of baking, but then you go into finance. How did that work?
UA: Finance, for me, was about making sure that I could understand how the world worked. I grew up wanting to be a doctor like my father. And getting through my undergraduate and my master’s programs, my dad kept challenging me as to what it was I really cared about. It was helping people and changing people’s lives. I was working on Wall Street when I decided to become my own client one day. I went from helping other people build their brands and realize their dreams to thinking about how I was going to build a dream of my own.
What is the essence of Mah-Ze-Dahr and how does that relate to your customers?
UA: The word mah-ze-dahr comes from the Urdu language, which is the language that’s spoken in Pakistan, where my family is from. It’s a word used to describe the magic or the essence that makes something special. So, imagine you bite into one of our donuts and you can’t quite put your finger on what makes it so incredible. Is it the vanilla, is it the cream? Is it the brioche? It’s mah-ze-dahr. We also use that word to describe people. So, maybe, it’s the first time you met the person you fell in love with, or it’s your best friend or someone you decide to go into business with or collaborate with. There’s something magical about that person. There’s something special. It draws you in. You fall in love with it, and it’s how you stay connected. And that’s what we hope happens to you when you eat our pastries, you fall in love with us.
“For me, jewelry has a very special mah-ze-dahr. It’s something intangible that you just fall in love with.”
Could the same sentiment be applied to natural diamonds?
UA: I come from a culture where jewelry is very important. It’s very personal. Going back generations, it was also a means of security for women. As they got married, they were gifted with a lot of jewelry that if, God forbid, in any situation they had to leave, that jewelry would become theirs. When a girl is born in our culture, the parents start to amass jewelry for her wedding and how many ever years later. So, there are a lot of stories about that jewelry. For me, jewelry has a very special mah-ze-dahr. It’s something intangible that you just fall in love with. You can’t explain why a piece becomes so special to you, or maybe you can, but that mah-ze-dahr is very personal. It’s how you connect with something. You find something, you see something, you’re gifted something, and there’s a mah-ze-dahr to that.
Where did your diamond journey start?
UA: My diamond story started when I was 16. My mom gifted me these gorgeous [Tiffany & Co.] earrings. They have a classic design. I had coveted them for so long and when she gifted them to me, I felt so special like a princess.
What is your ethos when it comes to wearing diamonds?
UA: I’m a huge believer that diamonds should go with everything. They aren’t for a special event or a night out, they’re for your life because that’s the most special event that you can have. I love wearing my tennis necklace with just a sundress or a T-shirt. I have so many piercings [in my ears] that I love the graduating sizes of solitaire diamonds. My ear is topped off with a little hoop of diamonds. One of my favorite pieces I purchased for myself is a Repossi ear cuff, which I had coveted, gosh, for longer than I can remember back when Barney’s New York still existed.
What can you tell us about this Cartier number?
UA: When I was working as an investment banker, I took my first bonus check and walked right into Cartier, put the check down on the counter and I said, “What will this get me?” The guy working there looked at me, looked at the check, and said, “A visit to the private room.” I said, “Excellent, let’s go.” So in doing that they designed this ring for me and I absolutely love it. It’s a beautiful piece of jade from Hong Kong surrounded by diamonds.
What else is in your collection?
UA: Another piece that I love is my grandmother’s ring that she gifted to my mom. Then my mom gifted it to my sister and me. My sister and I share all of my mom’s jewelry. But it’s also really sad because you really only get heirloom jewelry when someone passes away. So when my mom died six years ago, she left us this jewelry and I didn’t start wearing it until about a year ago. The first time I wore this ring was at my wedding. It is a ring from our grandmother and my mom and it’s a ruby surrounded by diamonds, which is just so special. I think that very naturally in your life, historic moments come with something that should be marked in a way. I think natural diamonds do that beautifully.
This ring was a gift from one of my best friends. She now lives in Hong Kong and she couldn’t come to the wedding. So she sent her husband who was here for work for some reason with this ring and it was like a weird sketchy drug exchange. He shows up and he just hands me this pouch and I was like, “What’s happening?”
She sounds like a good friend.
UA: She’s a very good friend. I know everyone’s like, “What’s her name? Can we be friends?”
Which pieces are on your ring finger?
UA: Starting at the very bottom is my wedding band. It’s a knife-cut design, which I think is so beautiful. When my then-fiancé saw it, he said, “What about this?” The ring above my wedding ring is an eternity band and it is one [in which the diamonds] go all the way around. My mom always had a preference for rings like that. She said, “diamonds are not just for show, so it shouldn’t just be the part that people see, but it should be for you as well.” I made that band for my sister and myself, so we exchanged those eternity bands.
When did you give it to your sister?
UA: I gave it to her the night before our wedding. It was a way to symbolize that nothing changes when you marry, you just sort of add. My sister is by far my person, and somebody that I would give my life for, and so we wear this to remind each other of that.
UA: I grew up thinking that I wanted a cushion cut diamond or an old Asscher cut because I love old, natural diamonds and I think they’re so beautiful. And as we were talking about getting married, my now husband asked, “What do you think about a round diamond?” And I said, “Oh gosh, have you seen this cushion cut?” He’s like, “What about a round diamond?” And so I was like, “How about you decide? All I ask is that it not be set too high because of what I do, I don’t want it to get caught very often.” And so I just left it to him and, good boy, he did a very good job and I love it.
What is this last band?
UA: The last one is the hardest one to wear because it’s my mother’s wedding band. I only just started wearing it a month ago. When my mom died, my sister and I would just stare at her jewelry. We even left her wedding ring and engagement ring where she put them down before going to the hospital. Her watch is there, her pajamas are there. Everything is as it was. And about six months ago my sister and I decided that we have to continue to live and she would want us to wear her pieces. And so, my sister took one of the other pieces my mom wore every day and I took this one.
Has there ever been an instance where pastries and diamonds have intertwined at Mah-Ze-Dahr?
UA: Oftentimes people request cakes that say, “Will you marry me?” Or we’ll create a lot of pastries for engagement parties or weddings. Our pastries and mah-ze-dahr are so much a part of the celebration that goes with getting a diamond on your finger.
One of my favorite engagement stories was about a couple who had their first date here at the bakery and then met at the bakery often because it was halfway between where each of them lived. When they were ready to get engaged, the guy came to me and said, “I want to do a private baking class for my girlfriend and at the end of it, I want to propose to her.” So, we did this whole baking class down in the kitchen which was lovely. She was so excited and happy. Then, in the end, I said, “We’re going to pack up all your pastries, so why don’t you guys just go get washed up and when you come back I’ll have the boxes.” We had nestled the ring box into one of the pastry boxes.
As we were handing them the pastry boxes, I said to the woman, “You should just check them to make sure you have everything that you need in there.” And she said, “Oh no, we’re fine.” And I said, “No, just make sure in case you want to move pastries around, in case you guys are going to different places or something.” She’s like, “No, no, we’re going out together.” And I said, “Well, just make sure I put the scones in because I know you love the scones and just make sure they’re in that box, in that particular box.” She’s about to hand it to her boyfriend to do that. And he’s like, “Let me just quickly tie my shoe before we leave.”
So, then I quickly ran [away], he got down on one knee, she was opening a box, saw the ring box, and turned around to ask what it was. He was there on one knee and proposed. That, for me, was one of my favorite engagement stories.
Photographer: Vincenzo Dimino Video Creative Director: Brian Anstey Video Production: Arrow Media Productions