Navigate to Community section

Cut Gems

How Jews brought diamonds from South Africa to Amsterdam to midtown Manhattan

Jenna Weissman Joselit
January 23, 2020
Photo: Evy Mages/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Window shopping in the Diamond District, 1996Photo: Evy Mages/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Photo: Evy Mages/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Window shopping in the Diamond District, 1996Photo: Evy Mages/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

There’s no doubt about it: Diamonds don’t just sparkle or give rise to excessive bouts of coveting. These precious bits of carbon also exert a gravitational pull on the collective imagination, prompting large numbers of people to reckon with as well as profit by them.

The Safdie brothers—whose recently released, critically acclaimed film, Uncut Gems, offers a street-level (and street-wise) view of West 47th Street, the center of the American diamond trade—are but the most recent in a long line of individuals fascinated by how and why these shiny objects obtain and retain their luster. Ever since diamond fields were discovered in South Africa in 1869, anthropologists, economists, historians, and journalists—joined, now and again, by someone with a relative in the business—have attempted to demystify the transnational diamond trade and its association with the modern Jewish experience.

As early as 1871, the Jewish Messenger thought it a good idea to familiarize its readers with the traffic in South African diamonds. It would “not be amiss,” said the American Jewish newspaper, to “form a little close acquaintance” with the stones from the moment they left the mine until they landed in Amsterdam—at the time and well into the 1890s, the center of the diamond trade—where they were then “translated into blazing artistical [sic] ornaments” by the Dutch city’s renowned army of cutters and polishers, most of them Jews.

The publication’s interest in the fabled stone was widely shared. In the closing decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, articles about the diamond trade frequently appeared in the American press, as well as in publications as diverse as the American Economist, Scientific American, and Ladies’ Home Journal.

Some stories, aglow with statistics, emphasized how diamond imports had dramatically risen in the United States in the wake of the Civil War. Others zeroed in on the seemingly casual, even picturesque way in which the stones changed hands: on the streets or “diamond curbs,” of lower Manhattan, and with a modicum of fuss, bother and paperwork. And still other articles of a more sociological bent lavished attention on how a substance extracted from the bosom of the earth ended up adorning the bosoms—and other bodily features—of affluent American women. As The Washington Post colorfully observed in 1880, “it is a rare exception to meet a woman who has not diamonds somewhere on her person and the majority have them distributed whenever it is possible to find a lodging place.”

A hefty proportion of the articles published at that time for general consumption duly noted the disproportionately large numbers of “Hollanders” in the industry, both as businessmen and as laborers, but the weight of that descriptive designation rested more on their foreignness and expertise than on their Jewishness per se.

Those accounts that appeared in the American Jewish press of the late 19th century, though, told an entirely different story, one in which the Jews qua Jews loomed large. Jewish publications made much of their coreligionists’ presence on the ground in South Africa and in Amsterdam’s workshops. They were especially proud of how, as the Jewish Messenger boastfully put it, the “diamonds of the whole civilized world have been worked and polished exclusively by the Jews of Holland, who are the sole recipients of the mysteries of diamond cutting.” The American Jewish press was equally proud of the “cheering news” that Jews who sought their fortune in South Africa sustained a strong sense of community despite being so very far from home.

Then again, the American Jewish press was just as mindful of some of the negative consequences of their coreligionists’ affinity for the precious stone, which struck them as the equivalent of the flaws in a diamond: American Jews fancied and took too much of a shine to bling. The American Israelite, for instance, tsked tsked at the sight of bediamonded Jewish women out and about in public places, urging them to forgo “trumpery” in favor of restraint, lest they be branded as “intolerably vulgar,” and tarnish the good name of the Jews. Noting as early as 1875 the growing popularity of diamond engagement rings, the weekly also called on the “mothers and daughters in Israel to discourage” the practice and to deposit the money that would otherwise go toward the purchase of a ring “in a good savings bank.” Its words fell on deaf ears.

America’s appetite for diamond engagement rings, pins, earrings, tie clips, dress studs, and cuff links showed no signs of abating. By the early 1950s, The New York Times couldn’t help wondering how diamonds remained in favor with consumers year in and year out. My colleague, Saskia Coenen Snyder, a distinguished historian of modern European Jewry, has been wondering the same thing. After six years—and still counting—of research into the diamond trade’s imperial sweep and its increasing centrality to the modern Jewish experience, she has deftly uncovered a complex dynamic, a global ethnic economy, that bound together Cape Town and London, Amsterdam and New York.

For decades, Amsterdam was the locus of the diamond trade in all of its “manipulations,” from the importation of rough, uncut diamonds to their cleaving, cutting, polishing, wholesaling, and retailing. By the 1890s, amid a cascade of events—the importation of stiff American tariffs on finished diamond imports, growing instances of labor unrest among Amsterdam’s diamond cutters and polishers, and a protracted period of economic stagnation abroad—a sizable contingent of the city’s storied diamond manufacturers made a beeline for Brooklyn and Manhattan. Establishing factories and importing workers from Holland by the hundreds to fill them, the Dutch “hegira,” as one newspaper described it, transformed New York City as thoroughly as rough stones were transformed into luxury goods. Within a few short years, the New World entrepot had superseded that of Amsterdam to become the “diamond market of the world.”

Centered within the winding byways of downtown Manhattan where today Wall Street holds forth, the emerging diamond trade of the late 19th century tapped into and added another layer to a longstanding and thriving center of jewelry manufacturing and distribution which, in the words of The New York Times, had made “Maiden Lane as equally renowned as Fifth Avenue and Broadway.”

By the early 1920s, change was afoot as more and more diamond merchants began to contemplate a move uptown, to midtown Manhattan. The prospect of inhabiting up-to-date quarters with elevators, better lighting and ventilation, more space, and heightened security systems was one incentive; the proximity of Grand Central Station was another. Pulled by convenience, the downtown jewelry trade was also increasingly pushed out of its traditional home by the growing “encroachment” of the financial services industry, whose deep pockets were able to bear the cost of higher rents. Moving uptown seemed to be the “logical” thing to do, prompting talk of a “boom” on 47th Street.

Northward migration took a while. When surveyed in 1924 about their plans, 450 jewelry businesses clustered in the Maiden Lane enclave indicated in no uncertain terms that relocating uptown was “about the last thing they would consider.” A year later, The New York Times confirmed that evidence of an “extensive migratory wave” was hard to come by.

By the 1940s, though, little remained of the downtown diamond trade; it had moved, lock, stock, and barrel, to West 47th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues. Little by little, the street’s former array of brownstones was torn down to make way for handsome, modern buildings that attended to the needs of both cutters and customers, wholesalers and retailers, with showrooms at street level and workshops up above. When, in 1941, the Diamond Dealers Club, a preeminent association of 500 members, took an entire floor at 36-38 West 47th St., there was no looking back. By then, as an industry source reported, “precious stones from all over the world now find their way to 47th Street.”

A new address was not the only thing that had changed. So, too, had public perception of the industry’s composition: What had once been muted and subtle—that a strikingly large number of those employed in the diamond trade were Jewish—was now acknowledged explicitly and publicly. No longer was it a trade secret. Demographics, the increased presence of European Jewish diamond traders and cutters known variously as “refugees” and “exiles,” some of whom banded together as early as 1940 to open their own jewelry exchange on West 47th Street, contributed mightily to that awareness. Heightened visibility confirmed it. To encounter distinctively dressed Jewish people within their own precincts was one thing; quite another to encounter them, in concentrated numbers, on the streets of midtown Manhattan.

For more than 80 years, 47th Street has held its own. But these days, one can’t help wondering whether it, too, will eventually go the way of the city’s once flourishing flower district, fur district, and garment district by falling victim to a deadly mix of factors that include increased globalization, wholesale technological change, and unreasonably high rents. Writing in 2008, urban historian Christopher Gray predicted, “it may only be a matter of time before West 47th Street becomes the Maiden Lane of the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, while we wait, diamonds still glisten and catch the sun.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.