On Forty-Seventh Street in New York City, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, the diamond vendors dominate all other businesses. The one-block area is called the Diamond District, and Hasidic Jews travel back and forth among the shops, creating an ambiance similar to that of a Chagall painting without the beautiful colors and flowers.
The street is filled with buyers of diamonds as they run around shopping for a good deal. Some come to buy large diamonds that vary wildly in price, depending on quality. On average, a perfect stone of roughly 1.5 carats appraises for the equivalent of the annual income of a minimum-wage employee. Because a stone could seem good or bad to the naked eye, expert appraisers handle the job of distinguishing quality and value. Buyers routinely appraise a diamond they want by taking it to a so-called independent appraiser across the street. However, the idea that these appraisers are independent and that they can guarantee the quality of a diamond is illusory, because the appraisal businesses are controlled by the same families and friends who control the retail shops. It is an insider’s game in which buyers rarely get what they pay for. So why do they shop in the Diamond District? Because they can get a good deal compared to the prices the jewelry shops on Fifth Avenue charge, and because it is hard to judge good diamonds with the naked eye.
On a wintry, overcast day, a lone female appears on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Forty-Seventh Street. She wears large, dark shoes with laces and a beige overcoat. Her hair is black and long, and a large hat covers most of her face. She walks like an old woman, and if people were paying attention, they would notice her strange quality. But it is a fleeting New York moment, and she is just another person on the crowded streets.
She walks into the Rapp Appraisal business and asks the attendant for an appraisal. He tells her to wait in the small anteroom on a cheap chair that looks like a leftover from a hotel ballroom. Finally, after twenty minutes, she is summoned to see Mr. Rapp. In his messy office full of papers and strange objects, there is a small area of leather, where Mr. Rapp assesses diamonds. She notices his black coat and white garment with long tassles that flow past his thighs when he gets up to greet her. He is a Hasidic Jew. She immediately pulls out a small black leather sack with a rock in it and sets it on the leather.
“Our standard fee is one seventy-five,” said Mr. Rapp.
“My friend sent me here because you charged one twenty-five,” she countered in a raspy forced voice. “His name is Martin Cetrero.”
“You know Martin? Huh…OK, one twenty-five. Let me see the rock.”
Mr. Schwarz took his loupe and studied the stone carefully.
“Nice one,” he said.
The lady remained silent. Mr. Rapp weighed it at 705 milligrams.
“Three point five carats,” he said.
“I am aware of that. Should bring fifty-five, right?”
“You a retailer? Maybe in retail you could get that.”
“How much wholesale?”
“I can give you thirty-five, right now, no questions.”
“Forty and it’s yours.”
Mr. Rapp swung his chair around and opened a cabinet. Inside was a safe, which he opened simply by giving the door’s lever a quarter turn. This transaction might have appeared to be unsafe, but the network of family businesses in the Diamond District provided extra security—escaping after a robbery was practically impossible. No robberies in daylight had ever succeeded, not in decades.
He took out four stacks of brand new hundred-dollar bills, wrapped in straps with the number “10,000” printed on their sides. In less than a minute, he had handed over forty thousand dollars for a flawless rock he could turn around and sell the next day at sixty-five, maybe even seventy if the color proved to be better than it appeared to be at first glance. The lady took out her reading glasses and checked the money carefully, quickly flipping through every bill. Her nails were short, her cuticles smeared with red nail polish. Old age, perhaps, thought Mr. Rapp. She placed the money inside the money belt she wore beneath her gabardine coat.
“Thanks,” she said, then stood and left Mr. Rapp with a smile on his face that only a sure and quick profit could impart.
The lady took a yellow cab up Madison Avenue to Seventh-Eighth Street, where she got out and walked into a beautiful gallery with blue-chip Impressionist-era art displayed in its windows. Inside, she was greeted by the manager and escorted to a private office where the owner sat.
“I have the money,” she said, handing him the four ten-thousand bundles.
“Good,” the man replied, then began to count the cash.
“It’s all there.”
“I must, you know…”
She waited visibly uncomfortable in her attire standing up every once in a while to adjust her pantyhose in a non-ladylike fashion. When he was finished making sure the forty thousand was all accounted for, he handed her a framed oil painting of two white doves perched on a rooftop measuring nine inches by twelve inches. It was a 1955 piece by famed American artist Milton Avery.
“I wanted it unframed,” she said.
“Yes, I know, but it’s really a beautiful frame, and it protects it,” he replied.
“OK,” she said.
“You know he is the American Matisse.”
“I am quite familiar with his work. Do you have my provenance papers?”
“Yes, of course,” the man said, handing her an envelope.
She read the provenance and, satisfied, left the gallery with a wrapped package that fit in a shopping bag, crossed the street walking upright and firmly to a small Milanese shop called Sant Ambroeus, and had an espresso and a tiny sandwich that cost nearly twenty dollars. She mailed the provenance papers to her home and ended with two painted doves in a shopping bag that would fly easily in luggage to a far away land.