Lords of the Ring: True Tales of Diamond Dealing on Jewelers Row

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By Elena Rodina

I know all the diamond dealers in person. Amar, an Indian with dark sad eyes whose secretary wears a bright sari and a flowery perfume. Israeli Amit, with his heavily gelled black hair, endless number of pink shirts, and insatiable energy to flirt. Each time we meet he blurts out all the Russian words he knows: “stopochka,” “zdravstvuite,” “svoloch” and “ochen khorosho,” smiling seductively. A Chinese lady, Mina, so small she is barely visible behind her littered table. Whenever I come over she is eating, her head hovering over a bowl of aromatic noodles. We all work in one tall building, a tower of Babel in downtown Chicago, filled with Israelis, Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians, Poles, Bulgarians, Argentinians and Chileans, and so many more strange and unidentifiable characters from faraway places. English is used here less frequently than Chinese or Hindi, but we understand each other perfectly. We all do the same thing. We sell diamonds.

Everything Is Illuminated
“Once I almost committed suicide. I arranged everything: dying in a car crash, wife getting one-million-dollars worth of life insurance. But I screwed it up. Got too drunk and the cops got me for speeding. So I am still alive, don’t know what for, really… How can I help you?” John abruptly ends his tragic monologue and smiles with a fake, weary smile to the young couple awkwardly entering the store.

I would be awkward too: the place is so bright, lit even during the day by the multiple lamp bulbs tucked in every corner. As soon as you step inside the emptiness, four salespeople begin dissecting you with their stares. Rectangular glass cases look like transparent pharaohs’ tombs filled with thousands of dollars, sparkling and winking at you in the form of diamond rings and necklaces. Cameras on the ceiling are watching your every step.

Those who come here are about to spend five-to-ten-thousand dollars on a little transparent stone and to put it in an engagement ring. It might be a proof of eternal love, but I often see the downside of it: couples yelling, being mean, greedy, criticizing and mocking each other, fighting, and sometimes returning their purchases after a breakup or a divorce. We diamond people see too much and become cynical.

Robert the King
The owner’s name is Robert, and he is The Boss. Once you recover from the shock of the blinding lightbulbs and diamonds shining at you from all over the place, you pass through the lines of overly friendly staff, and you can finally see Him, staring back at you with a hungry grin.

Robert sits at his desk in the back of the store like a spider in a net, and intently watches all the customers coming in and out.

He never ceases to project a large toothy smile. He dyes his hair black and boasts that at fifty-seven he’s got the body of a thirty-five-year-old. He wears a pedometer and likes to let us know how many steps he takes on a particular day by walking back and forth to work. There are rumors that my colleague once saw Robert standing on the staircase leading to our second-floor office, looking down at the store and exclaiming: “This is my kingdom, and I am the king!” One summer Robert painted that particular staircase bright regal red, to the horror of his brothers, co-owners of the business. They waited till he left on vacation and painted it back to discreet black.

Every day starts the same. While we arrange diamond jewelry in the windows and cases, Robert takes inventory and yells in despair, “I’m missing a diamond! No one starts to work until we find it.” He usually finds the missing stone on his own table, buried somewhere under the heaps of documents, papers, envelopes, family photos, his wife’s old jewelry, Pepto-Bismol, mint mouth freshener, and other more incredible and useless stuff Robert tends to accumulate.

The thing is, diamonds are easy to lose.

Each stone is traditionally wrapped in two layers of paper, transparent blue and thick white. These wraps (produced almost exclusively in Israel) are transferred from dealers to stores and back by specially hired people called “runners.” Runners keep little wraps in their purses or pockets, sometimes carrying around several hundred thousand dollars worth of diamonds. Often salespeople have to run themselves, so we do just the same, stick the thing in the pocket and pray it does not fall out on the way. The most expensive diamond I carried in the pocket of my cheap H&M pants was a hundred-ten-thousand dollar emerald cut, designated for a Texas woman who had walked into our store wearing a coat made of three extinct animal species. I kept my sweaty palm on my pocket the whole time I was waiting for the traffic light to turn green, surrounded by a crowd of potential robbers in the middle of the busiest district of Chicago.

Fingers and Fears
Once on St. Patrick’s Day an angry customer walked into the door. I asked him if I could help and he said that yes, I sure could. I was longingly looking outside the window at the crowds of happy people dressed in green, carrying bottles of beer in their hands, and knew this customer was going to be a trouble. He said that he had bought a wedding band from us the week before, and we had said it was silver. However, in a couple of days the ring and his ring finger started changing color. He showed me his hand and, to my horror, I saw that one finger was bright green. I realized that somehow we had sold this poor guy a sample, forgetting that the samples were made of cheap metal alloys that can cause severe allergic reactions. “Well, maybe your finger turned green because of St. Patrick’s Day,” I tried to joke. The guy’s face remained grim. When your finger turns green, it’s hard to maintain a good sense of humor.

People tend to be nervous when they spend big money on something they don’t understand. They know that they have to buy a diamond to meet societal expectations, but feel robbed all the same. Frequently, my customers are boyfriends who come alone and want to buy a diamond to get engaged. I keep Kleenex and Windex handy, because these clients leave massive sweaty handprints on my black working table. In their normal life they are successful attorneys, businessmen, government clerks, police officers and university professors; in a diamond store they are like newborn children who have no idea of what is really better, a JVS2 princess cut or a GSI2 round. Some act highly aggressively, compensating for a lack of confidence; others relax way too much and seem to confuse me with their shrink, telling me their life stories, reminiscing about childhood experiences and early trauma. Several times I was asked out for a date.

When the newly engaged come over to choose a diamond together, you can see the dynamics of their relationship straight away: who is in charge, who is in love, and who is not. I still remember a couple where the girl, very assertive and business-like, kept teasing her fiancé about his “fat fingers.” The poor guy, awkward and quiet, blushed and sweated but never fought back. Another time the couple could not decide what kind of diamond they wanted just because they could hardly communicate: she was a pretty Vietnamese in her twenties, her fiancé, an American in his sixties, and she did not speak any English. One woman, John’s customer, spent months and months coming back and staring at two stones she had narrowed her choice down to (the stones looked identical; John hated her with all his heart). In the end she let her fiancé choose. Less than a month later she brought the ring back saying she still did not like the stone.

The saddest story was when a man came to our store asking us to buy a diamond from him. He had bought a very expensive diamond but now had no money for the wedding, which he estimated at around $30,000. We bought his stone, giving him a third of what he had paid. That very day we sold him a cubic zirconia for $50 and set it in the ring instead of the diamond. It looked just the same, but the guy left in tears.

The Price
A diamond is not a very good investment: if you buy it and then want to sell it back, most likely you won’t get much for it. Partially this happens because diamonds are plentiful, and most stores do not want to own them—they just borrow them from the dealers and return the unsold ones. Another reason is that the markups on diamonds are rather high and can easily reach fifty percent, although in the stores like ours the usual practice is to add twenty-percent markup. In our store we could lower it down to fifteen percent, or raise it as much as we wish. A cool customer might get a discount—a jerk might talk his way into a forty-percent markup.

With very little effort the store earns three to four thousand dollars for each stone sold. All the diamonds sold in the Chicago Diamond District are found through the same system everyone uses: an internet web page called Rapnet. The site features a daily-updated database with information on most of the existing diamond dealers from all over the world. When we need a certain stone, we just enter the specs and press “search.” The system shows who has the right diamonds and what the price is. In case the stone is located in Chicago, sure enough it belongs to one of the dealers from Wabash Street, right in our building or next door.

All the stores in the area are supplied by the same dealers, and the difference in price depends on the markups the stores make. Those customers who are trying to find the best and the cheapest diamond and make appointments in various businesses basically look at the same stones which are “migrating” from one store to another. It is a fun game sometimes. If you see a serious customer and know he is looking for something very specific, you can quickly get all the stones matching his criteria from all the local dealers and just sit on them for a week or so, waiting for the guy to come back. His chance of getting a diamond somewhere else is very small.

The Tricks
We all have our own personal tricks we use to sell better. John uses a shock therapy of being almost rude and telling the customers they do not know what they want, and he does. He often swears at them and loses his temper, but his teddy-bearish look makes them think he is joking (he is not; he is on antidepressants and hates people, but no one believes that). Robert tells tales: he’s got a story on each occasion and slowly bores customers to death, describing the life of one of the members of his extended family; at some point it is easier to buy a diamond from him than to keep listening. Aditi, my Indian colleague, has a couple of award-winning phrases that she uses strategically in her heavily accented English. When she wants the indecisive customer to buy a certain stone, she looks at it with widened eyes and exclaims: “It is biu-ti-fu-li!” If a customer tries to bargain, she makes a sad face and states that she cannot make this ridiculously low price even lower because her “be-ibi needz shu-uz” (in reality, she is married to a rich diamond dealer and her baby is doing just fine).

There are universal rules, too. If a customer wants to buy a less expensive stone that would inevitably look yellowish (the cheaper the stone is, the less white it is), we make sure we show it against a special black velvet tray. A darker background makes a diamond look sparklier and whiter.

We often play the game of “which one you like best”: when the customer hesitates, we ask a colleague to point out the stone he or she “likes.” We don’t have to warn each other or show secret signs: a professional diamond seller can see right away which stone is higher in quality and, therefore, pricier; we point out the priciest. We always act excited about the rings our customers order, even if the rings are the ugliest creations we have ever seen; later we can discuss how ugly they are with each other. The worse the ring or the diamond is, the more enthusiastic you have to be. Simple as it is, this approach works miracles. We even used to treat our clients to champagne, and it worked great until some angry competitor complained to the police that we serve alcoholic beverages to underaged customers. After that we just started recommending the bar next door where the customer can “think about the future purchase over a glass of beer.”

Time came when I decided to quit my job and leave the diamond world, at least for a while. I was getting married myself. No diamonds were involved, just simple silver wedding bands my husband and I made ourselves. On my last day at work I was helping a customer who wanted to buy a big diamond. I did not care to sell anymore; it was my last day and I just wanted to relax and have fun. I told the guy he did not have to buy such an expensive stone or at least did not have to buy it from me, and recommended he think and walk around, look at other sellers and stores, advising him not to be in a hurry. I even told him what I honestly thought: that buying a diamond was not a very wise thing to do, and that he could do so many other things with that money.

If the guy seemed hesitant in the beginning, after my inspired speech he bought the stone from me straight away, almost hurriedly, as if he suspected that I would hide the stone and keep it for myself.

All tricks considered, sometimes telling the truth works best.


Note: This is a nonfiction story, but names have been changed to protect the somewhat innocent.

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