By Susan Tomchin
“Write what you know,” Mark Twain once said. In the case of twenty-six year old Alicia Oltuski, the world she knew about was her family business—diamonds. Yet, she discovered there was much she didn’t understand about the secretive realm her father and grandfather inhabited in Manhattan’s 47th Street Diamond District. In Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family and a Way of Life (Simon and Schuster), Oltuski takes readers along as she mines the history, business and culture behind the world’s most coveted and captivating natural resource. We talked to Alicia about what she learned.
Q: Diamonds have been in the news with the announcement that Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection will be sold at Christies in December. Do diamonds today have the same aura that they did in Liz’s day?
A: I think that diamonds have always captivated the imaginations and scientific curiosity of people. Even before civilization understood them as gems they recognized that diamonds had certain superlative qualities--they were exceptionally hard and there was something magical about them. That tradition goes back a long time and you still see it today. Every once and a while, since I live in Washington, D.C., I like to stop by the Smithsonian to see the Hope diamond. One of my favorite things to do is to eavesdrop on people to hear what they say when they see it. There is this fascination that people feel.
Q: How did marketing contribute to the allure of diamonds?
A: It goes back to the De Beers advertising campaign that began shortly before World War II. That campaign is widely held to be one of the most brilliant advertising campaigns in history. Basically, Harry Oppenheimer, the head of De Beers, teamed up with advertising agency N.W. Ayer and sought to transform what diamonds meant to the world and Americans in particular. Before that, though America was the largest market for De Beers, diamonds only cost about $80 on the average. Oppenheimer needed to convince people that diamonds were worth more than that.
Through this campaign, De Beers transformed what a diamond meant. It literally became equated with love. One of the most fascinating aspects of this campaign was that, once the war had started, instead of skirting the issue and assuming that people would regard diamonds as too much of an indulgence in wartime, they actually tied the two together. They showed women wearing diamonds as they awaited their men’s return. The diamond ring was shown as a keepsake from your man who may or may not come back from overseas. The bond between diamonds and love, diamonds and eternity became interlocked in the American imagination.
The line, “A Diamond is Forever,” was created by Frances Gerety, a copywriter at N.W. Ayer, in 1948, and has been etched not only into the American mind, but the international mind.
Q: At one point, especially in the movies, diamonds, women and beauty became interlinked. Is this still true?
A: Definitely true. For a long time there was this idealization of feminine beauty and diamond beauty. You are right to say that the two are linked. On the one hand, things have changed to some extent. I was talking to someone recently about diamonds in a bad economy. There’s this saying that luxury items are the first to go because who is going to buy diamonds if you have nowhere to live? But on the other hand, diamonds have survived many recessions because they have become such an emblematic item. Whether or not we idealize them today in quite the same way we once did, almost everyone buys or gets a diamond upon engagement. That’s really something that hasn’t gone out of fashion.
For some people, the discovery of blood diamonds in the late ‘90s and early 2000s cast a shadow over that sort of idealization. There are a lot of efforts now toward ethical diamond sourcing. People are looking into fair trade diamonds, which don’t exist yet because of monitoring complications. There are a lot of people working toward those and toward development diamonds which help the communities from where they are sourced.
Q: Is the diamond business a “Jewish business?”
A: Historically it’s very Jewish, but it’s certainly not only Jewish. And the demographic on 47th Street, the center of the diamond district is changing: There are about 500 Indian offices on 47th Street. I think that’s to the benefit of the industry. It’s still an insular, secretive and familial business, but it’s an economic family, not a religious or cultural family.
Q: The diamond industry you write about is predominately male, though you do write about a couple of successful women in your book. Generally, do you see women making headway?
A: I think it’s important to distinguish between the diamond industry as a whole and the New York Diamond district. When you walk along 47th Street and go into the exchanges, essentially trading halls filled with booths where anyone is allowed to come in and buy, that environment does contain a lot of women at the retail level. As you start making your way up toward the offices and enter the Diamond Dealers Club, you enter a world that is predominately male.
When I was researching the book between 2008 and 2010, I did speak to a number of women. What really struck me was that, whereas a lot of men were fated to go into the diamond business because that’s what their fathers did, some of the women made an accidental or detoured entry into the business. Many said they never intended to go into the business but that something happened, such as the death of a relative, and they ended up there anyway.
It’s also changing with a new generation of diamond dealers. One of the most popular forms of training for prospective dealers is a two-year course in graduate gemology at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), which of course accepts female students. It now seems to have a fairly equal ratio of men to women. But now there aren’t as many new dealers [of either sex] coming into the business because of the recession.
Q: What are the ways you see the industry changing?
A: The starkest example of change is the integration of Internet sales. When my father grew up dealing in diamonds it was a very personal endeavor. You would pore over the gemstones, talk to the owner, bargain ferociously, take a stone to show a friend and ask his opinion. I witnessed my father doing that. With Internet sales you see a diamond’s dimensions and attributes online. You might see a photograph. You don’t hold it in your hand until it’s paid for. It’s a very different kind of buying and selling.
I would venture to say that it will change not only how we buy and sell diamonds but also standards by which we measure them. For now, people buy based on subjective qualities. I would witness my father making a deal and he would ask: “Does this diamond have life?” He was really asking if it was pretty, beyond all of the gradations of cut, color and quality. I’m not sure you can determine this by viewing a diamond online. Q: How can someone who is buying a diamond make sure that it isn’t a “blood diamond”?
A: The reality of blood diamonds has changed a lot over the past 10 years or so. Basically the civil wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s in such countries as Angola, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo were originally linked to the term “blood diamonds”—diamonds that are mined and sold for rebel armies seeking to overthrow legitimate governments. When these things came to light, the Kimberley process was created. That’s basically the international monitoring system for rough diamonds. For a long time that helped. In the middle of the 1990s, when Angola’s war was still going on, conflict diamonds represented about 15 percent of international sales. In 2000 that number was closer to 3 or 4 percent. When I was writing the book it was about a 10th of a percent. In a very real way blood diamonds were almost eradicated from the international diamond trade.
In 2006 gem quality diamonds were found in part of Zimbabwe called Merengue. Soon after that, according to experts, authorities associated with government said that anyone could mine them. Chaos soon ensued and the police and the army attempted to stabilize the situation. According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch, enormous human rights abuses were associated with this area in Merengue and in 2008; more than 200 people were killed within a span of three weeks. Some people feel that this is the new generation of blood diamonds. In this case, the people who were accused of human rights abuses were authorities associated with the government itself.
For many people, the Kimberly certificate is still the marker of a diamond that is not a blood diamond. Other people would disagree. Today there are new efforts being made to ensure that not only are diamonds not associated with any human rights abuses, but that they actually benefit the communities in which they are mined.