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The Small Apple Inside the Big Apple: The Web of Cultures in the Diamond District

Posted by Yvonne Raley on

Midtown Manhattan is quiet these days; subway rides are down 85%, restaurants are shuttered, food carts diminished or vanished entirely, flagship stores on 5th Avenue are available for rent, Times Square is a ghost town… But once you get to the corner of 6th Avenue and 47th Street, life seems to be almost back to normal.  Most of the exchanges are open and fairly busy, and the street itself is lively.  While high end purchases are down and a number of vendors have moved out or closed, this is not something you can easily tell just by walking down the street.

When I think back to my first forays into the Diamond District, I remember being struck by how many different cultures and languages could be found on just one block, diverse groups all conversing with one another, making deals, offering and receiving work.  The people in the Diamond District have somehow survived stock market crashes, terrorist attacks, and here they are still amidst the mass exodus that has befallen NYC post Covid-19.  

The short block between 5th and 6th Avenues has formed its own varied culture in one of the most diverse cities on the planet. I sometimes think that more languages are spoken on this block than in all of New York City combined.  

The centerpiece of the Diamond District is of course the diamond trade itself. To this day, that trade is dominated by the Hasidim - Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn who speak Yiddish mixed with Hebrew and, of course, English.  Other Jewish diamond dealers are more recent immigrants from Israel, yet others, mostly those working in colored diamonds and other colored gems, are largely Indian, speaking Hindi, Gujrati and English with its own unique inflection.  Some of the colored gem dealers are Sri Lankan so you can add Sinhalese to the mix, as well.

My first jewelers/setters were from Hong Kong and spoke Cantonese.  Only one person in the entire shop spoke English.  My pearl stringer was from China, and so was the guy I knew only as "the man who drills holes" as well as doing some other simple lapidary work.  Many Chinese in the Diamond District speak only Cantonese, but you don’t need much English to communicate and even less to do good work.

Spanish is another very commonly spoken language on “the street.” My polisher and several other polishers and jewelers I know are from various places in South America.  The wax carver I occasionally use grew up in Peru.  My engraver, by contrast, is from an entirely different part of the universe: the Ukraine.

Probably the most interesting group of languages spoken in the Diamond District centers around the Armenian culture.  As my jeweler explained to me once, Armenians living in Turkey were denied entry into most professions and learning the jewelry trade was one of their few options.  In the Diamond District, Armenian workmanship is highly sought after.  

After being expelled, Armenians ended up in many parts of the world: Greece, Iran, and parts of Russia among many others.  Correspondingly you hear not only various forms of Armenian spoken in the Diamond District but also Greek, Russian, Kurdish, Farsi, Arabic, Turkish and even French.

One of the languages spoken the least (almost never actually), is, you guessed it, German.  So I’m sort of the “odd man out” both in terms of nationality but also in terms of my philosophy degrees. There are not many ex-Philosophers in the jewelry trade, lol.  One also doesn’t hear many Africans languages being spoken, though you do when you go to Tucson.  There you can add Swahili, Malagasy and many other African languages to the mix.  

For all its diversity, I have not experienced any culture or race based animosity in the Diamond District.  Many people are personal friends regardless of their background.  Because there is a bit of a subdivision of trades between cultures everyone has to work with everyone else at some point.  Disputes, when they arise, are usually settled within the Diamond District without resorting to the court room.

I’m sure my optimistic description of the Diamond District appears overly rosy to some, but I'm pleased my outlook can be on the positive side, especially these days when we all need each other’s support more than ever.


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