In Manhattan’s diamond district, Mascha Seiden is known as the queen of 47th Street, at least the stretch of it between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas. For more than 50 years, she has been inspecting pieces of jewelry and chatting with customers from behind the counter of her store, Paul Seiden Jewelers. These days, though, fewer customers have been coming in.
Outside the shop, which specializes in diamonds and antique jewelry and has a few sellers under one roof, is a sign that says, “No mask, no entry.” Like most stores in the district, it has a mandatory station where security guards check body temperatures and face coverings.
But even as Ms. Seiden’s shop imposes restrictions on guests, she herself was not wearing a mask last Friday. A colleague who had a mask on explained that Ms. Seiden had been through worse and was not afraid of the virus. Ms. Seiden survived the Holocaust, after all.
The state of the diamond district — a mixture of anxious activity and defiant toughness, masked and unmasked — sums up much of what New York City is going through right now. Not only has Midtown seen tourism and office life evaporate since March, but the district’s stores specialize in items — diamonds, gems, jewelry, watches — that are threatened by the online economy. As for the mask tensions, many shop owners and managers are Orthodox Jews, some of whom live in neighborhoods where mask protocol has not been strict, and as such, have experienced an rise in coronavirus cases.
But also like the rest of the city, the diamond district continues its hustle, despite the health and financial challenges many of its workers face.
Last week, a typical early afternoon on 47th Street saw barkers, many maskless, standing outside shop windows draped in watches, diamond rings and gold chains, soliciting customers. “Are you lost?” one yelled. “You’re supposed to be in here.” Another hollered, “We have beautiful items!” When customers entered their stores, shopkeepers would then put on face shields or pull masks over their noses.
The flurry of activity does a convincing job of glossing over what the 100-year-old district has been through since March.
A man in his 30s who runs his father’s watch store, and who insisted he be referred to only by his nickname, David, for privacy and safety concerns, summed up the situation: As nonessential businesses, the diamond district shops shut down this spring. Upon reopening, they soon boarded up again because of worries about violence and looting during the protests against police brutality over the summer. Nearby hotels and Broadway theaters, which bring tourists and therefore business to the district, remain empty.
David then addressed the tensions on the street: “If I walk outside without a mask, which I do sometimes — I just forget — people curse at me. They say, ‘What the hell is wrong?’ and I say, ‘I’m sorry, I forgot,’” he continued. “In general, everything is at a pressure point.”
Since the 1920s the diamond district has maintained a thriving, bazaarlike marketplace. It has survived the Great Depression, a world war and Hurricane Sandy. Its most recent Hollywood treatment came with the 2019 movie “Uncut Gems,” starring Adam Sandler.
The Diamond District Partnership, a business improvement group, estimates that over 90 percent of the diamonds that enter the United States go through New York City. Most pass through the diamond district, home to more than 2,600 businesses, according to the partnership.
A majority of them are on the same block. “These places, they might be on the 11th floor of the building,” said Loren O’Neal, the owner of Dripped by Jersey, who makes custom pieces for private clients and has her office in the neighborhood.
The diamond district has faced serious challenges before. One major financial hurdle emerged about 20 years ago, said Barak Richman, author of “Stateless Commerce,” a book that explores the history and inner workings of 47th Street.
In the late 1990s, the wholesaler De Beers, which for much of the last century dominated the global diamond market, started experiencing declining market shares.
In response, De Beers changed its business model, even opening its own stores to court shoppers directly. “Instead of De Beers staying in their London office and selling diamonds directly to people on 47th Street, they started marketing diamonds directly,” Mr. Richman said. “They started to cut out the middleman, and 47th Street is all middlemen.”
Trends also changed. Synthetic diamonds grew in popularity, and younger generations started shopping for luxury goods online. “People would go into a store just to try on a ring, and then they would order it online, where it was a little cheaper,” said Alexander Sparks, who has worked in the diamond district for 20 years.
During this year’s shutdown, district jewelry makers struggled because of the compromised supply chain. To make one piece of jewelry requires an army of suppliers. There are wholesalers for the gems, stone setters, polishers and cutters. “You have to go around and get all the pieces,” Ms. O’Neal said. “The process was supercongested.”
Mr. Sparks, who now owns the online engagement ring company Alexander Sparks but still makes his jewelry in the district, turned to suppliers in Florida during the shutdown. “I wanted to keep my New York City people in business, but they couldn’t work,” he said.
Now that diamond district businesses are open again, Mr. Sparks worries about his colleagues and suppliers coming down with Covid-19. “We had a couple of people who got sick in my building a couple of weeks ago, and so everybody had to get a test,” he said. “I have one friend who owns an online business, and last week one of his suppliers tested positive.”
Some customers, however, have been impressed with the district’s safety efforts. Last week, Jacci Jaye, a stylist who lives nearby, visited to select some gems for a photo shoot with a jewelry designer.
“We all wore face masks, as well as made use of the hand-sanitizing stations that were in abundance in every store we went into,” Ms. Jaye said. “Each store and kiosk also had plastic protective barriers up.” She added that security guards opened and closed doors for her, and temperature checks were performed everywhere she went.
But Ms. O’Neal said she still sees many diamond district employees not wearing masks: “I did a photo shoot about a month ago, and I wore my face shield around because I was so concerned.”
Ms. O’Neal is among several online jewelers with connections to the diamond district who are thriving.
“Surprisingly for me, business has been better now than before the pandemic,” said Ms. O’Neal, whose Dripped by Jersey Instagram account has 12,000 followers. “When I was allowed to reopen I had people messaging me, ‘I want this, I want that.’ I had people inquiring about watches, engagement rings, custom pieces, everything.”
Mr. Sparks, who has nearly 100,000 followers on Instagram, also said his sales have been up. “I had a slowdown in March, and I thought: ‘That’s it. I am going to be crushed,’” he said. But business picked up again in late spring. “A lot of people are still getting engaged, and those are my customers.”
His friends who rely on storefront sales are in worse shape. “Three or four that I know of went out of business,” he said.
Foot traffic is down because no one wants to try on jewelry while wearing a mask, grumbled an employee of Allure Diamonds, also on 47th Street.
And forget about the international clientele. “The customers from different countries are not coming because they do not fly,” said Olivia Siag, an owner of Diamonds by Siag, a 47th Street shop she has run with her husband for 40 years. “Wednesdays, we used to have people from all over because they would come before seeing a show. We would also have people who came from Florida, California and Texas. They aren’t here right now.”
Ms. Siag said her shop was relying on regular repeat customers. David, the watch dealer, is also depending on the established clientele of his father’s shop, which has been in the district since 1980.
Some of the old-school jewelers are trying to improve their online presence but are not having an easy time.
“It’s really hard to do business in the diamond industry virtually,” said Mr. Richman, the author. “To do it right, you’ve got to inspect the diamond. You have to see things in person and check out what is happening in the marketplace. That is the reason you’ve always seen physical diamond centers.”
David’s issues with virtual business, although more romantic, are arguably just as important. “My daughter’s first day of school was in September, and I took her to buy a necklace with her letter on it,” he said. “It was an entire day. We took the train, we walked around the city. It was beautiful and awesome. It wasn’t the $80 I spent, but it was the day we had together. I could have ordered it online and had it here the next day, but that wasn’t the point.”