"Nowhere is the truth more obscure than it is on 47th Street — go once with a girl and then with a guy and see how differently they treat you," challenges longtime jewelry designer Erica Weiner.
For all my seven years living in New York City, I had never walked down the one-block stretch between Fifth and Sixth avenues, notoriously known as the Diamond District or Diamond Jewelry Way, but believe me, I had heard plenty — to the point that it sounded like the stuff of urban legends. News clips alone paint a pretty horrifying picture of what it's like, where deception and deceit are so common, it's almost expected. And when talking to jewelry designers, diamond district characters are likened to "used car salesmen," and adjectives like "shady," "sleazy," and "sketchy" are thrown around.
So I braced myself for the worst and ventured into the underbelly of the diamond world, a place that's, ironically enough, the complete opposite of what diamonds are supposed to sell: luxury. But no, I wasn't treated terribly because I'm a woman. The biggest difference was that I was harassed more when I was with another girl. In a warped version of catcalling, we were aggressively ushered into various shops, as they tried to get us to buy something. Anything. "What are you looking for?" they persistently asked. "We'll sell you anything you find at Tiffany's but 70 percent less," they promised. "Buy one, and get one free," they desperately pitched. When I was with a guy? The hawkers left us alone.
"The hawkers are abusive to women — I see them following them. You can't even look at a window before someone runs out and grabs you," says Joe, a diamond dealer in the district for 40-some years. "There have always been dishonest people, but there's more of them now. You better believe it's hurt our reputation — that's why there's no business."
He blames the Internet and soaring rents (which is why crowded exchanges are overrun with a growing number of jewelry vendors that can no longer afford standalone storefronts) both for declining sales (in the heyday, he used to make multiple sales a day, and now, if he's lucky, one a week) and for driving hawkers to such extremes.
But the pervasiveness of sexism runs much deeper than how female shoppers are treated: The industry itself is fundamentally sexist. It's controlled by a few key players whose families have been in the business for generations, all of which — you guessed it — is run by men. It feels particularly archaic now, not only because diamonds are mostly worn by women, but because of the increasing number of female jewelry designers entering the space. For two industries that are so inextricably linked, the gender disparity that exists between them is astounding.
"For so long, what women were wearing was designed by old men who have no relation to what it feels like to wear a piece of jewelry every day," says Vanessa Stofenmacher, founder and creative director of Vrai & Oro. "If you go to Kay Jewelers, Walmart, Jared, there's a distinct generic look and it's because these elder men are buying and creating jewelry, like heart-shaped pendants, for women. They're not thinking about who's wearing the jewelry, and no one told them they should be doing things differently."
But a great little thing called the Internet has evened the playing field (first with Etsy, and then with Pinterest and Instagram), giving emerging designers — specifically women — who otherwise may not have had access to this world a direct platform to share their designs. In a very short amount of time, we've seen an enormous spike in influential female jewelers, ranging from now-household names to under-the-radar entrepreneurs.
Stofenmacher launched Vrai & Oro only three years ago with the goal to deliver transparency along with minimal, wear-everywhere designs — and to great success, compounded by the promise of truly ethical diamond pieces as the result of a partnership with the lab-grown diamond business Diamond Foundry.
There's Jacquie Aiche, the bohemian queen of fine jewelry; Jennifer Fisher, the purveyor of must-have It pieces; Caitlin Mociun, who specializes in unique stone clusters; and Andrea Lipsky-Karasz of Tilda Biehn, who handcrafts modern, architectural designs. And then there's Ariel Gordon, Anna Sheffield, Lizzie Mandler, Selin Kent, Jennie Kwon — seriously, I could go on.
And while many might still have to interact with dealers to source diamonds for their jewelry, some have obstinately chosen not to. In fact, Weiner, who works exclusively with antique jewelry, says she surrounds herself with women after a negative experience on 47th Street. "I thought, how hard can it be? It was so confusing. It was so aggressive. It was so male dominated," she says. "Now, we work with older ladies who deal with very old jewelry pieces, and not with those diamond exchange dealers because it makes me feel gross. I think because we're all women, we will never have full access to that world, nor do we want it."
Within her network of female designers who work with antiques, it's not competitive despite having a similar objective. Instead, they've banded together to support one another, trade trust-worthy sources, and share information. "It's a man's industry, but our little group feels outside the 47th Street generational monarchy," Weiner continues.
All that notwithstanding, a lot of the issues that plague the diamond market is the diamond itself. For many, it's hard (and understandably so) to get past the human rights, ethical and environmental issues that go hand-in-hand with Earth-mined diamonds. For Anna-Mieke Anderson, the founder of MiaDonna, one of the first lab-grown diamond brands to exist, that was something she couldn't get behind.
"In 2005, I started doing my research and really uncovered a living nightmare — that buying a diamond can hurt a whole generation of children. I started searching for a conflict-free diamond, and there's no such thing if it comes from the earth," Anderson says. "People shouldn't be hurt for luxury items, it's as simple as that."
A large part of the problem is that a mined diamond is virtually untraceable. That means there's no way of knowing its origin — as in, there's no way of knowing if it's mined from a war zone or whether anyone was harmed in the process, even if it passes the Kimberley Process. "The definition of a conflict diamond, per the Kimberley Process, is a diamond that has been mined by insurgent forces to fund war. That means a child can still mine those diamonds and be enslaved, tortured, raped, or even murdered," Anderson says. "But it's still certified 'conflict-free' simply because it didn't fund a war. So consumers are, I believe, intentionally misled to think no one was hurt, but that's not the case."
There are major environmental impacts, too, with diamond mining (just Google Russia's Mir mine for a look at the devastating aftermath), as miners excavate deeper and wider in more remote locations, destroying eco-systems and wild habitat in the process. And OK, creating a lab-grown diamond still expends energy, yes, but Anderson argues "lab-grown diamonds have seven times less of an environmental impact than an Earth-mined diamond."
Still, when a consumer thinks of lab-grown diamonds, they think "synthetic" or "fake." Why is that?
"The mined industry has done a great job with labeling grown diamonds as 'synthetic,'" says Stofenmacher, who has found a partner in the Diamond Foundry. "But the technology behind it is amazing because it's solar-powered. It's a natural process, like growing a tomato in the greenhouse versus in your backyard. It's just changing the environment in which the diamonds are grown — not the actual diamond."
Even so, jewelers themselves aren't completely convinced. Elizabeth Doyle, one-half of the sister duo behind the antique jewelry house Doyle & Doyle, believes the story behind a piece is just as important. "For us, a lot of stones are from the 1700s and 1800s, and a lot of people like that part of it, knowing this particular diamond has lived through all these historical events," she explains. "It's the romance of that makes it what it is. With a lab-grown diamond, it's hard to associate that with romance."
In addition to the romance, Weiner says that by dealing with antique diamonds, they're not contributing to additional waste, not funding existing wars and not supporting unfair labor practices. For her, the dream, ultimately, is to have "women buy stuff for themselves — when they come in fall in love with a piece, whip out their credit card, and can spend lots of money because they're making money and spending it on cool shit for themselves; that's when we feel like our mission is being accomplished."
It points to a shift not only in how jewelry is being created, but also in how consumers are buying those pieces. Lauren Brokaw, the designer behind Stella and Bow, says she founded her brand in 2012 to meet the demand for affordable costume jewelry. But now, she's noticed a considerable change in consumer behavior, and as a result, that's led her to launch her fine jewelry line last year.
"Milliennials are ruling everything — they want fewer, but higher quality items they can have for longer, and they're paying attention to where things are coming from," Brokaw explains. "It's like food —people are willing to spend more on something to eat knowing it's better quality, as opposed to fast food."
The approach to diamond jewelry, too, has shifted. When DeBeers, rather ingeniously, concepted the "A Diamond Is Forever" ad campaign in 1960, it set the course for how we, as a society, would come to value a diamond, specifically, a diamond engagement ring. And while yes, diamond engagement rings are still the norm, what's changed is that more women are buying diamond rings for themselves.
"I think it's about women's independence, women feeling more empowered to buy things for themselves and not wait for a boyfriend or husband to buy them a gift," Stofenmacher says. "Women are working, getting married later, and they have the mindset of, 'I love this for me, I don't need anyone to give it to me.'"
Of course, transparency takes priority, especially among millennials. It's why Stofenmacher founded Vrai & Oro — to bring transparency to an industry where insane markups were the norm, stateside designers would choose pieces from a catalog of pre-made designs done overseas and materials were never clearly sourced. And when Doyle founded Doyle & Doyle with her sister Irene in 1998, they did so with the intent to shed light on costs by posting prices in their brick-and-mortar story — a first at the time.
"Customers don't feel comfortable if they don't know how much something costs, and I think that's a big difference between us and the diamond district — we don't negotiate on our prices," she says. "We research everything, so people can feel confident that the price is correct, and feel good about it."
While the jewelry industry is making real progress, with tremendous strides to close the gender gap and correct the lack of transparency, the diamond sector seems to be stuck. "It really does feel like we're living between two different times," Weiner says.
"It's a very backwards business in the way that it hasn't caught up with modern ways. It's very insular, kept within families, and a lot of transactions are based on trust," says Jared Klusner, a fifth-generation jeweler who co-founded Erstwhile Jewelry in 2010 with his wife Alisa, explaining that million-dollar deals can be done with a handshake. He believes the district will always exist, but more as a trade-only area, though he’s skeptical women will ever break into the space.
But that's not to say the diamond district will never evolve. Klusner himself, with his direct-to-consumer brand, is a shining example of just that — he's inherited the knowledge from his family and created a brand that resonates with consumers. And because of his ability to pivot and assimilate with the times, sales have gone up year over year.
Anderson and Stofenmacher are less than hopeful. There will always be a place for Earth-mined diamonds, and there will always be a market for heritage brands like Cartier and Bulgari, but they both believe a change is necessary.
"This new generation is demanding where things are coming from, and we can't hide behind the curtains anymore — it's no longer an option to not be transparent," Stofenmacher says. "Instead of marketing tactics targeting millennials, they need to be showing where diamonds are coming from, improving working conditions and stop monopolizing the trade."
If that doesn't happen? "It will be the beginning of the end for them, absolutely," Anderson says. "It's an industry so dominated by old ideas and traditions that it's just not right for today's society." And in this new of wave of feminism, perhaps it's not a bad idea if women held the reins. "Women-run companies know how to do business well, fairly, and cleanly," Weiner says. "It's our time to make it right."
Homepage image: Anna Sheffield Flying Flowers collection. Photo: Jason Wyche