By Ben Schott – NY Times
The public face of New York’s diamond district is Diamond and Jewelry Way, a block of 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues lined with dazzlingly lit shops and exchanges and cluttered by hawkers, hustlers, cops and couriers. But beyond these street-level operations, in back rooms, upper floors and looming towers, toils an army of cutters, blockers, polishers, sorters, appraisers, graders, designers and dealers — most of whom the diamond-buying public never sees.
Or hears. The street has its own vocabulary, honed over generations and still used today. The prevalence of Yiddish reflects the historic influence of Jewish craftsmen and dealers. But the diamond business is international, and on Diamond and Jewelry Way it is not uncommon to hear Russian, Indian, Dutch, French, Belgian, Korean and other accents enunciating the mame-loshn (literally, “mother tongue”) of Eastern European Jewry, and a few non-Yiddish phrases as well.
Diamond sellers, or diamantaires, deploy an extensive nomenclature of technical terms to describe their wares — not just the famous Four C’s of color, clarity, cut and carat weight, but also dimensions, fluorescence, inclusions (flaws), polish and symmetry. Traders will instantly know what the description “round G 4.18 VVS₂ TRIP X” means, as well as the diamond’s value. On examination, they can judge if that stone’s color is a “good G” or “low G” and whether its clarity is actually the inferior VS₁. These terms may be tricky to decipher (and trickier still to apply commercially), but they are widely known. In the business, however, there are many other words to describe what really matters about a given stone, or shteyn(Yiddish), steen (Dutch), pierre (French), almaz (Russian) or hira (Hindi).
Unless otherwise noted, all non-English terms are Yiddish or are derived from Yiddish and are rendered using the transliteration system developed by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
ILLUSTRATION BY ANDREW RAE
Carat or CT · A carat (200 milligrams) is divided into both 100 points and fourgrains. A “20-pointer” weighs one-fifth of a carat (or 40 milligrams), and a “six-grainer” weighs 1.5 carats (or 300 milligrams). Dealers say “light” to indicate weights shy of a common fraction; a “light-half” can weigh from 0.45 to 0.49 carats.
Rough · Uncut and unpolished stones.
Strop · A stone that won’t sell; a bad buy. Some dealers are anxious to unload their strops, even at a loss, to release capital or just to dispose of a dud. Others reckon that strops are not actually costing them anything, so they let them “sit in the back of the safe,” literally or metaphorically, for years (generations, even). Sometimes forgotten stones surge back into fashion, hence the saying “People get rich on strops.”
Khazeray · Junk; trash.
Links-shtivl · “Left-footed boots”; a parcel of khazeray in which nothing matches. “I can’t find a pair of stones to make earrings in this links-shtivl.” Also, linker: left; awry; illegitimate; illegal.
Shlok · Junk; rubbish; fake; second-rate merchandise.
Shvimers · “Swimmers”; especially impressive stones that seem to “swim across the surface” of loose diamonds, improving the appearance of lesser ones. Also,floaters.
Mame-zitser · “Mother sitter”; a very large diamond.
Tam · “Flavor”; appeal. When comparing diamonds, an expert will instinctively sense which has the greater tam.
Trip(le) (e)x · Any stone with an “excellent” grading for cut, polish and symmetry.
Fisheye · An unappealingly flat stone. Also, pancake.
Roval · A nearly round, fat oval; ugly; undesirable; unsalable.
Matzo · A stone made to look larger by cutting it flat at the widest spot.
Fir-kantike eyer · “Four-cornered eggs”; an impossible request; a stone (or price) that doesn’t exist. “You’re looking for fir-kantike eyer — go down to the Smithsonian.”
Bluff stone · An impressive looking (bluffy) diamond that is not as valuable as it appears.
Estate jewelry · Secondhand. The term post-consumer has recently been adopted to appeal to those concerned about the humanitarian and ecological costs of newly mined stones.
Melee · From mêlé, French for “mixed”; small cut-and-polished diamonds (often 0.18 carats or less) used as accent stones or in dense pavé settings, where many stones cover an area of metal. Melee is commonly sold in parcels or lots, for which the price rises as the buyer becomes more selective:
Whole/lot price: entire parcel
Cut price: unsorted division
Sort/pick price: hand-selection
Brivke or parcel-paper · A folded wrap of paper used to store stones.
Cachet · A small, plain (often Manila) envelope used in deals mediated by a broker. A seller lends a broker a selection of stones to show potential buyers. If a buyer likes a stone (or stones), he wraps it in a brivke, seals it in a cachet and writes his name, offer price and payment terms along the flap. This ensures that the stone can’t be shown to anyone else. The broker returns the cachet to the seller, who accepts the deal or makes a counteroffer. The broker takes the cachet back to the buyer, who can agree to the sale, strike out the counteroffer and write in a new price, or tear the cachet open — releasing the stone back to the market and ending the negotiation. Brokers usually take commish or C.O. (commission) of around two percent from the seller on any sales they close.
Loupe · A hand-held magnifying lens, usually with a magnification power of 10. An informal clarity grading rank of diamonds is: loupe clean (no inclusions visible under a loupe) > eye clean (no inclusions visible to the naked eye) >center clean (no inclusions visible in the stone’s center).
Sieve set · A shaker barrel with graduated sieves, used to sort melee by size.
Safes or vaults · There is no firm distinction between the two, except that you can usually walk into a vault.
Shmate · A cloth for cleaning shmutz from stones.
Gesheft · Business. Also, luft gesheft: “business founded on air”; an enterprise without a solid foundation.
Bren · “Burn”; on fire. “This holiday season was a bren.” The opposite is shtil, “quiet,” or shvakh, “weak.”
Gornisht · “Nothing.” From this comes the phrase gornisht mit gornisht(“nothing with nothing”) or G.M.G., which is used to describe inferior goods or the trade’s being especially shvakh.
Mekhule · Bankrupt.
MAZL AND LUCK
The most significant phrase on the street, and perhaps in the global trade, is mazl un brokhe — “good luck and a blessing” — which is commonly abbreviated to “mazl.” It is hard to overstate the power of this oral handshake, which seals million-dollar deals without lawyers, witnesses or contracts. In “making mazl,” diamantaires stake their honor (and that of their family), and the term garners near-universal respect.
It is said that the “mazl un brokhe” formula has two symbolic elements: The seller has luck in selling (mazl), and the buyer has a blessing for future success (brokhe).
One interpretation of the Hebrew word mazl (מזל) is that it is an acronym encompassing the three elements that determine our good fortune:
מקום = מ = makom = place
זמן = ז = zman = time
לימוד = ל = limmud = learning
So to have mazl, you need to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right wisdom to know how to act.
The overlap of faith, luck and superstition is evident in several ways. Some Jewish dealers will instinctively deprecate their business fortunes, both out of modesty and to avert any bad luck incited by boasting. The phrase ken eyne hore(“without the evil eye”) is the Yiddish equivalent of saying “knock on wood” after tempting fate. Hindu and Sikh dealers may bless loupes, scales and other tools of the trade during Diwali, the fall festival. And it is not uncommon to see traditional Hindu swastikas painted on the vaults and safes of Indian dealers, just as some Jewish dealers affix mezuzot to their doorjambs.
Bashert · “Destined”; something that is meant to be; when good fortune falls into your lap. Some believe that profit will follow if a diamond falls to the floor when a brivke is opened (assuming, of course, that it’s found). Others kiss a stone that has been dropped, for luck.
Good hand · To have luck and skill in finding, understanding and dealing stones. A trader with a good hand is also one with the wisdom and integrity to “leave a little profit in the deal” so everyone makes their parnose (“livelihood”). Dealers will say of a lucrative and lucky trading partnership, “We have a good hand together.”
Metsiye · A great deal; a bargain; a stone bought cheap. Some dealers complain that because diamonds are increasingly listed online, there are no metsiyes anymore. Others hunt for M&M’s — mistakes (underpriced stones) and metsiyes.
Ganeyve · A “steal.” Even better than a metsiye.
Oysshis · Rejects; leftovers. Hence the saying “One man’s oysshis is another man’s metsiye.”
Shatsn · To price or give an opinion on a diamond. “Hey, shats this stone for me.”
Chap lagna · From “to stamp” in Hindi; to value something accurately. Indian traders also have a range of terms for bargains: halwa, a traditional sweet, but also a good deal; muft, “free,” but also used to describe a great bargain; and malai, a term for “cream,” which describes a deal that will be profitable.
Hondl · To bargain, haggle or trade.
Nem di gelt · “Take the money”; an encouragement to “make mazl.” The sense that business must keep moving is also evident in phrases like “No one died for an offer” and “No one went broke taking a profit.”
Shlep · To drag; to pay late and make someone carry your debt. “You’re shlepping — we said 30 days.”
Shmir · To grease the wheels or bribe. “Sure, I shmired the guy a little.”
Touch · Profit. “I got a little touch.”
Keystone or key · A markup of 100 percent. Also, double or triple key.
On memo is the process by which dealers routinely borrow and lend diamonds to try to match stones to buyers.
The memorandum (in Gujarati, jangad) is a slip of paper that itemizes each stone and the memo price for which it can be sold (usually higher than a firm sale price). Technically, the receiver of diamonds on memo has no rights of ownership and no right to sell. It is understood, however, that if a buyer is found at (or, after agreement, near) the memo price, the owner will consent to the transaction.
Even as Internet sales rise, the memo business remains central to the trade, because buyers want to assess the stones with their own eyes. That said, the curiously casual nature of trading on memo can result in disputes — for example, when payment becomes long overdue, when already-on-memo stones are sent on memo to a third party or when stones are returned late or not at all.
It is not uncommon for dealers to have large stones or important pieces out on memo with big-name stores, which have the clientele to afford them.
The trust that underpins business on the street is hard won and jealously guarded. Untested dealers who want the privilege of borrowing stones on memo are expected to provide references from respected dealers. These dealers are asked how long a prospective client has traded, what credit they have, how much debt is unpaid and whether they are shlepping. “It’s normal to owe money; it’s not normal to be behind.”
Only if satisfied will a dealer allow diamonds out on memo — but the value and terms of the memo will be kept in check until a personal bond of trust is established over time. Time also allows dealers who have erred in some way (even into bankruptcy) to incrementally trade their way back into trust.
A small footnote on trust: The private Diamond Dealers Club has a lost-and-found board that details mislaid stones.
Several traditional Yiddish terms are used to describe people in the trade, frommensch (good guy) and meyvn (expert) to ganif (thief) and khazer (pig).
And just as a diamond has its Four C’s, Yiddish has Three S’s for irksome dealers:
The schnorer who begs for deals.
The shleper who pays late.
The shtinker who never pays.
Faynshmeker · A “fine sniffer”; a connoisseur with expensive taste or excellent merchandise or both. Conversely, a perfectionist: “Don’t be such a faynshmeker . . . nem di gelt!”
Hawks · Street-level operatives who coax pedestrians toward a specific retailer in return for C.O. on any transaction.
Jalebi · An intricately spiraled Indian sweet; used to describe a hustler. “He is straight like a jalebi.”
Good eye · One who can spot quality.
Salespeople across 47th Street use a range of codes to speak in front of privates(the public) and secure a diamond’s journey across the last 18 inches (the shop’s glass counter). Not all of these are widely used, and some are increasingly of only historic interest.
2-10 · A warning to keep “two eyes on 10 fingers” when serving a suspicious customer. This code dates to at least the 1860s and was widely used in retail.
Gee or g · A general term for a customer. There are several possible etymologies: It might stand for gooch (auction slang for a buyer), geek (“grotesque” carnival acts who bit the heads off live animals) or, simply, guy. A range of street phrases use the term.
Sherry the gee · Get rid of the customer. From “sherry”; to go, sheer off or run away. “Hey, your wife Sherry called.”
Kitty with the gee · Keep the customer occupied with small talk.
Good gee · A favorite customer.
Tee the gee · Follow the customer; ensure that a client who has just left a deposit for a piece to be made is not persuaded by another retailer to transfer his business. The “tee” may be for “trail” or “tail.” A hawk will tee the gee until the client is seen safely off 47th Street — after which the jeweler can build the new piece, confident that the gee will be back to pay and collect. To avoid alerting a private, the hawk might also be asked to “get a cup of tea.”
Cost marks · Many dealers still use traditional retail ciphers, substituting letters for numbers when writing out price tags or discussing prices in public. Dealers select a 10-letter keyword in which no character is repeated, like:
C = 1
A = 2
S = 3
H = 4
P = 5
R = 6
O = 7
F = 8
I = 9
T = 0
Here, “$150” becomes the unintelligible “CPT.” To add complexity, additional letters are used as repeaters (“$1,500” might be “CPTX”) or for distraction (“YYCPTYY”). These ciphers are also used to encode other codes; for example, “2-10” would become “ACT,” and “56” would communicate “PR” — slang for “profit.”
Low liner or high liner · Bad and good customers or prospects.
Send them (or go) to the A.P. · When high-pressure salespeople dispatch wavering clients to consult a far-from-independent appraiser (A.P.). To keep the momentum of sale and avoid B.O. (backing out), a hawk (or an A.P. runner) escorts diamond and buyer to the same appraiser — a hustle known as ring, box,go.
D-line · An easy, no-nonsense deal; when a customer sees a ring, pays for it and leaves. “I just d-lined that VS₁.”
Security on the street is tight. A constant presence by the New York Police Department is augmented by uniformed and undercover guards and armed patrols by retired police officers. The area is also surveilled by a network of cameras that, according to the 47th Street Business Improvement District, is partly funded by the Department of Homeland Security.
Inside shops, security is no laxer. Display cases can be fitted with burglar-resistant glass, surveillance cameras record some audio as well as video, panic buttons are available to alert the police and some retailers carry firearms. Lunch hours, delivery times and opening and closing procedures are regularly varied to confound anyone casing the joint. And every night, window displays are cleared of merchandise to prevent smash-and-grab raids.
To foil shoplifters, staff members show only one or two pieces at a time. And to quickly spot if any merchandise is missing, retailers lay out jewelry symmetrically, keep diagrams or maps of display cases and insert placeholders (pennies, for example) when removing rings from a tray.
Off the street, most businesses are protected by man-traps — double-door vestibules that allow visitors to be checked before entry and exit, with packages delivered through a hatch. When dealers walk stones out of these secure spaces (for inspection, manufacture, grading), they usually just wrap them in brivkes and slip them into a pocket — though some use money belts, ankle pouches or underarm cases to foil pickpockets. Most insurance policies for diamond dealers specify acarry limit for stones that are walked. Dealers who need to transport diamonds above this limit will first clear it with their insurers or divide the stones and make several journeys. Some take circuitous, zigzag routes or hire security guards to accompany them.
Because there are thousands of diamond categories and the tam of each stone is subjective, there is no price index for diamonds as there is for, say, gold. The most popular pricing benchmark is the Rapaport Price List, established by Martin Rapaport in 1978. Updated each Thursday at midnight, the rap (or sheet) reflects the company’s opinion of “high cash asking prices” for a range of “fine-cut, well-shaped” stones, and it is widely used as a basis for quoting and negotiating prices.
What’s the rap? · “What’s the list price? ”
I’ll pay 10 back (or below) or I want 10 over indicate a 10 percent discount or a 10 percent premium on the Rapaport price.
On condition rap · Assuming that the rap doesn’t change during the course of a negotiation.
Magic sizes · Certain sweet spots in weight (0.5, 0.75, 1 carat) at which stones jump in desirability and price. Diamonds just light of these sizes can be bargains.
Terms · In addition to price, payment terms are central to the deal. Asking for 30, 60 or 90 days to pay is often essential to bridge situations of limited liquidity, especially when sales are predicated on a chain of transactions, much like real estate. Untested (or distrusted) buyers will be asked to pay C.O.D. (nowadays the “C” usually stands for “check,” not “cash”) or with cleared funds up front.
As consumers go online and become better informed, the independent certification of diamonds has become an increasingly crucial part of the trade.
The most respected certs are those issued by the Gemological Institute of America (G.I.A.) — not least because some other organizations have been accused of over-grading (or bumping).
Although certs don’t offer valuations, they detail and grade the technical specs on which valuations and comparisons are based.
Despite a range of security measures, including laser-inscribed serial numbers, the fraudulent mismatching of stones and certs is not unheard of. While consumers are urged never to buy naked (ungraded) stones, the dealer’s rule is “Buy the diamond, not the paper.”