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The facets and forces changing New York's Diamond District

A "We Buy Gold & Diamonds" sign is seen in the Diamond District of Manhattan in New York City.

Kai Ryssdal: The stretch of 47th Street in New York between 5th and 6th Avenues is unusual for its economic productivity -- even in a city that was founded on the very idea of making money. Manhattan's Diamond District is home to 4,000 businesses. They do more than $24 billion worth of buying and selling every year. That's from a community development report not too long ago. But not everything's all sparkly in the Diamond District. The report also said they need to clean up the buildings on 47th Street, market themselves better, and get younger people in the trade.

Alicia Oltuski practically grew up in the district watching her father deal antique diamonds. So her new book Precious Objects is part family memoir, part business insider. Good to have you with us.

Alicia Oltuski: It's lovely to be here, thank you.

Ryssdal: This is one of those where, regretfully, radio doesn't quite do it justice. I want you to describe for us what the Diamond District in Manhattan looks like. I mean it's an interesting, interesting place.

Oltuski: The Diamond District in New York is really a world unto itself. There are dealers haggling on the street.There are men and women with signs on their hands and over their chests and they call out, "We buy gold, we buy diamonds." But at any given time, there really are a multiplicity of languages being spoken on that street. Yiddish, in particular, enjoys this sort of renaissance there.

Ryssdal: Well that's my memory of it as a kid is all these old Jewish guys running around.

Oltuski: And that's changing, but you do see very many ultra Orthodox Jews dressed in black hats and garb.

Ryssdal: It is being beset by some of the same forces that are affecting the rest of the global economy -- there's outsourcing to China and India of diamond cutting, there's the Internet. Explain to us what's going on.

Oltuski: There is a huge pressure for diamond dealers to start trading their merchandise on the Internet and this seems terrifying to people who deal in a commodity that relies so heavily on mere invisibilities, really. I was recently talking to my grandfather, who has been in the diamond industry for decades, and he told me that he used to have an inventory in his mind and could remember every single detail of every single stone that he had bought and sold -- a cloud on the right side of its table or a little mark on one of its facets.

Ryssdal: There's a scene early on in the book, right in the very beginning in fact, where you undertake your first errand, I suppose you could call it, for your dad running some diamonds to the other side of the street or something. Tell us that story.

Oltuski: That's right. I had to put on this chest pack, it's this small pouch over one of my shoulders. It sort of lay between my breast and my armpit. Not very comfortable, but that's where it had to be so as not to be too conspicuous. And then I put my jacket back on and my father looked me over, and then I was ready to go outside into the world with thousands of dollars worth of jewelry strapped to my body. And this is something that people do in the district every day, but for me it drove home the point of just how many jewels and how much value pass through the Diamond District.

Ryssdal: And to that point about this being a business based on trust and faith and mutual understanding, the scene where you get to wherever you're going and you say, '"Hey, I'm Oltuski," I said to Ginsburg' -- I mean, it's basically I'm from the guy across the street, you know me, so here's my stuff.

Oltuski: That's right. On the one hand, it makes it rather archaic. On the other hand, I think that this trust is one clue into why it survived so many generations. There are few other industries where so much value changes hands so quickly.

Ryssdal: Alicia Oltuski, her book is called Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life. You can read an excerpt here. Alicia, thanks a lot.

Oltuski: Thank you so much for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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