Shelf Life

EXCERPT: Precious Objects

Chau Tu Aug 4, 2011

The following is an excerpt from Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life. Listen to an interview with author Alicia Oltuski here.

Excerpted from Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life, by Alicia Oltuski. Copyright © 2011 by Alicia Oltuski. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Chapter 1
Our Brightest Blazes

My father handed me the chest pack. It was a tan pouch the size of a small outstretched hand. I took off my jacket and slipped the pack over my tank top, on my right shoulder, where the pack rested between my breast and armpit. I slid on my jacket and zipped up. My father checked me for bulges.

Inside the pack, I had carefully placed the gold bracelet, a thick Victorian piece decorated with flowers, whose petals were made of sapphires and whose centers, of diamonds. A few of the diamonds were missing. I was to pick up the replacements at a jewelry exchange down the street and carry everything to the setter, who would fit the gems into the bracelet.

I was twenty-two, and this was my summer job. My father paid me what I had made teaching English as a Second Language at college–an amount that, two months earlier, he had dismissed as underpayment. “If they went anywhere else, they would be paying at least twice as much,” he’d complained.

Now, with the pack secured, I stood next to his safe, a massive silver-gray box that hovered like a crouching giant at forty-two inches high. In addition to two doors and a combination code, there was a key formed from a long rod with an encoded tip that had to be reassembled with each use.

Inside the safe lay dozens of black boxes with windowed tops through which the diamonds sparkled. There were black trays filled with gleaming old jewels: a musky cameo brooch, a diamond pin with a hunk of aquamarine, a velvet necklace with a green peridot gem pared into the shape of Medusa’s head, and a flower diamond brooch that shivered when shaken. Once, I even spotted a gold chain with dangling angry-looking warriors’ faces painted onto blocks of ivory.

Most of my father’s jewelry is old; it suggests a time in which not only taste but also bodies were different. He owns wristwatches so slender they look as if they’d break if one ever checked the time, and earrings so heavy I could imagine them tugging on the lobes of giants.

On top of the safe is a framed picture of his brother, Steve, sitting tranquilly on a boat in the middle of a lake. Near the desk where my mother works when she comes in to assist my father stand six photographs depicting my parents on a night out in Germany, where they grew up and lived before I was born, and a shot of our family at my sister’s bat mitzvah, my mother draped in diamonds. Behind my father’s table is an old photo in which his business friend Lester sits on his lap while my father wears an exaggerated expression of pain.

Though my father’s appearance is orderly–he believes in tidiness, in general, and clean fingernails, in particular–his desk is often cluttered with papers, stones in boxes, and trays of jewelry. He sits the farthest possible distance from the door, so that he can keep watch over who enters his office without being within their immediate reach. Next to him is a row of windows through which the masses of foot traffic that flood New York’s diamond district are visible, or would be if he didn’t always keep his shades drawn. Cameras displaying the hallway outside hang from the wall, and beneath his desk, always at his fingertips, is a red panic button that summons the police.

The office itself is like a safe. To leave that day, I passed through three doors. First, a standard gray lightweight; then a bulky metallic one, containing a bulletproof window with a bank slide for quick and secure exchanges; and finally, the outermost door, wooden and professional-looking, bearing the company name, Oltuski Brothers, though there is only one brother in the business. The wooden door and the metallic one are set up so that when one is opened, the other locks automatically, to slow getaways in the event of a robbery.

Having two or three office doors isn’t unusual in the diamond district, but this labyrinth of security particularly suits my father. This is a man who made his entire family wear surgical masks for weeks after my sister’s birth. He wouldn’t let me near the playground sprinklers because he’d heard somewhere that they could spread hepatitis. He forbade me from marching in the Israeli Day Parade with my classmates and all the other Jewish school students in the tristate area. “Too many Jews in one place,” he said. A perfect target for terrorism. A perfect target was why I couldn’t go on my high school’s graduation trip to Israel. The fortification of the diamond business seeped into our private lives, and my father hid us from the world just as fiercely as he hid his stones.
Because he wanted to keep me safe, he didn’t dress me in his diamonds. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to pierce my ears until I was sixteen, because he’d heard somewhere that muggers had torn a woman’s earrings straight out of her lobes on the streets of New York. Any gem I possessed was kept in my father’s safe along with my baby teeth. I never minded any of this until once, in synagogue, his friend looked at my arm and said to him, “What? Not even a little bracelet?” and I burned with shame.

As I left the office, I passed by the framed decorative cards my mother had hung in the corridor to make the white, -fluorescent-lit room less sterile: a cat wearing a diamond tiara; loose diamonds glimmering inside an egg carton; a cartoon diamond that says You Rock; and a Samuel Johnson quote: “Our brightest blazes are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks!” She believes that if the office looks nice, people will be inspired to buy.

In the lobby of our building I pushed past the turnstiles by the security desk, through two more doors, and then I was on the street with five thousand dollars’ worth of jewels strapped to my body. I was nervous. Four years as an English major hadn’t prepared me for diamond deliveries. And neither had my father. He applied silence to as many parts of our life as he could, especially diamonds.

He was always hiding things. If a stranger asked what he did for a living, he never said he was a jeweler. Instead, he made up a different profession. Sometimes he sold insurance. Other times he was a product representative. But I didn’t have an alternate persona to slip into. Instead, I crossed Fifth Avenue from the quieter east side, where my father’s office building resides, to the west, and tried to act casual. But when you are carrying diamonds, each block is a continent.

I was greeted by two colossal diamond-shaped lamps built atop giant metallic stanchions. These columns guard all four corners of Forty-seventh Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues and signal the borders of the district’s most important quarter. Crossing was like going from an American suburb to a medieval marketplace. Hired men and women with signs over their chests and flyers in their hands walked the street calling, “We buy gold,” “We buy diamonds.” Dealers convened in pairs, making verbal contracts, gossiping about who bought the three carater for fifty thousand, or how much that special art deco necklace sold for. Armored trucks stood parked on the street while couriers sorted diamond deliveries under the scanning eyes of guards with guns, and the civilians of Forty-seventh Street, the customers, pressed their noses against the ground-floor window displays.

Inside the windows, earrings hung like fruit from little cushion trees. Necklaces were draped around plastic busts. Gold chains dangled from hooks on suction cups. Diamonds were peppered onto brooches and bracelets like garnishes. Glittering hearts, skulls, starfish–whatever you desire.

Deeper into the street, I reached the exchange at 10 West Forty-seventh Street. It felt like a casino. Men and women stood around waiting for their lucky break. Dealers called out numbers–the prices and dimensions of stones. The room was packed so densely, they hardly needed to move to show someone a diamond. I squeezed through the narrow aisles lined by jewel-filled booths. Two men played cards over a showcase. Another sucked on an unlit cigar, and a few uniformed guards milled around aimlessly.
Each company in the exchange had a display case and a booth the size of a half bathroom. Dealers sat on stools or folding chairs, or leaned onto their cases. On the cubicle walls hung dollar bills, family pictures, and signs explaining refund policies. Some booths, even those of non-Hasidim, had a picture of the famed white-bearded Lubavitcher rebbe, whom many devotees, undeterred by his death in 1994, believe to be the Messiah. Sometimes I wondered if the pictures were meant to draw business from his followers.

The exchange was lit by long white lamps that hung diagonally from the ceiling, and track lights that hovered above the booths, but despite all these efforts at illumination, the room remained somewhat dim. Its floors were dusky, covered in black and yellow shapes that resembled small rocks. The hum of steady conversation filled the hall, frequently punctuated by telephone rings and, every once in a while, the sound of heated bargaining or a steam machine blasting dirt off a jewel.

Toward the front of the exchange, in a corner booth, I spotted a black arced plastic sign that simply said Ginsburg, the name of the man who had borrowed my father’s stones. His booth was sprawling compared to some of the others. Its three display cases were filled with jewelry in so many different colors and styles–painted brooches, blue and green gemstone rings, butterfly shapes and gilded leaves–that it resembled a high-end carnival prize stand. Behind the showcases was a chain of space-efficient desks covered in paperwork, and above them, gray cabinets. A glaring diamond light was mounted to the wall. A handful of employees, including Ginsburg’s wife, negotiated the narrow space. I stood on the outside of the booth, in the aisle.

Ginsburg (I promised him I would use a pseudonym) sported an elegant mustache and goatee. His eyes were dark and pointed, like periods. He didn’t have all of his hair, but a large part of his head was covered with his black kippah.

I told Ginsburg I was from Oltuski.

“You’re from Oltuski or you are Oltuski?”

It isn’t hard to see that my father and I are related. I inherited a variation of his downturned eyes, which can make us look sad. We are both on the short side, and have ears that salute at an angle, rather than falling neatly into line with our temples. Ginsburg said to tell my father he was sorry that he had not been able to sell the stones.
At any given moment on Forty-seventh Street a dealer may be in possession of hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of another man’s diamonds. Usually, he has not paid the owner any collateral, only his word. He receives the diamonds in an envelope with a name on it. Sometimes the owner doesn’t even ask for a receipt to prove that the -merchandise is his, although my father, not surprisingly, had. In this business, everything works on credit, loan, and trust. Had Ginsburg been successful in selling my father’s diamonds, both would have made money. Instead, my father would use the diamonds in the Victorian bracelet I was carrying.

I gave Ginsburg the receipt. He handed me the plastic baggie of stones. I tucked them into the pouch as quickly as possible and, afraid to draw attention to myself, resisted looking around to see if anyone was watching me. When I had secured the merchandise as inconspicuously as I could, I left the exchange and made my way down Forty-seventh Street to the setter’s office, on the eighth floor of a small, nondescript building. There was no suite number or business name on the outside of the office, so my father had described it to me by its damaged doorbell, which dangled from the post.

The setter’s workplace was the size of a modest kitchen and smelled of chemicals. A poster of Pope John Paul II hung on the wall above his desk. It was the only place on Forty-seventh Street I’d ever seen a religious item that was not Jewish. Then again, it was one of the few times I’d met a colleague of my father’s who was not Jewish.
The setter’s floor shone slightly from layers of gold dust that had fluttered from his table over many years of work. Jars of cream and gel, and a multiplicity of pliers, adorned his desk like an alchemist’s laboratory. Some of his potions seemed sorcerous, like the protective jelly he slathered on a ring before molding it. After glossing the ring with a paintbrush, he would stick it into a flame sprouting from the burner on his desk, and the flame would turn an unnatural shade of fluorescent green. Beneath his table were foot pedals that operated the various drills he used to shave down his customers’ precious metals. The drills’ cries sounded like animals shrieking underwater.

As though to offset his noisy tools, the setter himself spoke in a mellow voice, tinged with a Polish accent. He was a tall, skinny man with slender legs, but his most striking features were the knuckles of his thumbs and index fingers, which protruded orblike, as if marbles had been placed beneath his skin. Over decades of jewelry setting, his hands had evolved for efficiency. His thumbs were spaced unusually far from his other fingers, the skin between them stretched thin as a web. The tendons on the undersides of his forearms braced themselves so markedly, they resembled the prongs of a fork.
The setter didn’t have much to say as he accepted the plastic baggie and bracelet. I repeated the instructions my father had given me, pointing to the holes in the bracelet’s flowers where the diamonds belonged, just in case. The setter indulged me, smiling politely while he said yes, but, of course, he already knew all of this.

Other than the floor, his office didn’t sparkle or shine, though he must have been in possession of dozens of jewels. Most likely none of them belonged to him. Setters don’t own the pieces they mend. Like foster parents, they receive the gems, hold on to them for a while, tend to them, and then let them go. Though they hold vast riches in their hands, they themselves can be poor. The competitive ones keep their commissions down to only two percent. Sometimes they’re nicknamed “diamond-studded paupers.” A safe full of jewels does not necessarily make a wealthy man.

When the setter finished the job, my father would pay him and try to sell the bracelet. No one would be able to tell from looking that it was this setter who had worked on the bracelet, just as no one would know that it was my father who chose the diamonds for it. After a stone is set into jewelry, it is almost impossible to decipher who harvested the gem from the river shore, who carried it from the wilderness to the market, who cut it, who polished it, and who made the match between the stone and its setting. Once a diamond becomes a piece of jewelry, the fingerprints of all these people disappear.
My errand done, I returned to the quiet of my father’s office and worked on organizing the records of his retirement accounts. The papers sat next to his diamond scale, under colorful pictures of gemstones my mother had put up, and dated back to the early nineties, when my father’s daily pursuits were still secrets to me.

Even then, I’d known that I wouldn’t go into the business. He had never encouraged me to. He wanted a different life for me, one in which my next paycheck would not be dependent on the whims of some dealer or rich woman. But here I was, working in his office, because I needed to understand the street, the stones, and the people that occupied his life.
That evening, as on every other, my father put his jewels into his safe, punched the code to his alarm, and turned off the lights in the vestibule between his outermost doors, standing for a moment in the darkness. Before locking up manually, he kissed the mezuzah, that small rectangular box on the doorpost containing the holiest of Jewish prayers–one of the many rituals he performed daily to protect himself, his possessions, and the people he loved. Then he started walking very slowly down the hall, as though inching away from a crime scene, so that he could simultaneously make progress toward the elevator and hear the sirens from behind his door that indicated his office had been secured. In the narrow corridor, his eyes automatically scanned the two circular mirrors mounted on the wall that showed if anyone was lingering around the bend. By the time he left, he was almost always the last one on his floor.

In the lobby, he bade the guard on night shift good-bye. Then he stepped outside into Manhattan’s heavy August air, and left behind the fluorescent glow of the diamond columns, the storefront signs coaxing pedestrians in with We Buy Gold and Diamonds, the unmade deals, and all the jewels.

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