August 2011

Breaking the secrets of the unbreakable

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Diamonds—those glittery, magical conclusions of the courtship process, those small, pricey declarations of love—have a less glamorous meaning for 26-year-old Alicia Oltuski. Her father, Paul, is a diamond dealer and a fixture on New York City’s bazaar-like Diamond District. Her late uncle and her retired grandfather, who still visits his old stomping grounds on 47th Street, were also in the diamond trade.

Even the younger Oltuski briefly worked for her father. Now a journalist, she turns her attention to every nook and cranny of this natural resource in Precious Objects, an enjoyable mélange of reporting, memories and profiles of the people who give the diamond industry—and a stretch of city street—its sparkle.

The author introduces us to various Midtown movers and shakers. We meet Dan and Elie Ribacoff, the “diamond detectives” whose crime-solving methods include donning fake disguises to track down perpetrators, and a young up-and-comer who uses the Internet to make his mark and learn how dealers procure and sell their goods. We also meet the powerful and controversial Martin Rapaport, whose crazy notion to publish a price list of diamonds in the late 1970s nearly killed his career. “He was listing the price of the finished goods, so how in the world were we supposed to make a living?” asks a 1970s-era diamond manufacturer.

Oltuski’s narrative goes beyond New York—we discover the tragic origins of the phrase “blood diamond”—and covers a lot of ground, sometimes too much. You want her to scale back on some topics (e.g., trade shows, auctions) and expand on others (e.g., the Diamond District’s architectural facelift). She builds her story around that of her family, especially her father. Hardworking and somewhat eccentric (he rarely admits his occupation), Paul is the narrative’s face. Through the Great Recession, advancing technology and his brother’s untimely death, Paul Oltuski remains an entrepreneurial survivor.

What redeems Precious Objects is that we understand that adaptation is a way of life in the industry, including the Diamond District, which still stands despite business methods steeped in old-fashioned values and the tenets of Judaism. So, more change is coming. That is the diamond industry’s one constant.

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