A pedestrian wearing a mask window shops in the Diamond District of New York, the US, June 10 2020. Picture: NINA WESTERVELT/BLOOMBERG
A pedestrian wearing a mask window shops in the Diamond District of New York, the US, June 10 2020. Picture: NINA WESTERVELT/BLOOMBERG

New York — Times Square, the crossroads of the world, still looks a little like a ghost town. Storefronts are boarded up. The streets emptied of tourists and gawkers. Broadway devoid of its usual flash and flair.

But turn onto 47th Street, and right away, it’s clear the wheels of commerce never stopped spinning.

Here, in New York City’s Diamond District, where you can buy everything from a gold chain for a few hundred bucks to a diamond-encrusted Hublot for $709,005, business continues unabated — the coronavirus be damned. It was true during the height of the pandemic. And it’s still true now, as the rest of the city gingerly steps out from lockdown.

A hawker named Bernie, posted outside Larry’s Fine Jewelry, saw it all happen. The storefronts, he says, may have appeared empty during those weeks when the virus was killing hundreds of New Yorkers each day and ravaging entire neighbourhoods, but on the sidewalk and behind closed doors, it was business as usual: Throngs of mostly men congregated in small groups, smoking, talking on mobile phones in Yiddish, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew as well as English, occasionally darting in and out of buildings.

Sales never really let up as the well-heeled continued to shop. Many jewellers, he says, worked well into the night, fielding orders from websites they’d set up in a rush.

One dealer, who took customers by appointment, covered his windows with brown paper to keep out of sight of the cops who periodically roamed the street, writing tickets and ordering owners to close down. It’s no wonder. For the roughly 2,600 independent businesses housed in the district, an estimated $400m worth of goods trade hands on an average day.

“Everyone made a killing,” he explains.

Global hub

The district grew into a global hub for the diamond trade in the mid-20th century, when orthodox Jewish craftsmen fleeing Nazi persecution set up shop in midtown alongside local dealers who had been priced out of lower Manhattan by financial firms and insurance companies. While the industry is now international, the district maintains its Jewish flavour. Deals are still sealed by handshake. The slang is peppered with Yiddish.

Bernie — who, like most others here, declined to give his full name — has worked on this part of 47th Street, shoehorned between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, for about a decade and a half, bouncing from one jeweller to another. The job, he says, is easy: scan people who walk by, figure out if they’re looking to buy or sell, chat them up, steer them to the right dealer and remind them to say he sent them.

Buyers often come in couples. Some deliberately dress down to try to score a better price. Sellers are usually alone.

A man in a grey polo shirt and the forearms of a football player approaches. He’s looking for a gold chain. Bernie shakes his head.

“Everybody’s sold out of chains,” he answers. “Listen to me. Go to 74, second floor, Big Apple, tell ’em Bernie sent you, alright? Gold is going up and if you want to get a gold chain, now’s the time because in the next few months it’s going to go up in price.”

As the customer walks off, Bernie explains his rationale: If Warren Buffett, the guru of all gurus, is taking money out of the stock market, it’s headed for a crash. The wealthy will follow and park their cash in rare metals. So jewellery refiners are hoarding gold and silver right now. Once the price is high enough, they’ll dump their supply.

Over the course of that afternoon conversation, the price of gold edges up 0.7%.