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May 21, 2014 7:22 am

New York’s Diamond District and Jewish Tradition

avatar by Tamar Skolnick

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Times Square, New York. Photo: Terabass.

“ŽThe diamond district of New York City can trace its origins to the centuries-old Hasidic Jewish community originating from Antwerp, Belgium, and other areas of Eastern Europe. Jews have had an exclusive and unique relationship with the diamond industry since the 15th century, when European Jews were given limited choices in occupation. Since the church condemned the handling of goods and money, working in the diamond industry was one of the few options available to the Jewish people.

When Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497 respectively, many of them fled to what is today Belgium. Continuing persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe led to an ever increasing Jewish population in Antwerp. However, when the Holocaust struck, the diamond hub of Antwerp would never again be the same. In 1940, 30,000 Jews were lost in Antwerp alone. Jewish refugees who made it to the United States often arrived with few possessions, but with a rich understanding of the diamond industry.

Today, the children and grandchildren of these immigrants are extending their family legacy on 47th Street. This block between 5th and 6th Avenue is a vision of bustling Black Hats mumbling in Yiddish. With more careful observation, you may catch sight of a handshake or two, very likely to be over a diamond exchange. These handshakes are built on a trust that is unique to this inherently insular religious community. This trust is the mechanism that facilitates the credit-based exchanges in the diamond industry.

The New York Times has called this trust-based exchange, “the real treasure of 47th Street.” The element of trust in this Ultra-Orthodox community derives from their pronounced emphasis on reputation, propelled by the adherence to the Jewish laws against gossip – with the exception of necessity and helpful information. Such stipulations discourage the exchange of aimless and inaccurate information. Therefore, any gossip that does occur may be extremely damaging to one’s reputation and could easily lead to expulsion from both the community and business.

One of those grandchildren of Jewish immigrants, Philip Weisner, stands out in this austere crowd, sporting brightly colored shirts and scuffed jeans. He embraces the secular nature of his Judaism, yet has managed to build a trust-worthy reputation in the diamond district. Today he is able to sit comfortably in his store on 582 5th Avenue, Kestenbaum & Weisner, behind a desk covered in a hectic assortment of papers, a diamond loupe, some loose diamonds, and a scale to weigh carats. However, reaching this spot on 5th Avenue was not a comfortable journey.

It all began with Philip’s mother, Ella, who was living in the Netherlands when the Nazis invaded. As Philip explains, “the Germans were coming house by house taking the Jews out.” Despite such forlorn circumstances, Ella was hopeful, determined, and fortunate to have a mother who was an American citizen. Philip recounts that “they were literally able to escape through the streets carrying their 48-star American flag to get out of the town.” They were able to make their way to Portugal, into Lisbon and onto boats headed to America.

Philip’s father, Henri Michael, grew up in Antwerp, Belgium, part of a long family line of diamond cutters. In 1940, when the war started brewing, Henri immigrated to Cuba as a diamond cutter, and became successful enough to run diamond factories of his own. From here he was able to reach the United States, where he met Ella. Their meeting was serendipity, as Philip explains: “Both sides of my family were diamond cutters and immigrants that came during the war, but they came from very different paths and met each other here coincidentally.”

Ella and Henri Michael arrived here, like many others, with nothing but their values and principles. They had big dreams that were realized on one small block: 47th Street. Philip has known the community and culture of this block since he could form memories. He sighs to say, “It is my blood; it is my fabric, whether I like it or not.”

Philip began working in the industry 34 years ago, on the floor of the Diamond Dealer’s Club, an internationally recognized trading floor, running around with diamond parcels in his boots. He steadily gained a reputation for his keen eye for quality, securing a spot in the jewelry exchange that grew until he was able to move into a small store on 47th Street. It was eight years ago when Philip, with determination and work ethic he inherited from his parents, was able to take the rarified opportunity to own a private store on the famed Fifth Avenue. Having come from a family with a dream and then fulfilling his own, Philip is devoted to making his customers’ dreams come true.

He is committed to revitalizing the old-time relationship a customer once had with his jeweler. He holds onto his Jewish values such as closing on major Jewish holidays, kinship and storytelling.

Philip loves telling his story, but lives for hearing the stories of each customer that walks into the store.

Today, the landscape of 47th Street has been shaped by new waves of immigrants. Many of the Jewish immigrants that began as brokers and cutters have shifted to roles of storeowners. These brick and mortar storeowners are here to stay as long as we have the need for human connection. Each of them has a story of how their family made their way over here with very little.

Recently graduated from Binghamton University with a BA in Judaic Studies and Psychology.  Originally from Boston, MA and currently living in Manhattan and working in the Diamond District.

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  • Debbie

    What a great article! I am trying to find my family history and my uncle was a diamond cutter from Antwerp Belgium.

    My Uncle Jack, ended up on Elis Island. Family history, oh how important to the family. If anyone could help me find some records from my uncle and his wife, (my mothers sister) and my cousin.

    DACON9…. I will pray for your hurts.


    • Owen Thomas

      Hi Debbie,
      That is a great question. If you’d like a resource
      to assist with your family history, why not try It is provided to the public at no-charge,
      and has billions of names, birthplaces, marriage
      details for people interested in doing their family
      history research.
      My father worked many years as a family history consultant
      with the LDS Church, and has traced our own family back on his and my late Mum’s side
      many generations in the old country.
      All the best,
      Owen Thomas

  • charlie johnson

    Now that story could be turned into a good movie, It seems that few people know much on the diamond trade.I like the idea of doing business with a handshake rather that a paper written by an attorney. The USA sems to advanced beyond that stage and a mans word is about as good as a politicians.I have wondered how these people handle the government regulations ,Like hiring minorities.Do you suppose a new hired minority could sit right down and cut a fifty thousand dollar diamond? It seems from the story here that the old fashioned kind of Jew are the ones involved in the trade,The orthodox I suppose. I wonder if their children grow up to hang out on the street corner shuckin and jiving?Or do their children stick to tradition ?I am happy that they found a safe harbor in the USA.II would think the nations people are comforted to know tat foreigners come to produce rather than destroy and protest.If I ever find a diamond I will drop by the place.Never been to New York,

  • can’t people get it thru their head???????

    look at it
    spell it real slow

    J E W EL R Y

    • P. J Lamb

      I think that someone could be a little anti-jew I would suggest that you have a look on the Yad vasham education site. 30.000 jews were killed alone from Antwerp and where do you think that those who where diamond merchant’s, their property went? to the third richt By the way the term that you emphasised also was used my the Germans to describe those they were about to be collected and sent to the concentration camps or perhaps you would think that they were holiday camps.

  • We support the Jews!!!

    The church forbid JEWS to enter into any business except money banking business.
    I dont accept your article.

    I reject your idea of putting a spotlight on a very sensitive location
    I reject your idea of putting Jews$ in the eyes of others
    I reject your reporting.

    • P. J Lamb

      I came across this article as I a writing a book. It is not a historical book but there are references to the Holocaust in it. I can see that you reject the authors Ideas but if you are going to argue with what they have written you need to bring forward more that I reject at several points explain why you reject. Which means that you would have to bring forwards proof to counter the claims that you have made yourself. As I have said I am doing some research myself and the one thing that seems to come up time and time again is that The jewish people are persecuted for being successful, even when their population was almost wiped out by a little man in Germany You might have heard of him his name was Hitler. Their communities look after each other and the financial ramification of that propel success. Look at the richest men and women in the public eye. do you reject their success. No of course you don’t. Why because guess what they are not necessarily jews. could there be just a hint of jealousy in your response.