New York’s Diamond District and Jewish Tradition
“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.