Sunday, December 05, 2004

Christmas on West 47th

I have no qualms about confessing that my experience with jewelry is limited. Except for my wedding band, I own none myself, and I’ve never splurged on silver or platinum or diamonds for my wife, Gina. Gina has rather specific tastes, and shows little compunction about making those tastes known when, for example, presented with a new scarf or sweater that does not meet her standards, so I’ve always been too intimidated to buy her rings or bracelets or necklaces. I didn’t give Gina a diamond engagement ring not only because I didn’t have the money but because we decided on a Friday that we would get married on Tuesday, and so didn’t really have an engagement that called for a ring. And as for my own wedding band, I dodged the whole question – she herself shopped for it and picked it out. True, I’ve bought her earrings, twice. The first time was when she announced, several weeks before her birthday, that she admired a pair of peridot earrings – peridot being her birthstone – in a jewelry store in New Canaan, near where we live. The second was when my daughter, who was four, and I went to another nearby shop that sells trinkets and picked out a pair for $5.

But this year, with Christmas approaching, I sensed that Gina needed a ring and that specifically she wanted me to give her one. Even more specifically, I knew which ring she wanted – a very expensive gold one sold by a very expensive international jewelry company that had recently displayed it in an elegant full-color advertisement in the Times Magazine. When she first saw the ad she showed it to me and told me how much she admired the ring. A few days later I noticed that she had torn it out and had left it on a table in her studio, next to a page of sketches she had made showing the ring from several perspectives. I can be oblivious, and I can fake obliviousness to avoid seeing what I don’t want to see, but there was no mistaking what I had to do. I wasn’t sure how I would find a ring maker, or even if there was any such thing for someone who didn’t own a jewelry store. But after some thought, I decided a likely place to find one would be in Manhattan’s diamond district.

I was scheduled be in midtown on business on the second Monday of December and so I told Gina about my plan – this was potentially too big of an undertaking for there to be any question of a surprise. She photocopied her sketches but, because of the dubious ethicality of copying a company’s design, we decided I should leave behind the ad itself.

My meeting was at the Sky Club, in the Met Life building, and in early afternoon, when it was over, I walked the few blocks from there to West Forty-seventh Street. I had been expecting a short, narrow, dark side street with maybe a dozen shops in which families of Hasidic Jews – everyone knew that the diamond district was run by Hasidic Jews – were huddled over their counters. Instead the sidewalks were packed and the insides of the shops were busy and gleaming with glass and fluorescent lights that made the diamonds, the watches, the pearls, the chains glitter seductively. I wasn’t sure what to do – the size of the place and its busy-ness and the self-assuredness of everyone intimidated me. Like a gawking tourist, I walked along the south side of the street, from Fifth Avenue to Sixth, looking into but passing every shop. Hawkers called out to me, asking if I needed help. No, I assured them, as if I knew what I was doing. When I reached Sixth Avenue, I took a deep breath and crossed the street, determined to go into the first shop I came to on the north side.

It was a small place, which was fine with me, and there were no other customers, which meant I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself in front of a more savvy shopper. Two women sat behind the counters. One of the women asked if she could help me.

“I’m interested in talking to someone about having a ring made,” I said. I unfolded Gina’s drawing and showed it to her.

“No,” she said, not unpleasantly. “Try fifty-five.”

It took me a second or two to catch on.

“Fifty-five West Forty-seventh?” I asked.

She nodded.

Fifty-five was a few doors to the east and much bigger than whatever number I had just been in. I opened the glass door and stepped in, and immediately a young woman behind a glass counter asked if she could help me. I looked around – the room was the size of a small grocery store, filled with glass counters, sellers behind them, and customers crowding the aisles. I took out the drawing and showed it to the woman. She had shoulder-length light brown hair and fake fingernails, and had not gone too lightly on the makeup. She looked carefully at the drawing.

“I’ll have to send you down to one of our jewelers,” she said.

Damn, I thought. She’s going to send me somewhere else. This would throw me off the track. Where was she going to send me down to? Thirty-second Street? The Lower East Side? I didn’t have time to go down to those places and was sure I wouldn’t have time again soon. She pointed to the back of the room where I could see a staircase. The jewelers were down there, she said.

“You might have trouble finding someone who speaks English,” she said.

“What do they speak?”

She looked right at me as if trying to figure out what I meant. Since I was thinking “Yiddish,” it occurred to me that she was examining me for signs of anti-Semitism.

“Cantonese?” she said.

“Oh. I thought maybe they spoke Brooklynese.”

She grinned. She said that if I had no luck downstairs, I should come back and she’d try to figure out where else I should go.

I zigzagged along the aisles and past the counters of Fifty-five. The room was dazzling, a smaller bazaar of faces and glinting light inside the larger bazaar of West Forty-seventh Street. Downstairs the room was smaller and the ceiling was lower but it was nevertheless another bazaar of booths, of jewelers rather than diamond sellers.

I surveyed the room for several seconds and then approached the first counter. The man behind it was short, stocky and bald, and he wore a crew neck sweater with a crucifix hanging from a chain around his neck.

“I’m looking for someone who can make a ring like this for me,” I said.

I showed him the sketches. It was clear that he barely understood me. He looked at the sketches. He looked some more. It was as if he had no idea what he was looking at, as if I were showing him a subway map for a city he’d never heard of and asking him to direct me.

“It’s a ring,” I said. “Can you make one like it? Gold?”


“How long will it take?”

“Two week.”

“Can you give me an idea how much it will cost?”

He frowned. He tilted his head.

“Five hundred dollar,” he said.

I was impressed. This was less than I had expected.

“OK,” I said. “I’m going to talk to some others down here. If I find someone lower, should I come back to you?”

“You can try,” he said.

I walked into the middle of the room and stopped at a counter with a Chinese man and woman sitting behind it. I showed the sketches to the woman. She appeared to think I wanted a watch. But when I made it clear that the sketch was of a ring, she directed me to another Chinese man at another booth. I sighed and was starting to walk toward him when I heard a voice behind me.

“You need something made?”

I turned to see a young guy with short dark hair and wearing a dark football-type jacket.

“Yeah. A ring,” I said.

“I know somebody. Come with me.”

“Does he speak English?” I asked.

He looked at me over his shoulder and grinned slightly: “Yeah.”

I noticed that as he walked, he tucked away a large wad of cash.

“He’s good,” he said. “I go to him and I’m in the business.”

He led me off the main floor and down a corridor. I thought, who is this guy and where is he taking me? Maybe I’m going to get bonked on the head and sold into slavery. More plausibly, maybe I’m going to cornered and rolled for my cash. The corridor was lined with what normally would be small offices, or large closets, but which instead appeared to be used as jewelry-making businesses. Each had a Dutch door and in each I could see one or two people working. After passing four or five, he stopped and called out a greeting to a fellow in one of the closets, and then told him that I was looking for someone to make a ring.

“He’s good,” he said to me as an aside. “He makes copies of Tiffany stuff all the time.”

Since I was looking for someone to copy a ring designed by another expensive jewelry company, I considered that a reasonable reference. In a tone that suggested they had done business on friendly and satisfactory terms before, he told the jeweler to do a good job for me. Then he turned and disappeared down the corridor.

The jeweler – the owner, apparently, of this very small business – was one of three men working in this glorified closet. As he and I talked, the other two continued to work; one of them using some kind of Bunsen burner-type tool. I showed him the drawings and asked him how much it would cost to make. In perfectly understandable English with a Spanish accent, he asked me what kind of gold I wanted – 14 carat, 18 carat? I had no idea so I said 14 carat. He got a calculator, tapped in some numbers having to do with the price of gold per hundredweight, and gave me a figure. It was so much lower than the $500 quoted by the first fellow I visited that I had a hard time believing it. How about for 18 carat, I asked. He calculated again and showed me a moderately higher price. I told him 18 carat would be fine. He asked if he could keep the sketches and then he produced a spiral notebook and made a sketch of the ring himself.

“When can you have it done?” I asked. “I’d like to have it for Christmas.”

He thought for a moment. “Call me Thursday. You can look at the wax on Friday.”

The wax? I liked this idea: he would make the ring for much less money and I would have a chance to look at a wax model before I decided.

He told me he’d need a deposit, at least $20. I had $24 in my pocket, so I gave him $20 and he gave me a receipt.

Upstairs I passed the counter where the woman who had sent me downstairs was working.

“Do you know any of the jewelers downstairs – which ones are good?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “They’re all good.”

I told her the name of the guy I had found, as if it would mean something to her.

“How much is he charging?” she asked.

I told her. She looked at me and raised her eyebrows.

“You can’t beat that,” she said.

Two weeks later we had the ring.

The contents of this page are copyright 2004-2005 by Tom Andersen

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