As jewelry expert Diana Singer tells her students at the Antique Art & Jewelry Conference, aka Jewelry Camp, there is a protocol on 47th Street. She should know. She cut her teeth there three decades ago and then built a highly successful business at the heart of New York’s Diamond District.
Surviving and thriving among the cliquish and competitive dealers of 47th Street requires three things, Singer believes. But don’t worry, she adds. “If you have only two of these three things, you will eventually get to the third.”
1. Money. Of the three, money will likely get you the farthest. “You can come to 47th Street with no knowledge whatsoever, but if you come with a couple million dollars burning a hole in your pocket? Believe me, you’ll acquire knowledge very quickly.”
2. Knowledge. That said, she warns, “never underestimate the power of knowledge.” Knowing the difference between one designer’s stamp and another counts for a lot on the street.
3. Balls. The third thing that gets you somewhere fast on 47th Street is the ability to step up to the plate, checkbook in hand. “I call this balls,” Singer says. “Guts is what you need during a war. We’re not talking life or death here, we’re talking about being successful on 47th street. And balls means you have the courage to make a purchase—whether it’s for $200 or $200,000.
“It’s easy to criticize a piece of jewelry or what somebody else is doing, but it takes balls to actually write a check for something and go and figure out a way to sell it. Sometimes it’s easy to sell something, sometimes it’s not so easy.”
As Singer herself proves: “You don’t need to be a guy to have balls. There are lot of men who have no balls and lots of women who have them.”
4 things you need to succeed on 47th Street – and any business, really
Once you have the three main ingredients down – or two out of three anyway – the rest comes down to building relationships. Diane Singer has found the best business relationships are built on four principles.
Trust. On 47th Street, this means, basically: “I know you’re good for the money. If I give you something for $2,000—or $200,000—I know I can trust you to make good on that. If you lose the piece, I know you’ll have the insurance to cover it or you’ll write me a check. If you sell the piece, I know you’ll pay me when you say you will.”
Reputation. “You really need to examine how you’re going to operate before you begin in this business,” Singer advises. “Your reputation is everything on 47th Street.” A few years ago, a buyer visited Singer’s office looking for a $750,000 stone—something she doesn’t normally carry. Within two hours, she managed to accumulate $4 million worth of merchandise on memo—based solely on the strength of her reputation. Unfortunately, a reputation like Singer’s takes years to build. Bad reputations, on the other hand, form with alarming speed. “Believe me, it’s a small industry and word gets around,” she says. If you’re known as somebody who sells merchandise that doesn’t match your description, underestimates carat weights or makes frequent returns, “it will be all over the place in no time. But if you have a good reputation, it will open doors you never imagined.”
Integrity. According to the dictionary, integrity means “fidelity to moral principles”—a quality that doesn’t always typify dealers on 47th Street. “People there are not necessarily the most moral people in the world,” Singer says. “Just because we’re dealing with a beautiful product doesn’t mean the deal itself isn’t complicated. “But if you have integrity, people will know that they can depend on you to do what you say you’re going to do. If you say, ‘I’m putting the check in the mail on Friday,’ and I know you have integrity, than I know it’s in the mail—and not destined to arrive three months later, after I’ve made a hundred phone calls.”
Courtesy and consistency. Courtesy is also not universal among dealers, but Singer believes that makes it all the more valuable. “Traditionally, the jewelry industry was run by a lot of people from Europe who were brought up with manners,” she says. “There are many more dealers now, and not all of them were brought up that way. The only thing that matters to some is making a buck. Now, this pays for the food on their tables and for the schools they send their children to, so it’s not my place to judge. All I’m saying is that we should try to be courteous. At least we will have the satisfaction of knowing we’re leading a civilized life. I don’t think it’s that difficult to do.”
As for consistency, Singer says, “Do what you say you’re going to do, because your word is your bond.”