I spent the last couple of days in New York, and yesterday afternoon I went along to West 47th Street.

The street is packed with diamond and jewellery shops, but I found it to be a profoundly depressing place. It does our beautiful product no justice whatsoever.

Diamond Jewellery in 47th Street New York

West 47th Street: Pile 'em high!

Diamond jewellery is piled up high with all the sophistication of apples being hawked from a market stall, and merchandised with all the romance of a 99 cent store.

Aren’t diamonds meant to be rare and precious miracles of nature? Here, they seem about as rare and precious as hens’ eggs.

There was almost no acknowledgement of the reasons why people buy diamond jewellery – the motivation that comes from a special occasion or the season.

There was no attempt to be seen to be selective or discriminating in any way, to ‘curate’ pieces into themed collections.

There was just the most basic acknowledgement of function: rings for fingers, pendants for necks, bracelets for wrists. That’s it.

I believe that part of the art of retail is to be selective, to put some thought into product pre-selection for the customer.

This is especially true with fine diamond jewellery, because (a) it’s something people buy very infrequently – perhaps just once in a lifetime – and too much choice is bewildering in unfamiliar product sectors; (b) it’s very expensive, so holding masses of stock doesn’t seem to make much sense for the jeweller; and (c) there isn’t much space available in a congested, expensive place like central Manhattan, so limited space should be used wisely, not with the wanton abandon of an out-of-town supermarket.

But there’s something worse: trust, or rather, lack of it. As I walked down West 47th Street I was assaulted from all sides by pushy salesmen and by people beseeching me to sell them my unwanted gold or jewellery.

Some of the behaviour reminded me of rather unsavoury ‘street businesses’; I felt like I was among pushers and pimps, or perhaps ticket touts/scalpers.

Now that sounds terrible and I hate saying it about this business, but I was actually looking to buy something so I was a genuine customer, and if I got that impression then I’m sure that other visitors will have the same reaction.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I happily turned my back on 47th Street and walked up Fifth Avenue, surrounded by fabulous emporia of fashion and, in some cases, fine jewellery (I checked out Cartier, Tiffany & Co., and De Beers).

Why is the jewellery business of 47th Street stuck in what appears to be the 19th century (actually, in some ways, several centuries earlier)?

Some industry people will say that it’s because they don’t have the margins to invest in fancy marketing and retail space. But you don’t need to invest anything to clear out the clutter – on the contrary it can release cash which is tied up in inventory. Lots of independent retailers create a really nice environment without spending a fortune – it can be done with little more than an ounce of imagination.

I think it’s more profound than that. It’s a trading/dealing mindset, the inability to sell on anything but price. It’s so primitive that it belongs to a time when sales and marketing meant the same thing.

Others say that it’s because of fragmentation – too many small businesses – which in turn is a symptom of an industry of family-run businesses which has never been rationalised by merger and acquisition.

Well, maybe, but I think there’s something else: the diamond business as seen in 47th Street (and to some extent in Hatton Garden in my own fair city of London) has blurred the line between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer).

It seemed to me that many of the buyers in 47th Street were not retail consumers at all; they were other diamond/jewellery people, i.e. traders, looking for something on which they could turn a profit.

Nothing wrong with that – all industries have B2B marketplaces – but perhaps the mistake in 47th Street is that the curtain is pulled back so that the wider public gets a glimpse of distinctly unromantic B2B trading behaviour which does nothing for the ‘myth & magic’ of diamonds.

Whatever the reason, it’s sad to see. I can’t imagine that it’s a pleasure to go shopping for diamond jewellery in the West 47th Street bazaar. In the end Tiffany won my business.

As I made my way further up Fifth Avenue the retail landscape improved, and at the corner of Central Park it reached its zenith: the Apple ‘Cube’ store. Now that’s retail.

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