Art Deco Adventures in New York City

By our shop in midtown Manhattan, relics from the interwar era when Deco design flourished are everywhere. 

The name ‘Art Deco’ is derived from the 1925 Paris world’s fair, officially titled L’ Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Though the French get most of the credit for popularizing moderne décor, Americans also embraced the new decorative style characterized by bold geometry, stylized representations of ancient motifs, and flat surfaces activated by line.

Gates that once lead to the executive suite in the Chanin building. Now in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum. 

Gates that once lead to the executive suite in the Chanin building. Now in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt Museum. 

The favorite Art Deco haunt of the Gray & Davis team has to be the Fred. F. French building, located on 5th Ave only a few blocks south of the Diamond District. Built in the late 1920s, the French building is a masterfully done and oft overlooked skyscraper that reinterprets art from the Ancient Near East in a distinctly Deco manner.  

As an added bonus, the French building’s lobby now houses a strange tropical bar run by the Tommy Bahama flagship store (yes, that Tommy Bahama). Enjoying the beautiful and lively architecture of the lobby, now almost a century old, while sipping an absurdly strong corporate Mai Tai is a truly enjoyable New York moment. 

Jewel Heists, Past and Present

There’s been even more commotion than usual on 47th street this week, all stemming from an armed robbery that occurred on Tuesday afternoon (thank goodness nobody was seriously injured). As the details start to leak out (word on the street is that the robbers were sent by a rival jewelry store (!)) we are reminded of some famous jewel heists from history and the rumors that follow.

Howard Carter exploring King Tut's sarcophagus.

Howard Carter exploring King Tut's sarcophagus.

As long as people have been gathering and storing precious jewels, enterprising individuals have sought ways to relieve the rightful owners of their carefully guarded treasures. Even the famous tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamun was rifled through by at least two waves of ancient burglars. When the tomb was rediscovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 (spurring a whole awesome trend of Egyptian revival jewels, by the way) he found hundreds of objects had been broken and tossed around in disarray. The big mess was the handiwork of burglars anxious to leave the scene before discovery. It’s hard to blame these ancient thieves for their haste, as the punishment for robbing a royal tomb was a severe beating followed by impalement. After checking the contents of the tomb against ancient inventories, Carter estimated that about 60% of the tomb's jewelry contents had been looted in antiquity.

The Hope Diamond, which lives at the  Smithsonian.

The Hope Diamond, which lives at the Smithsonian.

Another royal robbery of great renown occurred in September 1792; this time the victims were the ill-fated King and Queen of France. Unlike the Egyptian tomb robbers, the French thieves had the luxury of time. Taking advantage of the revolutionary chaos around them, they spent five leisurely days removing the jewels from the practically unguarded royal treasury. Though most of the jewels were recovered in the years following the revolution, the fate of many of the royal treasures of France remains a mystery. Most notably, it’s suspected that a giant diamond known as the French Royal Blue was recut and now lives at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as the Hope Diamond.

The trash left by the Antwerp Diamond Center jewel thieves, which  helped police identify them.

The trash left by the Antwerp Diamond Center jewel thieves, which helped police identify them.

And of course we can’t leave out one of the most brazen heists in recent memory: the 2003 robbery of the Antwerp Diamond Center. In the middle of the night, a team of five highly-experienced gem thieves finagled their way through the Diamond Center’s state of the art defenses and made off with an estimated $100,000,000 in diamonds and jewelry from the enormous vault. Though the “Ocean’s 11”-style robbery went off without a hitch, the thieves made one very silly mistake. The drivers of the get away car carelessly disposed of garbage along their route, and a grumpy retiree called the police to report the litter. Among the debris were receipts, tiny diamonds and a half-eaten salami sandwich; a literal trail of breadcrumbs that allowed police to identify the culprits (incriminating DNA was found on the sandwich). Though several of the culprits were sentenced to serious jail time, the loot is still at large. 

A trip down 47th Street: What to expect in the Diamond District

It’s no secret that our little block in Midtown does big business. As we’ve noted before, 90% of the diamonds that are imported into the United States visit the block. Some 4,000 businesses employ approximately 30,000 people. On a busy day, the sidewalks are bustling with every member of the jewelry trade. 

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why a trip to the Diamond District can seem intimidating. Perhaps you have looked up an address for a jewelry store, only to find that it is one of many businesses hidden on the ground floor of a large jewelry exchange. Or, hurrying through a swarm of hawkers causes you to inconveniently shoot past the building of your destination.

But, there’s a reason why we’re here. It’s the epicenter of the New York, and the country’s, jewelry trade; it’s the place to be! Once you start walking the block every day, you get used to the rhythm of the street and it becomes vastly less overwhelming.

To have you navigating the block like a pro, we’ve compiled a few tips to help pavé your way and find what you need.

If there is something in particular you are looking for, be it new diamond, a watch dealer, or for antique pieces (our favorite), you don’t want to be flying blind. Make a list of places you’d like to visit, and have a general sense of where they are: odd numbered buildings are on the north side of the block and even numbered buildings are on the south side. Building numbers run upward, heading west from Fifth Avenue to Sixth Avenue. If you look like you know where you’re going, it’s less likely that you’ll be bothered by hawkers.

Let’s talk about those guys. Loud but harmless, hawkers are paid to drum up business off the block and into their shops. They are found in greater numbers on the Sixth Avenue side of the block, so if you are just coming to visit and take a look around, we recommend starting on Sixth Avenue and heading east to get them out of the way.  Those that haven’t done their homework sometimes get trapped into conversation when asking a hawker for directions; again, a little bit of research can save you a big hassle. Most importantly, don’t let yourself be pressured by them.

That said, don’t be afraid to browse. Shops with window displays represent a tiny fraction of the treasure housed in a jewelry exchange. All different kinds of businesses mingle on the same floor: gemstone dealers, jewelry sellers and bench jewelers might be neighbors. Browsing the halls of the exchanges could introduce you to new styles and is neat for people watching. If items in a case catch your eye but you don’t see exactly what you’re looking for, ask the sales associate for help. You never know what might be hiding in plain sight. A good dealer will answer your questions and work with you to find something you really love!

Not only is the Diamond District a unique and quirky place to visit, it’s the best place in the country to find something unique and special!   

Welcome to 47th Street: Diamond District History, Part 1

The Diamond District is located on a tiny block in midtown Manhattan, just south of Rockefeller Center. 47th street between 5th and 6th Avenues, to be precise. Like most of Midtown, it’s a jumble of old Art Deco stone buildings, blinking neon signs and shiny new skyscrapers. Within this hodgepodge of architecture, hidden in dusty vaults and proudly displayed on velvet necks, is a substantial proportion of the world’s cut and polished diamonds.

    Looking West down  47th Street

Looking West down 47th Street

The New York diamond district originally sprang up on Maiden Lane, which is a few blocks north of Wall St. Starting in the late 19th century, Maiden Lane was known as THE place to get your gal her engagement ring.

    Maiden Lane c.1905, image courtesy the  MOMA     
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Maiden Lane c.1905, image courtesy the MOMA

In the 1920s, however, ever-increasing rents driven by office-space hungry financial companies forced many small jewelers to look for a more affordable location. A real-estate broker by the name of Fenimore Goode saw an opportunity, and encouraged jewelers and gem dealers to move on uptown to newly constructed buildings on 47th street.  The idea was a success, and within a few years the majority of the old Maiden Lane businesses had relocated. The expensive downtown spaces were left for the financial companies, who probably felt rather silly about making all the jewelers move when the stock market was about to crash, anyway.


Once established, business on 47th street flourished, surviving the depression and absorbing diamond merchants displaced by WWII. Today, over 90% of diamonds imported into the United States pass through the district and $24 billion in business is conducted annually. Not bad for a tiny block in midtown.

Check back every month for a new installment of 47th street history. In the mean time, why don’t you come visit us and see it for yourself!