New Kids On the Street

It isn?t easy being the only member of your age group in the diamond industry. Just ask Jeffrey David.

?When I first started in the business at 18 years old, I?d go to events, and I?d be the youngest person by 10 or 15 years,? says David, of American Diamond Syndicate. ?I had business relationships, not social relationships. It was pretty uncomfortable.?

Today, the 33-year-old David is well known and respected. And while he?s still among the younger attendees at industry events, there are some younger than he.

Even within the industry, there?s a perception that the diamond business is aging. Yet there?s a next generation out there, and some of its members are making names for themselves. Sean Cohen, 35, of Codiam in South Africa, has been elected president of the International Diamond Manufacturers Association; his younger brother, Leon, 32, is vice president of DMIA, the New York manufacturers group. Fred Mouawad, 30, is behind two widely discussed Internet companies, Gemkey and ?I don?t think the diamond business is dying at all,? says Marc Knobloch, 33, of Aron Knobloch. ?There?s an unseen army of young people in this business.?

For now, the young guard seems badly outnumbered. (It?s especially hard to find young women in the business, which is ironic, since they?re the core audience for engagement rings.) Some old-timers are so pessimistic about the diamond business?s future they don?t want their children following in their footsteps. And the business isn?t easy to crack from the outside. ?You can start a computer business with a couple thousand dollars and a computer,? notes Avi Jacobowitz, 36, who is a rarity?a first-generation diamantaire. ?But a serious diamond wholesale business needs lots of capital.?

Jacobowitz first worked as a salesman for a diamond company before launching his own firm. ?It?s hard to start out without parents in the business,? he says. Sympathetic colleagues helped him strike out on his own. ?When I started, one guy gave me stones at a price where I could make money on them. So there are nice people who help you out.?

Following the family tradition. Those with family in the business have fewer barriers to entry, but some still have misgivings. ?The prospect of staying in one company for 20 years is daunting for some people,? says May Biro, who works for her family business, Eugene Biro Corp. ?A lot of people want to break away from their family and prove themselves on their own.? Many came to diamonds after flirting with different careers?in diverse fields such as marine biology, politics, and developmental psychology. But the lure of the family firm proved irresistible to those who came back to the fold. ?In the back of my head, I always knew I would go into the business,? Knobloch says.

Most ultimately concluded the diamond world offered more opportunities than the outside world. ?I worked for a consulting firm, and it was much more corporate,? says Howard Berger, 37, of David Fiskus and Sons, a firm founded by his father-in-law. ?I welcomed the chance to get involved with something more hands-on, where I could be involved with every aspect of a business.? Others found the diamond industry?s informality and camaraderie a refreshing change from corporate coldness. ?It?s very down-to-earth,? notes Michelle Leiber, 30, of Leiber and Solow, who sold ads for community newspapers. ?There?s not the politics and bureaucracy you find in other businesses.?

Young diamantaires also noticed that the older generation had more passion for their work than they did. ?I saw the joy my father has with a lot of this stuff,? says Ross Markman, 32, of Suberi Brothers, who worked for a while as a lawyer. ?All his best friends are his competitors. That?s rare in any industry.? And some also felt a certain obligation to past generations. ?My father and grandfather built this business for 60 years,? says Parag Shah, 31, of Gem International, who considered going into investment banking. ?It would be silly for me not to continue the legacy.?

A ?nice, stable life.? Whatever their reasons, the new 47th Streeters are happy with their choice. ?A lot of my friends hate what they do,? says Alan Rehs, 31, of Rehs and Co., who originally studied medicine. ?But there?s not a day in this industry that I don?t want to wake up and go to work.? Most also found that being the boss has its advantages. ?I don?t have to come in a suit if I don?t want to,? notes Shah. ?The diamond business won?t make you an overnight millionaire like the dot-com companies. But it?s a nice stable life for you and your family.?

It?s also a life filled with constant challenges. ?Every day?s a learning experience,? says Nicky Mehta, 31, of Diamond Days. But that?s not a bad thing. In fact, rather than being constraining, the diamond industry has so many aspects that it?s perfect for today?s limited-attention-span generation. ?It?s a very creative business,? adds Leon Cohen. ?There?s marketing, merchandising, the cutting of diamonds.? And in these days when job titles are getting increasingly more abstract and self-referential, some take satisfaction in actually producing something.

?It?s good to know there are a couple of thousands of Americans wearing something you?ve manufactured,? says Philip Klein, 32, of I. Klein and Co. Eli Rifkind, 23, of colored stone manufacturer Kotel, likes being associated with a product that?s synonymous with good feelings. ?People are happy when they receive jewelry,? he says. ?Every once in a while you are reminded of that, and it?s nice.?

When talking about their generation, the younger people say there isn?t a big bond between them, although industry groups are beginning to change that. (See examples on p. 264.) ?The younger people are starting to migrate together,? says Josh Weinman, 27, of ODI in Long Island City, N.Y. ?They see the camaraderie their parents had.?

In their low-key way, the new generation is transforming the business. For one thing, they are more interested in high technology than their fathers and grandfathers are. ?Anything that involves technology?e-mail, the Internet?is thrown into my lap,? says David. ?The older generation is still afraid of it.?

A substantial number of the younger guard have degrees in business and marketing and are modernizing this sometimes old-fashioned trade. ?Our fathers aren?t the business-school types,? says Markman. ?We bring more formality.? In the Indian community, the younger generation is more likely to be born or educated here. ?We are more assimilated and familiar with the culture here, and therefore it?s easier to communicate with customers,? says Chirag Bhasat, 27, of Kashish Diamonds.

More optimism. The new generation also wants to tear down the stereotype of the constantly complaining diamond dealer. ?As a generation, we?re more optimistic,? Weinman says. ?I grew up thinking my father never made any money.? They overwhelmingly feel that the business has a lot of good times ahead. ?If I didn?t believe this business has a future, I wouldn?t be here,? says Rehs. ?What?s the point if I didn?t want to build something for my future and my family??

Even the scarcity of other people their age in the industry doesn?t bother them. ?I see it as an opportunity,? says David Sutton, 34, of Leiber and Solow. ?Someone has to run the business for the next generation, because people are always going to buy diamonds.?

Now that the ?next generation? has established itself, will there be a generation after them? Overwhelmingly, today?s younger diamond people say they would love for their children to follow their path. But it?s ultimately their children?s choice, as it was for them. ?This is a unique business, and if you are forced into it, it loses some of its vibrancy,? says Sutton. ?You really have to love it.? Still, they are optimistic enough to believe there will be an industry to inherit. ?Let me put it this way,? says Bhasat. ?I see myself as retiring in this business.?

Industry Groups Try to Attract Young People

Industry organizations are giving a higher priority to attracting new blood. Among the initiatives:

  • The Diamond Dealers Club has proposed a program to train younger diamond cutters, to ensure that New York?s manufacturing sector has a future.

  • The DDC also gives a 60% break on initiation fees for children of members. ?We recognize the need for younger people and the positive aspects of them coming into the business,? says club president Eli Haas.

  • There are also networking-oriented groups for younger people?such as the Gemological Institute of America?s Genesis group and the National Conference for Community and Justice?s New Leadership Council.