Trade Lives: Carat Top

Most diamond companies include some variation of the shmoozer and the producer. The producer is the “inside” guy who oversees the manufacturing of the diamonds; the shmoozer is the “outside guy” who markets and sells them. By virtue of their personalities, it’s the schmoozer who generally gets the publicity and recognition.

But the diamond industry clearly needs both. So let us pay tribute to Norbert Steinmetz, a partner in sightholder E. Schreiber and possibly the ultimate “inside guy.” Steinmetz, who last month was inducted into the GIA Legion of Honor, is famed in the industry for his vast storehouse of knowledge, antennae for the market, and ability to peer into a piece of rough and coolly solve its mysteries. Says Lloyd Jaffe, the former head of the American Diamond Industry Association, “I consider him top of the field. I’ve never known anyone who knows the design and manufacturing of stones better.”

What makes Steinmetz so special? First, there’s his memory, which associates describe in almost superhuman terms. “The things he remembers are really unbelievable,” says his son David, who has his own company, Diamex. “He can visualize a stone, perfectly, in his mind, so you would think it was right in front of him. Not only does he remember every stone he’s working on, he remembers stones from a long time ago. He’ll say things like, ‘Remember that stone from last year, the one with the piqué in the rough?’ And I’m saying, ‘What?’ “

He’s also a skilled marker—the sweat-inducing part of the diamond industry. Make a mistake here, and your profits fall to the floor with the excess rough. Steinmetz can usually figure how a stone will finish within a few percentage points—and generally without a calculator.

Steinmetz knows pricing as well, and he’s one of the few left who value diamonds the old-fashioned way, without the Rapaport list. “When it comes to expensive stones, most people are lazy, and they check the list,” David Steinmetz says. “My father isn’t lazy.”

What’s the secret? Like many people who are really good at something, Steinmetz can’t explain why he’s really good at what he does. At times, he seems as mystified as everyone else. “You have to know each diamond,” he says. “You have to smell each stone, feel each stone.” Later he adds: “It’s like you go to a market, and you have a feel for whether a watermelon is sweet or not. You just know.” Then later: “It’s like learning music. There are some people who pick it up right away. Others you can try and teach and they will never be good.” And finally: “To be in the diamond industry, you need guts. You have to be willing to take a chance.”

His son thinks he is simply passionate about his work. “He has a relationship with every stone,” David Steinmetz says. “He approaches cutting a diamond the same way a composer writes a song, or an artist paints. To him, every diamond is a work of art, a masterpiece. There’s no such thing as a trivial, insignificant diamond. He’s not like a businessman who sells ‘x’ amount of polished and then it’s ‘Next!’ He follows every diamond. He knows who bought it, where it went. It’s a very intimate creative process.”

And finally, there is Steinmetz’s experience of many years, which includes seeing, by his own estimate, “thousands” of stones. “I wasn’t born knowing it all,” Steinmetz says. “I remember the first time I bought rough, I had butterflies in my stomach. It took me a while to figure out other people didn’t know everything either.”

Off to a rough start. Born in Budapest, Steinmetz’s introduction to the industry was work for which he wasn’t well suited—cutting. “He was a master craftsman, but he took too long,” says David. “He had sure hands, not fast ones.”

At the time, there was a more serious problem—World War II. Germany’s invasion of Hungary in 1944 came near the end of the war, and Steinmetz had false papers that let him escape arrest … that is, until someone in town recognized him and wondered why he wasn’t wearing the mandatory yellow Star of David, which the Nazis required Jews to wear. That night, Steinmetz fled over the border into Romania, at one point hiding in the bushes with some Gestapo nearby. “If they had looked even a few feet more, I wouldn’t be here today,” he says.

Eventually, he formed a business with second cousin Emmanuel Schreiber. The company became a De Beers sightholder in 1976. Working with “outside guy” Ben Moller, Steinmetz remains active in the business, and he intends to stay that way. “At my age, if I didn’t enjoy the industry, I wouldn’t do it,” he says. “Even after all these years, diamonds are still a challenge. No two stones are exactly the same, like no fingerprints are the same. I always say that I’ll learn my last lesson the day before I retire.”