By: Josh Adair
As soon as she told me I had the job, I couldn’t stop hearing Shirley Bassey and dreaming of De Beers commercials. I felt certain selling jewelry would expose me to a distinctive, sophisticated clientele, sure to transform my life.
On my first day I got a woman removing a wedding ring by deep-throating her own finger instead. Without the faintest sense of embarrassment she sucked it off, intent upon getting it cleaned. From that moment forward, I couldn’t shake the sense that diamonds are anything but a girl’s best friend.
In fact, considering all I saw in my years in the jewelry biz, I would say they’re their number one nemesis. I took the job imagining meaningful moments with happy young couples about to be married, blissful to engage me as the broker of their future (and perpetual) happiness. I had imagined myself facilitating the fulfillment of fantasies; what I got was gross, garish, and galling.
Though the De Beers ads suggest otherwise, the lion’s share of labor at a jewelers is cleaning customers’ jewelry. The days are long and quiet; the majority of foot traffic is women wanting cleanings and repairs. Purchases, in general, take place on nights and weekends. When I trained for the position, we were taught to treat each person who entered the store as a would-be buyer. In turn, most of them would pretend, at least initially, to be shoppers on a search. Perhaps they found it rude to saunter in and make demands; instead they would demure and then feign that it had just occurred to them to procure a cleaning, “since they were already there.” Then they usually discovered the diamond couldn’t be dislodged.
That realization typically ushered in a furtive attempt to lick their finger to lubricate love’s handcuffs loose. It’s a sad circumstance watching a grown woman try to work out the mechanics of wetting her wedding ring without getting caught, especially since it was 100% impossible with me there as witness. Mutual embarrassment would envelop us as we sensed our stalemate, though this didn’t necessarily stop the most determined ones. Some would lap, lizard-like, in devious defiance. Others would pivot, so as to pretend they were in private. A few adopted a hand gesture, and the attendant nervous laughter, of a geisha: right hand screening the left as the tongue did its trick. This subterfuge never succeeded.
When my patience was especially puny thanks to these provocations, I would plop a pump-bottle of hand lotion on the glass counter and smirk smugly as though I’d just extended an invitation to partake in something slippery and scandalous. Some spooked at this suggestion and retreated to the restroom to remove their rings; this was my preferred fix. The worst of these women abandoned all appearances of decency and resorted to the revolting. In moves modeled upon pornography, they would shamelessly suck their rings in a fury of feigned fellatio. It was like being forced to watch a live sex show without any hope of a happy ending for anyone involved.
Once the ring was successfully dislodged, the disclaimers descended. An excess of margaritas, munchies, or menopause were all common culprits for rings that refuse removal. Others cited swelling from exercise or manual labor as I extended a black velvet counter pad to collect their DNA-drenched diamonds. This move always inspired irritation, as though my acknowledgement of their disgusting display was deplorable; I wasn’t supposed to recoil from their repulsiveness.
Their sickening sensuality didn’t always stop there. Some customers casually proclaimed that their diamonds demanded “disinfection.” When I responded with a quizzical stare, one woman informed me she had been thanking her husband for her diamond’s anniversary upgrade when he “exploded” all over it. Her confession was followed by merciless mirth, as though semen sanitizing were a regular service in our shop. Other clients were coy; they let the pubic hair in their prongs proclaim the problem. It wasn’t long before I learned to loath those polluted pledges of love.
After the initial intake we immediately moved into the authentication phase, which required testing the stones to ascertain their authenticity. Stories abound in the popular media about dishonest diamontologists swapping unsuspecting customers’ stones, but truth be told, many customers arrive with fraudulent diamonds. This authentication prompted tense, theatrical moments: we were forced to declare our intention to test, which usually elicited protestations and indignation. Questioning the quality of their stones somehow suggested skepticism about their love match.
Sadly, in some cases, this indictment proved apposite as the test returned results that were anything but positive. This particular procedure always took on a game-show quality as the tester resided in our “diamond room,” a tiny closet of glassed-in space just large enough to hold a small desk and three chairs. Its smoke-gray glass, angled shape, and sliding door made it seem much more like an upscale shower stall than a high-end sales hotspot, adding to the overall oddity of the endeavor. It reeked of smoke because, thanks to its independent ventilation system, we sneaked cigarettes in there when business lagged. Once inside, we touched the tip of the tester to the stone and waited for the verifying beep – though often enough we were met with nothing but the soft sucking of the overhead vents. While the gold was usually standard, some stones certainly weren’t.
At that point I tended to test and test again, hoping human error derailed the authentication. After dawdling for as long as I could, I would emerge and break the news. This never went well; what followed could easily be charted on a continuum of overwrought reactions from stony silence to Sicilian screaming. Their responses often took the form of an extremely truncated version of Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief if, say, the mourner were on speed and totally committed never to reach the final phase. There were recriminations and tears – sometimes they threw the ring back at me – and then threats and proposed reprisals. They often pointed out my profound stupidity and ineptitude, usually just as they were starting to bargain for a great price on the real version of their fake.
Once I tossed out a figure and gestured to the case of bridal solitaires in front of me, acceptance usually started to set in and they headed toward the door with a sickening case of sticker shock. Having seen one too many episodes of Dateline, though, this was usually when they started to bellow about deceptive practices and impending lawsuits, even though the sham stone had never left their sight. The symbol of their shared love – a cherished object they adored only moments before – suddenly became a dead, worthless object to launch at stupid shop girls like me.
Some even attempted to abandon them right there, which always led to hilarious Looney Tunes-style antics with me in hot pursuit, trying to flip the ring into their purse or tangle it into their hair – anywhere would do – just to return the merchandise without risking physical contact. As a result, I still have stress nightmares to this day in which I lose control and strike a crazed customer refusing to collect her cubic zirconia.
And then there were the husbands, boyfriends, and fiancés – the usual culprits of all this calamity. My personal favorite purchased his wife a 2.50 carat round-brilliant cubic zirconia set in a yellow gold solitaire. Not wishing to come across as cheap, he opted to pay $50 extra for a six-prong head for the $9 simulated stone. He had been cheating, you see, and in order to save his moribund marriage he needed to gesture – and grandly – without actually going all in.
He wanted neither the expense of a diamond, nor a divorce. Instead, he figured he would deceive his darling once more and kill two birds with one (fake) stone. The store manager warned him up front that his $150 purchase was unlikely to suffice long term as imposters rarely worked, but he didn’t care. Sensing that she couldn’t relate, presumably because of her sex, he promised to save up and swap it for the real thing very soon.
Unfortunately, the “real thing” came at the cost of $18,000, so we all knew he would never make good. He wasn’t one of our select customers, men who appeared only at Christmas and always to buy two of the same items – usually something custom made – one for the wife and another for the mistress. Those men arrived, cash in hand, doing nothing to disguise their devious diamond brokering.
One in particular, a well-known munitions manufacturer with ties to Iran-Contra, routinely dropped at least $50k in cash each Christmas to keep his ladies in love. A stout barrel of a man with a porcine quality, the minute he appeared the whole place went quiet. We knew he would get the goods – including, one Christmas, two pairs of perfectly matched Alexandrite earrings – and that he expected us to be stonily silent in return for his plentiful purchases. Whatever his moral failings, he gave generously.
This cheap (and/or poor) cheat, however, had no such style; he even requested a fake appraisal to cement his story. To his dismay, we declined; “legal implications,” we explained.
A little over a week later his wife appeared, demanding that same documentation. She had called to get her adultery antidote insured and the astute agent eagerly offered to assister her – but only aftershe faxed an appraisal.
She showed up in the store shortly thereafter will all the hauteur and hubris of a woman wearing a 2.5 carat diamond, insisting that her husband ought to have received better service for such a sizeable purchase. We, of course, knew the score and played hot potato with her until my coworker insisted that our store manager manage her own mess. “Theresa will be in at noon,” he announced, “she will take care of this then if you’ll leave the ring.”
Reluctant and rude, she relinquished it. Once she disappeared, we called Theresa at home to tip her off. She immediately plotted a plan to get the husband into the store, sell him a large stone, and return the real thing to his suckered spouse before everything spun out of control.
On a soap opera set, this maneuver might have succeeded. In our circumstances, however, his diamond heist was doomed. Theresa couldn’t reach the faithless fraud in time and the wife reappeared just moments after noon, this time pushing a baby stroller. In a seemingly endless moment, we escorted her into the diamond room with toddler in tow as Theresa hid in the store vault, frantically trying to phone the husband.
After trying every Carol Burnett-inspired antic we could conjure, we gave up the game and Theresa emerged to tell the truth: this stone is anything but precious. In a surreal show of serenity – and sapience – she tossed her hair, collected the kid and decamped, the ring still wobbling on the desk in front of her.
She had known the truth all along.
When her future ex-husband appeared tear-swollen and panicked hours later, we were unsurprised. It was all our fault, at least in his figuring. We should have lied to his wife to help him save face; surely we knew he would make good? He consistently failed to apprehend that the role of fantasy with an engagement ring should have nothing to do with its authenticity.
Once more he demanded an appraisal setting the stone up as real; we again explained our desire to avoid facing charges of fraud. As it began to dawn that his choices were to make good or get out, he decided to apply for credit, figuring $18k was less than a divorce – especially with this new evidence. The response from our credit computer, like all others he received that day, was resoundingly negative.
Bad credit, broken marriage, fake stone. Yes, this is exactly the De Beers commercial I dreamed of when I decided to deal diamonds.
Theresa then proposed layaway – a sort of delayed legitimacy, if you will – which he immediately rejected. Then she suggested maxing out his credit cards, which he had apparently already done treating his mistress to treasures. In the end he left empty-handed and we had to return his wife’s giant fake by registered mail, a solution that solidified the stone-cold sham as its declared value didn’t surpass the considerable costs of shipping and insurance.
Even at the best of times, selling diamonds is a dramatic endeavor. Not only do customers buy stones to salve wounds – adultery, abuse, absence – they also undertake such shopping lusting for legitimacy. For many of the couples I assisted, diamonds decree definitiveness. For some, life events find no validity without jewelry; stones substantiate significance. This is especially true for those recently or about to be betrothed, even if they have to rely upon their tax return to finance the purchase.
For me, some of the saddest moments were played out by folks struggling to survive, looking for the diamond to declare their undying fidelity for $99 or less. I know how snobbish that sounds, but I always wondered about the soundness of a decision to unite if the happy couple collectively didn’t even possess a hundred dollars to spend. Some even applied for credit in that amount, only to be denied. In the worst cases, we had to send our would-be clients to Wal-Mart to secure something for under fifty dollars.
When money wasn’t the issue, something else usually took its place. One silver-haired harpy and her husband insisted upon smoking from the second they hit our carpet. This violated store policy, but the manager made an exception and sent us running with ashtrays to deposit on the diamond counter every time they appeared. “We got money, but we live in a trailer!” they would always declare as she attempted to decide where she could fit another diamond on her already fully furnished fingers. Like many who shopped in our store, she believed diamonds to have mystical, transformative powers and even though she understood cigarettes were killing her, she seemed to think those tantalizing trinkets might somehow save her. She was as vicious as they come – vitriolic and venomous – except for the few moments after the sale was complete and before she stubbed out her Salem.
Shortly after she succumbed to cancer, her bewildered husband brought in the majority of her collection in hopes of selling it back for cash he didn’t need. He was astonished to hear our rock-bottom offer; the dream he had purchased had become a second-rate nightmare. “I guess I should’ve buried ‘em with her,” was his closing quip – a slogan DeBeers probably won’t adopt anytime soon.
In the end, even apart from reasons both obvious and heinous, all diamonds are characterized by conflict. I say this not to belittle the travesties that transpire in mining, exporting, cutting and so forth, but to say it’s amazing that stones sold as symbols of fidelity, eternity, and perfection usually end up as emblems of something far more base, banal, and bloodied.
Families, including members of my own, split up over their inheritance. Brides, despite all claims to the contrary, decide that size does, in fact, matter and ditch grooms who don’t deliver. People of all sorts and stations, in times of trouble, attempt to hawk them for vast sums. Others, like the guy I watched snatch a $20k 2-carat from a co-worker’s hand, make careers of stealing and fencing them, even though they almost always get caught.
No matter the case, they rarely end up being the currency our culture claims they constitute. They awaken the worst in people; they conjure up intense insecurity. From deep-throating to not-so-petty theft, they also awaken animalistic instincts that reside at a far remove from the regality with which they are so often ranked. So while diamonds may, in fact, be forever, the side effects of their pursuit and possession – as my short stint in the jewelry biz taught me – suggest that something simpler might inspire far less insanity and save you two months’ salary.