March 8, 2021

A Block Abuzz With the Business of Gold

“Things I don’t wear anymore,” Mrs. Goldstein said, folding a stick of chewing gum into her mouth and eyeing a daunting array of hawkers on the block of West 47th Street between Fifth Avenue and Avenue of the Americas.

Mr. Goldstein, a retired New York City schoolteacher, said they hoped to get about $7,500 for the pieces. “We’ve been holding on to them for years,” he said.

“Years,” Mrs. Goldstein added.

“And now that the gold price is up,” Mr. Goldstein said, “we figured we’d come in and see what we could get.”

The price of gold is indeed up. It soared to an all-time high last week, not adjusted for inflation: over $1,800 an ounce for pure 24-karat gold. The spike has set off a flurry of sales in the diamond district, which has become flooded with people like the Goldsteins looking to sell high.

“This is a gold rush,” said Ernie Velez, 48, a jeweler and an owner of Universal Refinery, a glass-counter booth in one of the many mini-mall exchanges on the block where jewelry is bought and sold. Mr. Velez, an immigrant from Ecuador, said things could get even busier.

“A lot of folks are selling, but also a lot of people think the price will keep going up,” he said as jewelers brought small piles of gold jewelry to his counter for estimates. Mr. Velez’s men rasped the pieces on smooth test stones and then dabbed nitric acid on the rubbed-off gold to determine its purity.

Outside, Ramon Barrenechea, 59, of Staten Island, was capitalizing on the rush in his own way. Mr. Barrenechea, an immigrant from Peru, makes his own flat test stones by hand and was selling them for more than $50.

The diamond district does not particularly need a gold rush to invigorate its sidewalks. The block always percolates with business and energy.

About $24 billion is exchanged each year in sales in and around the district, among roughly 3,000 businesses, said Michael Toback, an executive board member of the 47th Street Business Improvement District and an owner of Myron Toback, a jewelry supply and refinery business on the block.

Amid all this industry, the district can be one of the strangest places in the city. Near Fifth Avenue on Tuesday, a scruffy bear of a man with no shirt on was scooping up rainwater and giving himself a cat bath as passers-by stared.

Hawkers from kosher delis handed out menus. One could hear New York accents, as well as Russian and also Yiddish, spoken by the many Hasidic men who work here, in black hats and coats.

Some of the most colorful characters were the hawkers: street-savvy men hired by jewelry dealers to spot potential customers on the block and coax them into their shops. The surging price of gold has cranked up the metabolism of these figures: the swaggering, smooth-talking sidewalk representatives for the many businesses.

“We’ve had a lot more action the past couple weeks,” said a 51-year-old hawker named Al, who wore a “We Buy Gold” sign around his neck and courted customers by showing a piece of paper listing the latest prices for 24-karat and lesser gold. “Business has been good.”

Al would not give his last name (“I got grandkids — I don’t want them to know I do this”) but said he tells customers that gold prices were so high that he was selling rings off his fingers.

“I tell people, ‘I had a ring I bought for $40 back in the day, and I just sold it for $200,’ ” he said.

Not all hawkers were as cheerful, complaining that sales were not brisk enough, even as they still quoted prices as high as $1,790 an ounce on Wednesday morning.

“A lot of people know what they have, and they’re waiting to see if they can sit on it longer, for a better offer,” said Denis Garasimov, who said he was hawking for Diamond District Gold Buyers. “It’s a straight-out gamble right now.”

Victor Velez, 38, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who held a laminated “We Buy Gold” sign, nodded as he handed out cards for the Royal Gems Corporation.

“A lot of people are holding on to it because they are seeing how high it can go,” Mr. Velez said.

When the Goldsteins first set foot on the block, they were approached by a hawker named Anthony Palmer, 47, of Springfield Gardens, Queens. Mr. Palmer, who works a small patch of sidewalk near Avenue of the Americas, said he earns $100 a day from the company he works for, and sometimes receives tips from customers happy with the price they get for their gold.

“You see there’s no other hawkers in this spot but me — this is my fiefdom,” he said. “That’s how it works. We respect each other’s space. When you get rogue hawkers cutting in, sometimes you got to be forceful.”

The surge in gold prices is attracting more traffic, he said, but when it comes to selling gold, personal needs often trump market price.

“It really ebbs and flows on people’s own economics,” he said. “You get desperate people at the beginning and the end of the month, when they’re facing their bills.”

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