Bewildered Men of the Diamond District: Buying an Engagement Ring in New York City

Note: Back in the fall, I took a 10-week writing course at NYU. One of the pieces we were asked to write was a profile piece with a stranger. The assignment coincided with my appointment with a jeweler. So on my third visit, I decided to interview him on the spot. 

Bewildered Men of the Diamond District

He helped me make the biggest financial investment of my life. I’d be remiss not to get to know the man a little better.

Mike Pacicco is not who you expect to see when you walk in to buy an engagement ring. Yes, he dons the suit and a thick-knotted tie. And of course, he has a glaring gold watch with a ring to match. THAT, you expect to see as you walk along Manhattan’s Diamond District.

By the way, that last name, Pacicco? It’s pronounced /pa-chee-ko/; I know because that’s how he answers the phone every time I call to make an appointment. “Pa-CHEE-ko!” in the same cadence you’d expect him to say, “Talk to me!”

The first thing that throws you off about Pacicco is the ponytail. With a quick glance you may think he looks a bit like Burt Reynolds (without the mustache and before he turned grey). But once he turns and you get a glimpse of that ponytail, he starts to take on the look of a retired WWE wrestler. Barrel-chested and wind-burned, he’s handsome and talkative. His voice pulls you in right off the bat. It’s welcoming and magnetic. He sounds like he was plucked off the cast of Goodfellas. Like he may have been DeNiro’s bodyguard in a past lifetime, and with the confidence that says maybe I was.

Pacicco may be unexpected, but god damn is he routine-oriented. It’s hard not to notice. For starters, he’s been in the jewelry business for fifty years. Pacicco & Pacicco Jewelers is a family business, and Mike has been doing the same thing, every day, for all fifty of those years. He takes the train from New Jersey into Grand Central, walks the eight or so blocks to 47th Street and 5th Avenue, deactivates the alarm, switches on the lights, and triggers the safety locks on the doors. All of this before 6 AM. His father started the business over a hundred years ago, and they’ve been in the exact same location since the early 1900’s – a fact that clicks with me as a musty breeze passes through.

The gig started off like any teenager’s first job: helping out Dad over Christmas break to earn a few bucks for the Holidays. Once Mike saw the personal care that his father placed in each transaction, along with the fruitful proceeds, he was hooked. Up and down years were the nature of the business, but it was the relationships that kept Mike coming back.

“A friend of my father’s once told me ‘Your dad is the most honest man I ever met,’” Mike says, beaming with pride. I could tell he has a lot of respect for what his father built, especially the relationships.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a dentist,” Mike said, unprovoked. “I just love people.” As he spoke I thought to myself, root canals and diamonds don’t exactly go hand in hand, but I do know that dentists love to talk – and Mike certainly checks that box.

An avid reader like myself, I asked Mike what his favorite book is. He tells me The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong – “It taught me what it meant to deal with people,” he said. It’s clear that Pacicco excels in the art of conversation. He forms an instant bond with everyone he meets. Every interaction I’ve had with Mike featured one of his several go-to phrases:

“Well, it is and it isn’t”.

“Ah, ya know. Same stuff, different day.” (smiling)

“You follow what I’m sayin?”

He speaks quickly. And he really does want you to follow what he’s saying. Pacicco is full of stories and interesting facts. He’ll come out of the blue with whatever news he heard that morning. This particular day’s tidbit was about Jackie Gleason and The Honeymooners. Apparently, Jackie Gleason’s famous catchphrase, “Hummina, hummina, hummina!” was a cue to his co-stars that he had forgotten his lines. Pacicco was in stitches. “The ego on this guy!” he spewed out, “to keep his coworkas guessin’ and feed him the lines rather den stop and ask!”

Talking is just about his favorite thing in the world, other than diamonds and his wife (who he met when she came to return an engagement ring!). There are frequently long stretches of time where I don’t utter a single word, other than just nod in agreement, raise my eyebrows, or bend over laughing, slapping my knee at the stories he tells in that thick New Jersey accent. He always finished off with his catchphrase, “You follow what I’m sayin?” I do, but sometimes it’s hard not to get lost in the chatter.

He’s been selling engagement rings to young, bewildered men for decades. As I walk along 47th Street, I’m not alone in being a young twenty-something with no knowledge of diamonds, rings, or jewelry – let alone negotiating with someone who’s been an expert in his craft for over fifty years. I imagine this is how I’d do trying to buy my first car, except the car isn’t for me and I have to guess what the other person wants. As I learned, it takes careful consideration and at least a few hours of adequate research to walk into a jewelry store with some semblance of confidence. Luckily, I had an “in” with Pacicco (my family friend has been going to him for years), so no negotiating was necessary. Mike was going to give me a favorable price. I also had several relatives and family friends to guide me through the oh-so-confusing tutorial of “The 4 C’s” – Cut, Color, Clarity, and Carat. My older brother had bought his ring from Pacicco several years earlier and referred many people.

So where does one begin when researching this important little finger ornament? Well, to start, a good quality one-carat diamond will cost anywhere from $4,500-$6,000. For most people shopping in the Diamond District, that’s the baseline. The carat is the most well-known characterization of a diamond because it is basically a proxy for the weight, or size of the diamond. The bigger the diamond, the more carats it has. A three-carat diamond, for reference, will range anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000. As you may be surprised to learn, I am not a royal prince, so my budget is limited to the 1-2 carat range.

I forget to mention – this is before you start factoring in the cut, color, and clarity – oh, and don’t forget, the setting, the band, and the taxes. Before you know it, that little ring you wanted to slip on her finger turns into the cost of a decent mid-size sedan (or at least a used Camry).

Mike tells me that most of the diamonds he buys come from India. Once a diamond is mined, the journey starts. Diamonds don’t just come out of the ground looking perfect. So first, it’s then sent to a cutting house, where it takes up to six people to cut the diamond – round, oval, cushion, pear, marquise, and other shapes I can’t pronounce. From there, a diamond dealer will sell the stones directly to jewelers. Sometimes, Mike will attend a trade show and buy stones from dealers who have booths with several diamonds on display to choose from. But most of the time, dealers will go directly to the Diamond District to meet with their best, and most vital customers. Those customers, or Mike in this case, then inspect each diamond with care before making the purchase. Most of Mike’s job is appraising the proper value on the stone. If he isn’t precise, he may end up severely overpaying for a stone that may not be up to GIA standards (Gemological Institute of America). And Pacicco doesn’t just specialize in engagement rings. Friends and family of mine have been buying earrings, necklaces, watches, and bracelets from Mike for years.

Pacicco has a story for just about every occasion when it comes to engagements or proposals. You can imagine the personalities that must come through New York’s Diamond District on any given day. One story was about a guy who waited sixteen years to propose – “He’s my hero,” Mike chuckled; another about a young kid who had his mom handle all the negotiating. But the best stories are about customers who try to discredit Pacicco or haggle over a stone’s quality. One big-head tried to convince Pacicco that the diamond he was looking to trade in was flawless and should be worth several times higher than what he was offering. Pacicco’s fifty-year-old loupe thought otherwise (a loupe, as I learned, is the small magnification device jeweler’s use to inspect stones). Mike has every accreditation in the book. One hundred percent of his business is word of mouth. That’s it. No advertising, no fancy business cards, no nothing. The list of people I personally know who have gone to Pacicco is longer than I can remember. Heck, he doesn’t even save people’s contacts in his phone.

“Remind me who you are if you’re texting or calling. I can’t keep track of all these people!” he instructs me on our third or fourth phone interaction.

Pacicco is a big Trump guy, and he’s aware of the stigma that comes with that, but he’s not one to hold back his opinions. He talks to me about the history of the federal income tax, which he is certainly not a fan of (I did some curious back of the napkin math to figure out how much Mike may bring in a year. After some rough estimates and very conservative guesses, I imagine he makes somewhere in the range of $750,000 to $1,000,000 a year). I wanted to cut in and ask if his business was affected by policy changes, but as you may have gathered, it’s tough to get a word in when he starts going. He laughs off the political news of the day, deeming the swamp of Washington as “ridiculous” or a list of other adjectives he can think of. He likes to portray himself as middle of the road, but it’s clear to me he’s not the type to change his mind quickly.

I know Pacicco will be out of my life as quickly as he came into it. It took four visits to the Pacicco Jewelry shop to build the ring I knew my girlfriend would love: one to get educated, one to pick the diamond out of a line-up of various price points, another trip to see the ring and give feedback on any adjustments I thought were needed, and a final visit to pick up the ring the night before my eventual proposal. I’ll recommend him to friends and family, of course. Maybe Lauren and I will even buy our wedding bands from him. Who else would I go to?

Weeks after my last encounter with Mike, I text him a picture of my now fiancée Lauren, donning the round diamond ring with a gold band, six prongs and a solitaire setting. Mike spent a week putting it together. “Good for you both. My best, congrats,” he responds. I know that’s what keeps him happy.

“In business, it’s all about relationships,” he tells me. “Sure, I’ve made mistakes, but if you’re honest, your biggest mistakes will always bring you more customers.”

She said yes, by the way. And she still glows every time she looks at that ring and raises her hand to the light.

Before I leave the shop for my final visit, Pacicco leaves me with some parting words: “If your wife ever doubts your love for her, ask her one question: ‘Who bought you that ring?’”

Paris, France – 10/17/19


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