Arts and Culture

Tale of family’s diamond business sparks gem

Diamonds are the Oltuski family’s best friends. Although 27-year-old Alicia Oltuski’s only foray into the business was to strap on a chest pack of gems for delivery to other jewelers on New York’s 47th Street, her first book is “Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life” (Scribner).

“At the time it felt exhilarating and terrifying,” Oltuski told the AJP. “In retrospect, it was my inauguration in diamond adventure land” — part of a summer job working for her father when she was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Precious Objects” grew out of essays Oltuski wrote as a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction program at Columbia University from 2006 to 2008. [Full disclosure: Oltuski and my daughter, Brook Wilensky-Lanford, were in the Columbia MFA program together].

“Every writer seeks to uncover a hidden world of some sort,” Oltuski says. “I had some degree of access to the diamond industry. My father was always so reticent about it, but to me it was exotic and mysterious.”

The Jewish relationship with gems “goes pretty far back,” says Oltuski. “Jews were recognized for their skills with metal working going back to the Second Temple in 70 C.E.” By the Middle Ages, the Jewish connection to gemstones was widespread, she notes. At the time, Jews were allowed in the jewelry guild but weren’t accepted in other craft guilds.

Historically, diamonds have always been the “densest form of wealth,” says Oltuski. If there was a pogrom, Jewish people “could pick up their entire inventory and flee.” In “Precious Objects,” she expands on this: “I believe that the diamond is suited to Jews in an even more primal way, that it was inevitable for a people who have faced obliteration so many times to make the most resilient material on earth their trademark commodity. Like diamonds, Jews can be brutalized, cut down, layer by layer, and still they survive.”

Rabbis also got involved in the diamond business as “ad hoc administrators,” she says. “They made sure that diamond deals were fair.” If someone took off with the goods in one European city, a rabbi would alert another city’s rabbi about the misdeed.

Oltuski’s research brought her to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show in 2008, which she chronicles in her book. “Tucson was most unique from a trade show perspective because the entire city morphs into the gem show,” says Oltuski. “Tucson doesn’t seem like an international hub but it becomes a mecca for jewelry during that period of time.”

Oltuski, who lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, has 14 upcoming appearances — from Philadelphia to Albuquerque to San Diego — through the Jewish Book Council.

When Oltuski first started writing about the diamond industry, she recalls her father saying, “You can work at my office but you can’t write about it.” But that’s all changed, she says. “My father has been incredibly generous, and he’s very excited about my book.”

For more information, visit aliciaoltuski.com.

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