New York Diamonds – An Interview with a Rare Diamantaire – An Atelier-Style Firm with Global Reach
David Birnbaum is a leading private jeweler who sells to the financial elite, “with a sprinkling of heads of state.” He is also something of a renaissance man, who views his long involvement in the high-end jewelry business through his own company, David Birnbaum/Rare 1.
As is traditional in much of the diamond and jewelry trade, Birnbaum’s involvement in the business can be said to have begun long before his birth, with his father, the late Andor J. Birnbaum, who emigrated from Europe to the United States in 1938.
Andor Birnbaum taught his son the basics of the diamond trade first on Sundays when David was a youngster, and the two collaborated on building up the business from the 1960s onward. David’s regular formal education was at the Yeshiva of Forest Hills Elementary School, Yeshiva University High School, City College of New York, and then at Harvard Business School.
When he emerged with His MBA in 1974, the son joined the father in the newly formed Andor & David Birnbaum Inc., starting in January 1975.
In the interim, the company’s sales multiplied 12-fold. The company became a De Beers sightholder in 1978, when David Birnbaum was 28, but stopped being one in early march 1980. The firm got out of the banks in March 1980 as well, protecting its viability in the face of the subsequent diamond industry crunch – which followed the famous 1977-1980 price run-up – in “collection goods.”
Andor Birnbaum served for 10 two-year terms from 1960 to 1980 as an arbitrator at the Diamond Dealers Club of New York. “It was an interesting window into the industry,” his son recalls.
In March 1980, the younger Birnbaum made the decision to stop cutting diamonds and start building up a private jewelry business, which ultimately became David Birnbaum/Rare 1, the flagship of the Birnbaum Group. During this period, he wrote the New York column for Diamant magazine.
Birnbaum made the decision to specialize in top-of-the-line goods—diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls, selling to what he calls “VIP clientele types.” The company typically handles 4 to 14 carat diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, but can go into the 30-50 carat range as needed. “We do a respectable business in goods selling from $20,000 to seven or eight figures, but the bulk of our business is in the $100,000 to $400,000 range,” he said. “We’re now an important player in that niche.”
The company does not do its own jewelry manufacturing; instead, it sources goods from as far up the pipeline as possible, in locations around the world, Birnbaum said. The firm also does some cutting and polishing as needed, although not at the same scale as when it was a sightholder.
The business has had to change with the times. “There have been several major metamorphoses of the trade since I started in it,” Birnbaum reflected in an interview with New York Diamonds. “Between the 1980s and now there has been extreme wealth concentration and polarization, a concentration in the top 10 percent to 20 percent of the population. The magnitude of that wealth is perhaps 10 times what it was in 1980. Of course, many purveyors vector toward that market, so there is no shortage of astute competition. We find ourselves competing with Graf in the last few years. It’s a very tough market to penetrate at all, and the learning curve is challenging as well. But we swim in those waters.”
Building the private jewelry business was a formidable challenge, Birnbaum said. “As we know, this is a Darwinian industry at all levels, including the top. The barriers to entry at the top end are quite formidable.” The hard word was worth it, though: David Birnbaum/Rare 1 now has a strong brand among the super-wealthy in North and South America and respectable presence elsewhere in the world, “although we may not be known at all in ‘middle America’ and their counterparts worldwide.”
It would be difficult for the average jewelry consumer ever to hear of David Birnbaum/Rare 1, in fact, given that the company does not maintain any retail outlets, nor does it market to that segment.
“Clients are generated by a mix of generally private modes, including an award-winning deluxe catalogue which is well known globally to the VIP set,” Birnbaum notes. This includes sophisticated catalogue mailings and private events, as well as referrals, special programs and individual invitations sent to selected individuals around the world.
Just as David worked in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Commerce in developing his Asian wholesale trade in the 1970s, he worked in collaboration with several major luxury magazines in developing his retail clientele in the 1990s.
The current David Birnbaum/Rare 1 marketing mix is substantially different from that of his direct competitors—high-end jewelry companies such as Harry Winston that have retail stores and draw clients in through these outlets, as well as by conventional media advertising and through catalogues. David Birnbaum/Rare 1’s catalogue-focused, outlet-free and lean “upstairs” overhead strategy is more like that of “fine, smaller private jewelers around the world,” Birnbaum said.
“The firm is modeled somewhat on the classic Parisian or Swiss atelier,” he added. “Like them, we sell to high-end private clients, although our strategy is adjusted slightly to a global rather than a regional business. Traditional ateliers generally don’t send out 100,000-plus deluxe catalogues at a clip.”
Additionally, David Birnbaum/Rare 1 is more high-tech than the traditional atelier, and has a more professional, American-style approach to staffing and other aspects of the trade. The firm is known to field high-level Asian-American staffers in its upper ranks. “It’s not that our modality is superior to other modalities,” Birnbaum hastens to add. “We just do out thing, carefully carving out our niche globally.”
He estimates that over the years the firm has invested $10 million to $15 million in catalogues and other branding activities. The company operates with no partners, no banks and no debt, aside from standard 30-day payables, Birnbaum said.
The branding investment has paid off: “Our firm has a strong, exclusive private brand among the world’s financial elite,” Birnbaum said, adding that this does not mean the clientele is restricted to people working in the financial services industry. For example, the firm has a big base at Harvard Business School, with which Birnbaum maintains an affiliation.
Celebrity clients have included Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, James Gandolfini and John Lithgow, but the company serves everyone from young bankers to heads of state. Testimonial quotes in the former president of American Express; Jack Laschever, publisher of Forbes FYI; Susan Wolk, publisher of Seabourn Magazine; the Platinum Card; and the publications Carlyle Magazine, Avenue magazine, Departures magazine, and COUTURE jewelry magazine.
Even the rarefied clientele who patronize Rare 1 were hurt by the recession that began in December 2007 and the financial crisis of September 2008, Birnbaum said. “The Lehman shock seriously impacted the top 10 percent as well, but we’re now about 18 months past that [as of March] and rolling. A respectable recovery may take three years total (from the onset of the September 2008 crisis), but we’re rolling, and monthly more clients come to bat. The super-recession has impacted sales, margins, average ticket price – the works. In the absence of new major shocks, things should be rolling respectably by the second half of 2011. Meanwhile, this March, the firm placed a multi-million dollar ruby and diamond ensemble with one of its private clients.
NEW YORK DIAMONDS MAY 2010