Fred Feldmesser – Private gem merchant to the rich

BY MIKE WISER

“How to Buy Your First Diamond.”

The yellow flier, left in Hark Boxes last week advertising a one-hour talk on purchasing a diamond, was both mysterious and disconcerting. Mysterious, because the flyer did not explain who was sponsoring Fred Feldmesser’s talk or why it was being held at the Charles Hotel. Disconcerting, because — let’s face it — even the idea of buying a diamond is scary.

Arriving at the Charles Hotel two Tuesdays ago, the mystery was soon cleared up. Mr. Fred Feldmesser, private jeweler, was sponsoring the talk of Mr. Fred Feldmesser, “lecturer and consultant in diamonds, precious stones and fine jewelry.” The mystery was resolved, but Feldmesser’s talk did little to dispel the audience’s fears. If anything, his lecture played on students’ fears.

“In my humble opinion,” Feldmesser told the crowd of 50 or so HLS and HBS students, “probably 75 percent of people in my industry shouldn’t be there. They are either ignorant, mostly ignorant, or they are thieves.”

He added: “And I say that humbly. It’s really very, very sad.”

As a private jeweler to the rich, Feldmesser caters to clients who believe that diamond buying should be an “experience.” Feldmesser was introduced to the audience by Nathaniel Walker, a Boston College student who had proposed to his fiancé, Grace, only 20 minutes before, and who had spent a year talking to Feldmesser about the perfect ring. “The average sale takes 17 minutes and is done standing at a counter with dozens of people milling about,” Feldmesser said. “And nothing is wrong with that. I think that buying a diamond right is a much more intimate experience.”

Feldmesser’s real niche, however, seems to be alleviating his clients’ insecurity. All men, he said, have a fear of appearing foolish when they buy a diamond for an engagement ring. Of course, with 75 percent of diamond sellers either fools or crooks, he implies that there is good reason to be fearful.

Tiffany & Co. is apparently Feldmesser’s primary competitor in the business of helping rich consumers avoid feeling foolish. Tiffany’s, Feldmesser said, provides high quality diamonds and is good “for those of you who are very insecure.” He explained: “For those of you who like the blue boxes at Tiffany’s, nothing is wrong with that. You’re going to pay for it. It’s the most recognized packaging in the world.” (You may have realized by now that Feldmesser’s oft-used phrase “nothing is wrong with that” doesn’t really mean, “Nothing is wrong with that.”)

Although Feldmesser did spend some time talking about where diamonds come from (the ground, surprisingly enough) and how to evaluate them (clarity, color, cut, carat weight), he primarily sold himself as a private jeweler. While he admitted, “everyone has a pitch,” Feldmesser would probably object to being compared to your average car dealer.

Saying that his goal is to keep the transaction “distinguished,” he said he refuses to negotiate.

“I always felt that negotiating is disrespectful to the person who owns the property and to the stone,” he said. Similarly, Feldmesser said that he does not take credit cards. “Why?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s not classy.”

Feldmesser is honest about why he is in the business. Speaking about the sale of a diamond for seven figures, he said: “I don’t want the money. I want that check so that I can go to that teller behind the counter and see her face when she sees that giant amount of money.”

Being a private jeweler to businessmen, lawyers and doctors cannot be easy. At times Feldmesser seemed downright defensive. During the lecture, he joked, “A diamond is the hardest substance in the world. Who knows what the second hardest is? This is a joke. . . . The head of a determined consumer.”

Unsurprisingly, no one in the audience really responded to that one, but his point seemed to be that when buying a diamond a lot of people are bullheaded about the stone or the price.

“You’re not in the trade,” he said. “I want and deserve to be paid for that effort. If you don’t understand that, you’re not my client.”

The event ended with a chance for the audience to check out some of his wares up close and to grab one last gourmet cookie or bottle of Evian. Thinking about students trudging back to Gropius in the cold holding Feldmesser’s card, it seems that the event was, in many ways, a rite of passage. For those heading off to a corporate firm, it was a glimpse of the type of luxury that awaits after graduation. For those heading in other directions, it was a reminder that they were giving up the world of Feldmessers for the world of Zales and Service Merchandise liquidation sales.

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