Amit Berger and Diamonds Direct have created a business that brings the wonder of diamonds to life.
Written by Rosalind Fournier
Photography by Beau Gustafson
With Diamonds Direct, a seven-year-old jeweler in Mountain Brook, the name itself is one of many ways the store has broken the mold. “Diamonds Direct” is a simple statement of what they offer customers: diamonds directly from the source. The company was originally founded in 1956 in Israel, primarily manufacturing and cutting diamonds, which they do to this day. Their longtime wholesale operation and international connections have enabled Diamonds Direct—with retail stores now in Birmingham, Charlotte, Richmond, Raleigh, and Austin—to maintain an enormous inventory while emphasizing the value that comes from selling diamonds they source themselves. That includes pieces from the many designers the store works with—including Christopher Designs, Henri Daussi, Jack Kelege, Tacori, Verragio, Kirk Kara, C. Gonshor, and A. Jaffe—who use stones sourced by Diamonds Direct in their settings.
Amit Berger, vice president of Diamonds Direct Birmingham, believes it’s the business model of the future, but one that’s hard to replicate. “With our concept, there is no middleman,” he explains. “We are the actual source, and that creates savings for the customer. A lot of companies still go through a chain of three or four people in the middle. So there aren’t a lot in the United States that can offer what we offer.”
Berger came into the jewelry business as a young man almost by accident. He had recently completed his service in the Israeli military and started a career in the restaurant business but quickly decided it wasn’t for him. A childhood friend whose father founded the business suggested he come and work for them. “I thought, ‘Diamonds? That sounds wonderful.’”
Despite his connections to the family, Berger says he started out at the bottom in order to prove himself and gain an education in every aspect of the business. He started in the cutting facility and learned to cut, grade, and sort diamonds, eventually selling them to market exchanges and retailers. He continued to work on the wholesale side until coming to Birmingham in 2008 to open the store here.
The year 2008, of course, was when the country woke up in mid-September to the news that several of our country’s largest financial institutions were failing. The situation seemed to decline by the day, lasting well into the coming year and beyond. Consumer confidence—and willingness to spend on luxury items—plummeted. But in some ways, the new store was better prepared than most to weather the storm, even as the new kid on the block. “We opened at a time when the economic downfall was starting, and we were a new business in a new town,” Berger remembers. “Nobody knew about us here.”
Yet in any economy, people still get engaged—only now, many were more budget conscious than they might have been in the past, and Berger firmly believed he could offer them the best value for their money. “During that time, people felt they needed to shop more and look for a good deal,” he explains. “It wasn’t like before, where people might say, ‘Okay, I like it. I don’t care if it’s this or that, I’m just buying it.’ Instead I think people were much more conscious of their money and savings—and that worked in our favor. People came in to compare, and when they did end up buying here, we gained their business as well as their trust.”
The store found its niche in other ways, as well. Berger says he noticed many local consumers were looking outside of Birmingham to Atlanta or even New York. “We didn’t change that overnight,” he says, “but I think the mindset has changed over time.” That’s because Diamonds Direct carries a large-market inventory in its Birmingham store, and if a customer is still not finding the perfect size, cut, price point, or other features, Berger can draw from the other stores or the wholesale division itself. They also offer custom designs in-house, using CAD (computer-aided design) technology to create samples from wax.
“We really reach out at that point to all of those resources if necessary to find the right stone,” he explains. “We believe in value, and we believe our customers shouldn’t have to make compromises. That’s our job.”
Ben Ash has been a sales associate at Diamonds Direct for four years. Prior to that, he represented the third generation in a Birmingham jewelry store that his family owned for more than 104 years, A & A Ash Jewelers downtown. The family closed the store after his father passed away, and Ash spent four years out of the jewelry business before deciding to return. He says he chose to come to Diamonds Direct because he felt it represented the same values to which he was accustomed.
“I wanted to find a place where I would feel comfortable doing what I did for almost 40 years with my family,” Ash explains. “That was educating the public on what we are trying to sell them. You want to make sure that even though this is a much larger store than I’m used to working in, they still get a family owned atmosphere and feel very comfortable working with us.
“Relationships are extremely important to me,” Ash continues, adding that many of his old customers have now followed him to Diamonds Direct. “And that is something Diamonds Direct feels very strongly about, too. We want to be their jeweler for life.”
He says many customers are taken aback at first by the sheer volume of jewelry on display. Tastefully but simply decorated, the store’s ambience is dominated by the diamonds themselves. “The word I would use—and I think most people use—is ‘overwhelming,’” Ash notes. “When I walked in the first time for the interview, I was absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of merchandise we have on display for people to see. So it’s a bit of a challenge to get people to relax, feel comfortable in their surroundings, and enjoy the experience, which is very important for us.”
The staff starts by introducing customers to the history of the company and educating them about what to look for in a diamond, no matter what the price range. Then they spend as much time as possible talking with the customer about exactly what he or she is looking for in a stone.
Berger emphasizes the company’s philosophy has never been that bigger is better. “It’s never about the dollar or profit amount,” he says. “It’s really finding that perfect piece. A lot of customers actually end up spending less than what they expected, and they’re surprised. They’ll say, ‘I was willing to pay for (a more expensive ring), so why do you recommend this one?’ Well, it’s because we really and truly believe this is a better decision, a better diamond for what they want.”
If anything, he adds, the staff will work harder for a couple on a tight budget, because he doesn’t ever want them to feel they had to settle. “If it’s $500 or $50,000, we’re going to work hard for every customer,” he explains, “but for a tighter budget it just means being more creative and working harder to find that right stone.”
Berger says customer loyalty is still earned one visit at a time, and he never wants to take it for granted. “That’s what scares me,” he says. “I know the value is there, the quality is there, and the warranties and guarantees are the best in the industry. But the challenge is to make sure that no matter what day of the week customers come in, what time it is, or whom they work with, they always get 120 percent of the Diamonds Direct experience. That’s why we work hard to make sure we never get comfortable. We never forget where we came from.”
Business has grown every year, and while the vast majority is bridal, Berger says they’ve been around long enough now to see customers return for anniversary and birthday gifts…even what are known as “push presents,” special gifts given to a new mother when her baby is born. “It’s amazing to me personally to see these young people that we worked very hard for to find the right diamond come back and develop relationships with our people through that process,” Berger says.
Asked if being surrounded by diamonds ever makes him immune to the sparkle—literally or figuratively—and Berger is adamant: No. “Not me or anybody on our team. We see a beautiful diamond and it’s cut right and it’s unique, we get excited, period. I think our customers can feel that.”