Gem Fatale

Benny and Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems, 2019. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). A24
Benny and Josh Safdie, Uncut Gems, 2019. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). A24

We were called hip-pocketers, because we lived from one deal to the next: Your business could fit in the wallet in your pocket. You bought a used Rolex at a pawnshop for a thousand bucks from the kid who’s just paid five hundred for it, hurried it over to your watch guy to hit it on the wheel and make it look new, replaced the old worn buckle with a South American counterfeit for fifty bucks, and resold it to your friend who owned the jewelry store a few blocks over for twenty-two hundred, twenty-two seventy-five if she wanted a counterfeit leather box. She could retail it the same day for thirty-five hundred. We “worked the float” back then, in the ’80s and ’90s—that meant the few days you had between when you paid for something with a check and the check actually hit your bank account. If you flipped the gold you’d bought with a check the same day, you had a few days of free money. Of course, you tried to make money on every deal, but often you were moving so fast that you had to lose money here and there, waiting for the bigger score that ought to come if you just kept hustling fast enough.

There are a lot of hustles in the jewelry business. It’s a cash business with big numbers and independent spirits, and that creates a kind of pure capitalism, with all of its flaws. The great Ronnie C., the Texan who taught me the jewelry business when I was a teenager, and once the king of the jewelry business in the American Southwest, got his start as a small-time coin dealer in San Antonio. The coin business was not well-regulated and it was easy to make newly printed silver coins, with counterfeit dates and stampings, look old by putting them in a paper bag and blowing cigar smoke over them, before repackaging them in sealed plastic. Like most short-con games this had a problem—eventually, anyone who was a real collector was going to want to have the coins appraised, verified, insured.

So Ronnie, hustler that he was, had an idea: What if he got the appraisers into the game? Appraising silver coins is not a very lucrative business, but it could be, if the appraiser were getting a cut of the false over-appraisal of rare coins. And then he thought—why stop there? These people need safes and security systems for their collections, they need insurance agents—and who better than the people who installed the security and the safes to steal the coin collections back. But nobody asks too many questions when the coins are insured, and for a while—as he told the story, sitting behind a mahogany desk in his ostrich boots and Hermès tie, in a tanned-cowhide chair made with longhorns for the arms and legs—even the insurance agents were getting a cut.

The problem with these hustles is they are delicate things with short life spans. Word gets out, and if Ronnie’s making lots of money, somebody’s losing lots of money, and soon those people—who are always more powerful than the little hustlers resorting to these schemes—take an interest and shoot the whole thing down or even put people in jail. And eventually Ronnie did go to jail, when Rolex USA and the FBI teamed up against him on a watch-counterfeiting scheme he masterminded.

What I most loved about the movie Uncut Gems was how the directors Josh and Benny Safdie managed to capture the frenetic pace, the desperation of the hustle in motion, when you have too many balls in the air and one deal is leveraged against another. The whole shady thing might actually work if jeweler Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler in a ferocious performance, could just apply enough will, imagination, and sheer wild focused panic to the solution. But if one thing goes wrong—like, in the movie, when the celebrity basketball player won’t return a gem he has borrowed as quickly as he promised—it could, and naturally wants to, all come crashing down.

The fact that Sandler’s character in the movie is a sports gambler is unnecessary, really, though useful for the plot. All small-time hustlers living beyond their means are gamblers. They are a strange kind of idealist, Don Quixote style, who believe in their hearts that a sufficiently vigorous mental projection of the world as they wish it to be can reshape reality. In this sense being a hustler is a little bit like being in love—everywhere you look you see strange coincidences, confirmations of the fact that you know secrets others don’t, correspondences between what you need to be the case and what is suddenly the case even though it wasn’t, moments before. What matters is the oscillation between exhilaration and despair. I think that’s why the movie is provoking such strong reactions, why it’s such a “you love it or you hate it” movie: It’s a little bit too much like how all of us feel, when we are at our most excited and our most frightened. It’s just too close to crazy.

One of my favorite things about Uncut Gems is how many little details it gets right: the running into pawnshops; the short-term loans at outrageous rates; the pretending to have more inventory than you really do, so as to look strong; the fake Rolexes, the fake Rolex boxes, the fake Rolex “book-and-papers” (the Rolex advertising and certificate of authenticity); the Great White Whale you are so often chasing—in the movie, a piece of rough black opal that our crazy hustler believes is worth millions—that is going to save you from your hopelessly insolvent situation. The friend-of-the-family shill you use to drive up prices at an auction (I was once that shill, back in my youth). The way the robbers, at the end (this is not a spoiler), smash the cases to grab the jewelry out by the fistful in exactly the way they always did when they robbed our stores. You worried about them cutting their hands.

Two other stories from my times in the Texas jewelry business relate interestingly to Uncut Gems. The first was about a famous gem dealer who often came from New York to visit the collection of gem and diamond wholesalers with offices in the Murray Savings Building in North Dallas. Normally this particular gem dealer went straight from the airport to Murray Savings. But on this occasion he had met a friendly fellow in the bar at LaGuardia, and it turned out they were both in first class and they managed to sit together and have a few drinks on the plane, and then the friendly man invited our gem dealer to a steam room he knew in downtown Dallas, where they might continue their conversation. Our gem dealer, unfortunately for him, was carrying with him in his bag an unusually large pigeon-blood ruby, worth several million dollars, which he was planning to have certified by an AGI ruby expert at the Murray Savings Building. It was a steam room, so the bag had to go in his locker. After a happy hour or two in the company of his new friend, he returned to his locker—and his clothing, his wallet, his phone, his watch, and the bag with the ruby had vanished. The new friend was of course gone too. I love this story because the real hero is not the dealer or the smooth-talking thief who had the whole thing planned, but the ruby itself, sitting there in his bag, a multimillion-dollar ruby, with an unexpected destiny that would ruin a man’s life. Though the title Uncut Gems leaves something to be desired, the Safdie brothers were right to focus their narrative on the irrational, mythic power these crystals hold over our imaginations and our pocketbooks.

The other story is about a mantrap, an interesting aspect of jewelry-store and especially jewelry-wholesaler security that has, to my knowledge, never been used effectively as a plot device until this movie. A mantrap, in case you have never been in one and haven’t yet seen the movie, is a small, two-doored holding area at the entrance to a jewelry store. You enter the mantrap through the front door, and that door locks automatically behind you. In front of you is another door, made of bulletproof glass, also locked. There is normally a button that a jeweler pushes to admit you when you enter and release you when you leave. The doors are wired so that both cannot be open at the same time. The idea, of course, is that no one will get in unless you want them to get in, and that no one can leave who ought not to be leaving. Thieves who get through the first door are stuck in the mantrap. And if thieves actually make it into the store, they get stuck in the mantrap on the way out.

In Dallas there was an old Jewish diamond dealer, Sol L., who was legendary because he had been in the Holocaust, he was a very honest man to whom people went for advice, and he was a notoriously savvy diamond trader. One day three guys showed up at Sol’s place bearing a five-carat diamond they wanted to sell. They were sketchy-looking guys, but Sol was in back and his son, after seeing the diamond through the Plexiglas while they were in the mantrap, let them through. Once in, they immediately took their guns out and grabbed Sol’s son and held a pistol to his head, demanding the contents of the safe. Now Sol, who was in his seventies and a tiny man, jumped over his own showcase, took the gun from the man who was holding it on his son, pistol-whipped him to the ground, and then turned on the other two men, who ran into the mantrap. They were stuck. Sol kept them there while he inspected the diamond they had brought as bait and dropped when they ran. Then, so the story goes, Sol, taking his time, told the would-be robbers what he would have paid them for the diamond, before putting it in his own safe and letting them go, warning them to get out of Dallas. And so the joke around town was that only Sol L. could get robbed and get a five-carat diamond out of the deal.

Jewelers thrive on this kind of story and the breathless, frenetic spirit that it expresses. This is why Sandler understands his role so well: There is an unhinged Dionysian hilarity, removed from ordinary reality, that makes the small-time hustler who he is. And he generally does get torn to pieces. It’s frightening. It frightened me right out of the business. But in his season the frenzied jeweler might be more alive than the rest of us.

Clancy Martin is the author of How to Sell (2009) and Love and Lies (2015, both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).