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Posted: 12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013

Dedicated to diamonds

Israeli-German Birko Roland opens Diamonds Direct in the Domain



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Dedicated to diamonds photo
Michael Barnes
Birko Roland runs Diamonds Direct

By Michael Barnes

American-Statesman Staff

When Birko Roland came of age, the young German Jew chose to serve in the Israeli military.

“We were not especially religious,” Roland says. “But Israel was close to our hearts.”

After serving for three years, he returned to his native Hamburg, Germany, for university. Yet Israel stuck in his blood.

“I became more Israeli than German,” Roland, 43, says. “I still think Germany is a great country. But I speak Hebrew at home.”

Life in Israel also led to his latest role. The freshly minted Austinite now runs the new Israeli-owned Diamonds Direct jewelry store in the Domain.

Here’s how it happened: While working for a company that shipped hazardous materials overseas, Roland lived in Herzliya, a small town on the Mediterranean coast 30 miles north of Tel Aviv. Sharing the same high-rise was a family from Uzbekistan who had dealt in diamonds for generations, now based at the huge exchange in Tel Aviv. The family also holds shares in a productive diamond mine in Irkutsk, Russia.

Several years ago, the family decided to dip into the retail end of the business. They opened shops in mid-sized American markets such as Raleigh, N.C., Charlotte, N.C., Richmond, Va., and Birmingham, Ala. They wanted a trusted friend to run the Texas outlet.

“I could imagine living in Austin,” Roland says. “I love Mozart, flamenco, punk rock, the Residents … . Austin was just made for this character.”

His blond hair brushed back from a high forehead and his eyes dancing around a hotel lobby, Roland seems to know just what to say — in slightly broken English — about a company breaking into a market dominated by a few old families and chains.

“We’re respectful of others in our industry,” he says. “But we want people to know the power behind what we bring to Austin. The city’s relationship and appreciation for diamonds is about to change.”

Once past the guarded lobby inside a small building near Dick’s Sporting Goods, one is dazzled by the sheer dense number of sparklers on display. Diamonds Direct offers engagement rings for as little as $1,000 — or something more posh for $500,000.

“We take them from the mine to the finger,” he says. “No middle men.”

An unlikely journey

Roland’s father is a retired businessman who dealt in safes and vaults. Much of his mother’s family left Germany during World War II; the others perished in concentration camps.

The death of his only sibling, an older brother, last November deeply affected Roland.

“He was a good soul,” he says of the electronica DJ. “He always wanted to visit San Francisco. So we buried him at St. Helena in Napa Valley. Hamburg is beautiful, but six months out of the year it’s raining. It’s depressing to visit your relatives in a cemetery there.”

Still fit, Roland ran the 400-meter sprint competitively as a student. While he prefers to spend time with a few good friends, he’s also open to social discoveries.

“I like to talk to people and find out about people,” he says. “If there were a University of Austinites, I’d love to study there.”

He actually studied chemistry in college, then took a second degree in logistics. That led to a lucrative niche in the transport of hazardous materials, his first career. It took him all over the world, seeking safe passage for dangerous stuff.

He met his wife, Anat Kincs Roland, daughter of a Yemenite-Hungarian father and a Yemenite mother, at the Frankfurt airport while she was working in a hotel in his hometown. They ran into each a second time in Israel, then a third time within two months.

“There’s an Israeli expression: ‘Three times, ice cream.’” he says, smiling broadly.

The couple is raising a baby girl in Lakeway. Although Roland dabbles in photography and travel — he is drawn to the colors of Mexico — his exchanges tend to wind back to the metastable allotrope of carbon.

“I think there is nothing more beautiful to sell than diamonds,” he says. “Every customer comes in for beauty in a good mood for a reason that comes from the heart. They give me the chance to participate in the most important days in their lives.”

What should the novice look for in a diamond?

“You don’t want to compromise on the cut,” he says. “You want the cut to deliver maximum brilliance and sparkle. You compromise on cut, you compromise on beauty.”

Roland has already scouted out some local charities for the Diamonds Direct Foundation to support.

“We are here because Austin with its unconventional lifestyle fits closely with our company profile,” he says. “We want to be good Austinites.”

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