Text: Claire Lessiau
Photographs: Marcella van Alphen & Claire Lessiau
The history of Antwerp’s diamond industry starts in the fifteenth century, when rough diamonds arriving from India were brought first to the city of Bruges and then to Antwerp, where they were polished and set in jewellery for nobility and the city’s rich traders.
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Antwerp’s position in the diamond trade grew stronger with the discovery of a direct sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498. During the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth centuries, Antwerp grew into one of the most important economic and artistic centres in Europe. Like Bruges and Ghent before, the metropolis developed, gathering wealthy merchants and precious goods from all over the world. As such, it became a global centre for the production and trade of luxury goods, and everyone of mean in Antwerp was a collector, Rubens first!
When Catholic Spain undergoing Inquisition conquered Antwerp in 1585, most of the city’s Jewish diamond cutters fled to liberal Amsterdam. It was not until a hundred years later, when The Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 (when the religious-tolerant Netherlands gained their independence from Spain), that Jewish polishers started to trickle back to Antwerp. During that time, Amsterdam supplied Antwerp with their lower-quality rough diamonds from India, which forced Antwerp’s diamond workers to develop innovative ways to extract the most value out of their stones.
After the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815, Antwerp was incorporated into the Netherlands and the Jewish community there was granted equality. Jews returned to Antwerp in the newly formed Belgium (1830) in full force and re-established their diamond businesses setting up a formal diamond trading exchange.
The discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, South Africa in 1871 gave Antwerp an extra boost. Once again, after 300 years, Antwerp was the world’s leading diamond centre. The annexation of Congo to Belgium in the early 20th century by King Leopold II ensured more diamond imports.
However, during WWII, the Jews involved in the diamond trade were captured, if not killed by the Nazi regime. Those who survived fled to Tel Aviv and New York City, establishing new diamond centres. Less than 5,000 of Antwerp’s original 35,000 Jewish inhabitants survived the war. After WWII, Antwerp regained its status as Europe’s diamond capital.
To this day, Antwerp is a key diamond centre, mainly for rough supplies, polishing of high-end diamonds, and financing, continuing a 550-year long tradition.
Do you think you know about diamonds? Take the quiz!
What is the share of Antwerp in the diamond industry?
20% of all uncut diamonds: after a being the diamond centre of the world in the Middle Ages, the competition from India and other centres such as Amsterdam and New York City has plummeted the share of the Belgium city in the diamond trade.
50% of all uncut diamonds: following WWII and the fact that many Jews were killed or persecuted, a significant share of the uncut diamonds was transferred to Tel Aviv, Amsterdam and New York City where many Jews fled.
80% of all uncut diamonds: Antwerp has maintained its predominance in the diamond world.
If all the above-mentioned reasons are correct, there is still 80% of all uncut diamonds passing through Antwerp, where they are traded or polished. 50% of the cut diamonds that are traded worldwide are traded through Antwerp. In 2016, 48 billion USD worth of diamonds were imported to and exported from Antwerp!
Around the Antwerp Central Station, the Diamond District encompasses 3 streets. How many CCTV cameras are installed in these three streets?
It is a confidential information.
2,000 cameras are installed in these 3 streets where about 1,700 diamond dealers operate!
What is the colour of the perfect diamond?
Perfect, pure diamonds are colourless, but most diamonds are yellow-tinted because of atomic impurities (most often, nitrogen). Only natural, brightly coloured diamonds are more valuable than “D colour” or “Exceptional White+” translucid stones.
With a slight blue hue
There are several types of diamonds. Some are synthesized in laboratories, reproducing the natural process during a brief time scale. Natural diamonds are formed by the strong compression (50,000 to 70,000 bar) of carbon under very high temperatures. What would that temperature range be?
600 to 800°C
1,200 to 1,400°C
At 1,200 to 1,400°C. These conditions occur 140 to 250 km in the Earth’s mantle. Diamonds make it to the surface thanks to volcanic eruptions, being sheltered by volcanic rocks, most often kimberlite.
1,600 to 1,800°C
Diamonds are paramount to Antwerp, and other precious objects have been made in the city. For instance, owl cups were highly prized in the Netherlands and Germany in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In this photo you’ll see the oldest known owl with the Antwerp mark. What is the body of the owl made of?
It is made of a hollowed-out coconut mounted in silver. Such exotic products were very precious back then!
The diamond trade is often associated to the Jewish community. Why?
Because this was one of the few jobs Jews were allowed to do in the Middle Ages.
The Jewish people and the diamond industry have a long history together, dating back as far as the Middle Ages. During this time, many of the European countries where Jews lived imposed harsh limitations on the types of industries that they could work in, often limited to occupations considered sinful by the Catholic Church. This led to a significant portion of Jews working in finance and trade.
The diamond trade is no longer the exclusive trade of the Jewish community. However, the diamond district in Antwerp still showcases the strong interconnection with Hasidic Jews living in the neighbourhood. Men are recognizable by their black hats, often covered by a transparent plastic in the rain, and white knotted fringes hanging down from the poncho-like garment worn under their jackets.
Because in case of persecutions, Jews knew they could flee fast with a few diamonds, easy to carry.
Because Jews found diamonds when they crossed the desert in ancient times, and the tradition has remained.
How are diamonds polished?
With diamond powder
In 1456, Lodewyk van Berken of Antwerp invented the Scaif, a polishing wheel infused with a mixture of oil and diamond dust. For the first time, it was possible to polish all the facets of the diamond symmetrically at angles that reflected the light in ways never seen before. The Scaif revolutionized diamond polishing. It led to a rise in the popularity of diamonds, and cemented Antwerp as a global diamond centre.
With hardened titanium
Against each other
Today, the most popular cut is the brilliant cut, used on 75% of all colourless diamonds. This cut was perfected in 1919 by a diamond cutter from Antwerp, Marcel Tolkowsky, using a maths formula to define the best way of arranging the facets for the most brilliant possible. How many facets are there in a brilliant cut?
The word “diamond” comes from the Greek word adamas that means:
The weight of a diamond is expressed in carat (kt). A carat represents 0.2 grams. Where does the word “carat” come from?
From the Japanese word karate, that was imported into the Japanese language from India (where diamonds were mined) via China, meaning unbreakable.
From the Greek word keration, referring to the kernel of the fruit of the carob tree as these seeds weigh about 0.2 grams each.
From the Greek word keration. referring to the kernel of the fruit of the carob tree as these seeds weigh about 0.2 grams each. They were used in the Byzantine period as a unit of weight for pearls and gems.
From the Arabic word charah, referring to an ancient currency in which the charah coin weighed precisely 0.2 grams of lead.
How old is a natural diamond?
It depends where it is mined, it can be any age, really.
1 to 3.5 billion years old
1 to 3.5 billion years old: they are older than our continent and dinosaurs! As a reference, the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.
4.5 billion years old
When did diamonds start to appear on engagement rings?
In 1477, Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented his wife-to-be Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring, establishing the tradition of diamond engagement rings.
In 1477, Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented his wife-to-be Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring, establishing the tradition of diamond engagement rings. However, diamond engagement rings really became popular in 1947 following the De Beers “A diamond is forever” marketing campaign.
In 1870, Queen Victoria set the trend after having her small diamond crown made that contained 1,187 diamonds.
In 1947, the De Beers diamond company that mined the precious stones in South Africa launched a marketing campaign to make diamonds popular for engagement rings in order to create demand to sell their increasing diamond stocks.
- To learn more about the fascinating history of diamonds and admire some of the finest pieces of jewellery, visit the DIVA Museum.
- The city of Antwerp and Antwerp World Diamond Centre have created a quality label “Antwerp’s Most Brilliant”. To obtain this label, jewellers must comply with quality requirements in terms of sustainability, ethics, safety, transparency, and service.
- If you want to bring a diamond back, make sure to check on the 4 C’s: carat, colour, clarity and cut. Request a Diamond Grading Report (DGR) which describes the 4 C’s as well as the origin of the diamond (natural, lab-grown, treated diamonds).
- To ease your trip, Visit Antwerp sells an Antwerp City Card that includes entrance to the DIVA Museum, as well as public transport.
- For a great location and comfortable stay, the 4-star Hotel Rubens Grote Markt is ideal to explore Antwerp!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!