India to Antwerp, this Story of Diamonds

Indians have come to control almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry.(Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly)

Indians have come to control almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry. (Reuters/Finbarr O’Reilly)

What New York is to the world’s money markets, Antwerp is to the global diamond trade. Antwerp is also the centre of the secondary or rough diamond market. More than 50% of global production of rough, polished, cut and industrial diamonds passes through Antwerp. Around 80% of the world’s rough diamonds are handled in Antwerp generating an annual turnover of some €30 billion. The most valuable diamonds are usually cut in Antwerp, but as the economy globalises Antwerp remains a nerve centre with much of the actual diamonds shipped out to other, cheaper locations.

Rough diamonds are first sorted and graded, before being dispatched from Antwerp to cutting plants around the globe. They will then return as polished diamonds when they are classified again, according to the “Four Cs”: cut, clarity, colour and carat weight. They will then be sold to the jewelry markets, generally through wholesalers. Following the diamond business in this city, the Quartz follows the community at the heart of the trade. Indians who’ve taken over the reigns of trade from Jews, Indians who call the city their home and also retain their traditions. A story of a community that lends the world its sparkle.

Antwerp’s diamond business had long been controlled by its orthodox, largely Hasidic Jewish community. Although 65% of the Jewish population of the city was exterminated during the Second World War, those who had remained, their ranks swelled by others fleeing former Nazi-occupied countries in Eastern Europe, had been able to regain control of the centuries-old diamond trade. But today it is the Mehtas and the Shahs rather than the Epsteins and Finkelszteins who rule Hoveniersstraat. Indians have come to control almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry, a figure that had been associated with the Jews only a few decades ago.

The first wave of Indians began to wash up on Antwerp’s shores in the 1960s. They started at the bottom of the business with low quality roughs, which offered very small margins of profit, and were of little interest to the established Jewish diamantaire houses. These stones were sent to family members back in India for cutting and polishing, where labour costs were a fraction that of Antwerp’s. Indians have come to control almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry. 

Three decades on, the Indian community in Antwerp consists of around 400 families, a majority from the single town of Palanpur in Gujarat. Today, companies that had begun as one-man operations dealing with a handful of diamonds at a time, have been transformed into billion dollar, global enterprises, employing thousands of workers, with factories and offices dotted across the world.

There are three main ingredients to this Indian success story: cheap labour, large families and a willingness to work harder than the competition.

Read more of this immigration of socio-cultural ideologies here.

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