The diamond people: How Antwerp became a world leader


Antwerp’s diamond museum has launched an exhibition dedicated to two influential Flemish jewellery designers. But how did Antwerp become the diamond capital of the world anyway?

A safe haven

While Diva, Antwerp’s diamond museum, does much to explain how diamonds are mined, processed and sold to you and me, one still leaves the beautiful exhibitions wondering: Why Antwerp?

There are diamond trading centres around the world – London, New York and Dubai to name a few – most of them capital cities and all of them larger than Antwerp. And still, 86% of the world’s trade in rough diamonds takes place in a few streets in the port city. Half of them then come back to be traded again once cut and polished.

While “diamonds are forever” might be just marketing, a fascinating history of very real industrial, political and social forces came together to put – and keep – Antwerp at the centre of the world’s trade in diamonds.

It started far away, in 12th-century India. Volcanos spit diamonds out from the bowels of the earth. The Indians found the rough stones pretty and fashioned jewellery from them. “The Venetians were already getting silk from India, and soon they began taking diamonds as well,” says Diva director Eva Olde Monnikhof. “That’s how diamonds made their way across Europe.”

The Jews went into the diamond business partially because they couldn’t become members of the traditional trade guilds

- Diva director Eva Olde Monnikhof

But this trade route was overland, and eventually the Portuguese found that they could sail there faster. Specifically, Portuguese Sephardic Jews.

“They went into the diamond business partially because they couldn’t become members of the traditional trade guilds,” explains Olde Monnikhof. “This was one of the industries that was left open. Also, there was already a bit of history of making jewellery. So it seemed like a logical combination.”

Portugal eventually colonised the region of Goa on India’s southwest coast, taking over the diamond trade there. “There was a Belgian jeweller in the area at the time,” says Olde Monnikhof. “Nobody knows exactly why – but he was from Antwerp.”

Whether this jeweller had any influence on what happened next is unclear, but what is known is that when the Jews had to flee Portugal in the 16th century during the Inquisition, they went to Antwerp. “It was still part of the Netherlands, and it was known for its very liberal climate,” she says. “Freethinkers also arrived in Antwerp, everyone who wasn’t necessarily enamoured with the church could find a spot there. So the Jews went there, and they brought their diamonds with them.”

As Antwerp had quite a nice harbour, it was easy to continue maritime trade. At this point, the gemstones were still being traded rough, but locals soon figured out that they could use diamonds to cut and form other diamonds – and diamond polishing was born. Suddenly those pretty rocks became shining, light refracting gemstones.

Following the Dutch Revolt, which led to the separation of the northern and southern provinces in the mid-17th century, many Jewish diamond traders moved to Amsterdam. “There was this idea that the northern Netherlands would be richer than the southern part,” explains Olde Monnikhof (pictured above).

But by the end of the 19th century, they were back in Antwerp. “Anti-Semitism was more of a problem in Amsterdam than it was in Antwerp, and the climate for diamond trading was simply better here. There were legal and fiscal benefits.”

After the Second World War, the mayor made it very clear that the Jewish community could safely come back to Antwerp

- Eva Olde Monnikhof

Fast-forward to the Second World War, when the Jewish people had to flee again. Following the war, Antwerp mayor Camille Huysmans put out a call for all of the city’s Jews to come back home.

“He made it very clear that the Jewish community could safely come back,” says Olde Monnikhof. “He assured them that they would not face anti-Semitism, that he would make sure that anyone who had a different opinion would be punished. And it worked. A lot of the families who had fled to New York and to other places overseas came back to Antwerp.”

And the rest is history. There have been changes, certainly, not least of all the decline of the polishing industry, which moved to India in the 1960s due to labour costs, and the influx of Indian traders in Antwerp.

Is there any diamond centre comparable to Antwerp? “Nope,” says Olde Monnikhof, matter of factly. “Antwerp is the capital when it comes to diamonds. There are a lot of cities that would like to call themselves the diamond capital, but there is only one.”

This is the first in a three-part series on Antwerp’s diamond industry. Check back for parts two (how diamond trading works) and three (what to see at Diva, Antwerp’s stunning diamond museum)

Photos: ©Dirk Waem/BELGA (top); Eva Olde Monnikhof ©Reinier RVDA (above)