Antwerp school grooms tomorrow’s diamond experts


The Antwerp diamond industry has joined forces with city and education officials to safeguard the future and competiveness of the only diamond-cutting course offered in Europe

A costly education

An atmosphere of intense concentration reigns in a classroom on the third floor of the City Lyceum Meir in central Antwerp. Eight 17- and 18-year-old students are busy cutting diamonds – real diamonds – in the only diamond-cutting course offered in the whole of Europe.

Amid the high-pitched whine of their grinding machines and despite the presence of a throng of press photographers and dignitaries, the students go on with their work, aware that the fate of a stone worth possibly thousands of euros lies – literally – in their hands.

For the students, it was a day at school. For the rest, the recent event was the signing of a new updated covenant ensuring the continuation of this course between the City of Antwerp’s education department, the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC) and the Diamond Industry Fund.

Because of the importance of the diamond industry to Antwerp, the city has created this training course for students following the BSO, or professional training, stream of secondary education.

Diamond cutters, a spokesperson for education alderman Claude Marinower explains during the presentation, also come from other sources such as apprenticeships with master cutters. Yet Antwerp is the only place in the world to take young people from the age of 16 and begin them in what is the industry’s equivalent of a hothouse conservatory training for young musicians.

Ari Epstein, CEO of AWDC, points out Antwerp’s excellent reputation as a world centre for diamonds. About 50% of the world’s cut diamonds and 84% of all rough diamonds pass through Antwerp. But is that enough to guarantee job security for future diamond cutters?

Quality counts

“Of course we can’t compete with centres where wages are 10 times cheaper than they are here,” Epstein said. “But we don’t need to compete on the level of assembly-line work when we can provide the sort of top quality work Antwerp is renowned for.”

We should be proud of this training, where quality wins out over quantity

- Claude Marinower

The aim of the City Lyceum Meir training, said Yves Bollekens, consultant to the Diamond Industry Fund, is to ensure that the education system is producing the sort of workers the industry requires. Today, the average age of a diamond cutter in Antwerp is about 50. A recent study shows that there will be 50 vacancies in the diamond sector by 2017, half of them for qualified cutters.

There are 22 currently enrolled at the Lyceum, but only five or six students graduate every year. “That might seem limited, but the whole idea is to keep things small but perfectly organised,” says Marinower. “We should be proud of this training, where quality wins out over quantity.”

The course begins in the fourth year of secondary education, when students are given a “diamond immersion” intended to leave them with no illusions about what the job entails. In addition to opportunities to leave the classroom and work in the industry during internships, school administrators are looking to reduce the numbers of students dropping out along the way.

“This is a training process that takes years,” industry consultant Bollekens says. “We need to have students who are motivated.”

Yet while the training is unique in Europe, the problem of work placements remains a stumbling block. “Every year, the school moves heaven and earth to find worthwhile placements for its students,” Marinower says. “Still, it isn’t easy.”

The main reason, he says, is economic. “The training is intense, so an employer needs to provide an instructor up to the task, and that costs money.”

Investment in the future

Businesses that can provide internships also have trouble estimating how much work there will be for a student over the long term. “I have to keep impressing on employers the importance of placements to both student and employer, and to the future prospects of both parties,” Marinower explains. “Trust these students; they are an investment in the future.”

I’m a living example of the importance of learning in the workplace

- Levan Gamkrelidze

At the Lyceum, students get practical lessons in cutting diamonds but follow courses in gemmology (the science of gemstones) and diamond grading, which determines how a stone may be cut and ultimately its final value.

Few other students in secondary education will have items of such value passing under their hands. The Lyceum has a budget of around €7,000 a year to provide stones for students with which to practise while in the third, fourth and fifth year of secondary education. Students who demonstrate progress after that stage can then be entrusted with more valuable stones, provided by the Diamond Industry Fund.

Levan Gamkrelidze, a former student of the Lyceum now working as a cutter for AMC Diamonds, says that the training provides students with a realistic view of the industry. “The theory part of the course was useful, but the practical aspects, and the quality of the stones, were not always as good as they might be,” he says.

He thinks that the new covenant is a step in the right direction. “The new agreements reached between the school and the other partners will ensure that students are better trained and shown exactly how the diamond industry works,” he says. “I’m a living example of the importance of internships and learning in the workplace. Thanks to an internship in my last year, I found a job as a diamond cutter.”

Photo courtesy Stad Antwerpen

Diamond sector

Antwerp is the world’s leading hub for diamond trade. For more than five centuries, diamonds have been bought, sold and cut here. The Antwerp diamond quarter has weathered revolutions, wars, occupations and, more recently, growing competition from diamond centres in emerging countries.
Bourses - Antwerp boasts four diamond trading exchanges, making Belgium the only country with this many bourses.
Antwerp Cut - The art of polishing diamonds was invented in the city.
On foot - The diamond quarter consists of two pedestrian-only streets close to Central Station.

percent of the world’s rough diamonds pass through the city

1 447

first record of a diamond trade in Antwerp

1 800

diamond dealers