Diamond workshop brought back to life in Nijlen


Guardians of Flanders’ diamond cutting industry are restoring an old workshop to its former glory in the Kempen area

Back in action

It’s common for people to mention Antwerp and diamonds in the same sentence. But at the turn of the last century, when Flanders’ diamond industry reached its peak, many of its stones were processed in the Kempen, the rural area east of the city. In Nijlen, one of the best preserved countryside diamond cutting workshops is being restored to its original state.

A little way back from the street near Nijlen’s train station, construction workers are busy renovating this unique piece of industrial heritage. The building recalls how in earlier times, workshops in these Kempen villages would cut diamonds for the Antwerp diamond industry.

The workshop belonging to the Lieckens family was one of the largest in the area, and has withstood the decline of the industry in the Kempen. “The buildings and the machines have all been preserved and will be operational again,” says Heidi Bax, co-ordinator at Briljante Kempen, an organisation that works to preserve the industry’s heritage. Slijperij Lieckens (Lieckens Grindery) “is the last in the region dating from before the First World War that’s still in such a good condition”.

There are other little polishing workshops in the area, she continues, “but often not much is left. Diamond cutting was a home industry; people would build a small cutting shop in their back gardens. You can still recognise these buildings by how their windows face north. This was done so they would always have the same light all day, which you need to cut diamonds smoothly.”

Intangible heritage

Briljante Kempen has already constructed a new building on the site, which serves as a diamond information centre. It tells the history of the diamond industry in the Kempen using stories, images and items from the period.

“In the diamond centre, we focus mainly on intangible heritage,” explains Bax. “Accounts from people who used to work as grinders, the history of the industry... When the restoration is finished, visitors will see what a cutters’ workshop looked like. This fits nicely with the story we tell here.”

The diamond industry brought prosperity to this region

- Heidi Bax

Processing diamonds in the Kempen took off in the late 19th century. After the construction of a power grid in the region, small workshops surfaced everywhere, in people’s homes. They took rough stones from Antwerp and delivered cut diamonds.

In the Kempen, it was mostly simple shapes that were cut, with complicated work done in Antwerp. The decline began in the late 1960s because of growing competition from the rest of the world.

The diamond industry changed the Kempen forever, says Bax. “It brought prosperity to this region. The farmland in the Kempen is very poor, and farming was a hard way to make a living. As a diamond cutter you could earn a lot, though there were health risks because of the dust. The railway also played an important role as it established a direct link to Antwerp. Polishers went by train to get new stones from Antwerp or deliver finished diamonds.”

Untouched by time

The man behind Slijperij Lieckens was Petrus Lieckens, who wanted to be part of this new prosperity. In 1908, he built a factory on his farm. His sons War and Denis had learned the profession in Antwerp and built the company into one of the largest in the region. 

Once the restoration is complete, we’ll have a beautiful collection and set of stories

- Heidi Bax

During the First World War, Slijperij Lieckens was damaged by an explosion, but the family later took up the trade again. The big change came in 1929, when Nijlen was connected to the power grid. From then, almost nothing changed until it closed in 1985.

The municipality of Nijlen saw the value of this piece of industrial heritage and bought the property in 2004. Slijperij Lieckens was officially recognised as a monument: the 10,000th site in Flanders to be given the honour.

Today, hardly any diamonds are cut in the Kempen. The few remaining companies are struggling to survive, Bax says. “There is simply too much competition from low-wage countries. It’s not just here – also in Antwerp itself, there are few diamond cutters left. That’s why it’s important to preserve the heritage. There are still many people who worked as cutters and can tell us what it was like back then.”

The industry may have come to an end in Nijlen and in the Kempen, but the memories of the stones that brought so much prosperity are very much alive. “We’re mapping out some walks with local guides using the region’s diamond history as a theme,” says Bax.

Once the restoration is complete “and the machines are ready for use again, we will have a beautiful collection and set of stories,” she says. “It will even be possible to cut diamonds again here in Slijperij Lieckens – something we’re going to do on special occasions.”

Photo (c) Briljante Kempen vzw

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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.

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