Diamond history

How Antwerp Became the Diamond Capital

Starting at the end of the 15th century, Antwerp took over the diamond cutting business from Brugge.  Antwerp had new facilities of trade and communications which made it a more desirable location for the diamond trade.  Vasco da Gama’s 1498 voyage from Lisbon to the Indies would create a trade route connecting Lisbon and Antwerp and make the former Venice-Brugge route obsolete.  

At the time Antwerp was a major European center; in the mid 16th century 40% of the world’s commerce passed through this city!  Towards the latter half of the century, Antwerp would fight for its place in the diamond world against Amsterdam as the northern part of Holland tried to gain independence.  Nevertheless, the Diamond Cutters Guild was established in Antwerp in October 1582, keeping the prestige of the city intact.  But amidst the Wars of Religion, Charles Quint would take Flanders.  In 1585 the Duke of Farnese attacked Antwerp, pillaging the city under the orders of Philippe II.  This marked the decline of Antwerp, and the stranglehold of the Spanish Inquisition created an era of religious intolerance.  Antwerp fell, and Jewish and Protestant merchants of the city fled to Amsterdam and Frankfurt.  However, Antwerp did not entirely lose its importance in the diamond business and still received diamonds from Lisbon; in 1631 there were only 51 diamond cutters in Frankfurt while there were 164 in Antwerp.  Frankfurt would fade from the scene, and Amsterdam would become an important city for the diamond business as it allowed for civil and religious liberty.  It would monopolize the business until the 18th century, forcing the diamond cutters in Antwerp to accept lesser quality stones.  The Peace of Munster between the Netherlands and Spain essentially cut off Antwerp’s diamond supply by calling for the closing of the Scheldt River to navigation.

The combination of the lifting of this restriction in 1863 and the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1866 led to Antwerp’s comeback as a diamond center.  Once diamonds were discovered in South Africa, an influx of rough stones arrived in Europe.  Antwerp diamond professionals returned to work.  The Industrial Revolution brought electric motors used to work the stones, and the influx of rough stones made diamonds affordable, increasing middle class demand. Logically, the need for diamond cutters also increased.  Antwerp’s first bourse, the Diamantclub van Antwerpen, was established on October 8, 1893, and quickly thereafter it bought a building to serve as a trading hall and offices at the heart of what would become the Antwerp diamond district.  Other diamond exchanges would emerge in the early 1900s.

As the diamond industry was dominated by the Jewish population of Antwerp, World War II would prove devastating to the industry.  Many Jewish diamond professionals fled to the US and England, while those who could not escape were killed by the Nazis.  The over 500 Jewish diamond cutters who made it to London managed to bring large amounts of diamonds with them, and the British government helped ensure the registration and storage of the gems.  After the war, the stones were returned to Antwerp, but of the 27,000 pre-war diamond workers, only 3,500 were left after the occupation.  Fortunately, the industry made a speedy recovery with 11,000 workers by the end of 1945.

In 1947 the World Federation of Diamond Bourses was created and headquartered in Antwerp to protect the interests of international trade as the diamond market, notably in the US thanks to the “a diamond is forever” De Beers campaign, was growing quickly.  In the 1960s and 70s, India became a diamond cutting center, and many Indian dealers began buying rough stones in Antwerp.  1200 diamond cutters remain in the city today, but Antwerp is mostly a center of business with the most advanced financial and trading infrastructure in the world.