The history of Antwerp as the World Diamond Center is a very fascinating and long one. Too long to tell the whole story, but too marvellous to exclude you completely from it! We would like to give you therefore an insight into this brilliant history.
We shall probably never know when the first diamonds were discovered, but we do know that, from ancient times until the eighteenth century, all the world’s diamonds came from India. From the time of the Roman Empire until the arrival of the first Europeans in India at the beginning of the sixteenth century, trade relations flourished between Europe and Eastern Asia. One of the two principal diamond trade routes passed through Venice.
The city became the most important mercantile republic in the western world. It enjoyed a monopoly of the diamond trade on its way to the main towns of southern Germany up to its final destination in Bruges. Lying as it did at the far end of the trade route, Bruges gradually developed into a flourishing diamond-cutting centre and the city’s reputation in this field steadily increased with time. Although Bruges maintained its pre-eminent position up to the end of the fourteenth century, within fifty years it began to decline because of the silting of the Zwin.
The diamond trade, along with Bruge’s many other economic activities, gradually shifted to the city of Antwerp which offered newer and better facilities for communications and exchange.
Antwerp was in the sixteenth century an expanding and flourishing city. By this time Antwerp already played a determining role in the development of diamond-working techniques. It is significant, for example, that Francois I did not call on the diamond cutters of Paris but placed his orders instead with the craftsmen of Antwerp.
Antwerp was at that time the commercial heart of Europe; approximately 40% of the world trade passed through its port. Naturally the diamond occupied a favoured place. However the northern Netherlands’s growing proportion on its business was acquired by Amsterdam. Antwerp’s decline did not occur overnight and despite internal struggles such as the conflict between the New Guild of Diamond Cutters and the rich merchants, the city’s prestige remained apparently intact up to the middle of the seventeenth century and the diamond trade itself continued to flourish
At the end of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam came to the fore. It was a privileged city that offered religious and civil liberty and, up to the eighteenth century, it came to exercise a near monopoly not only on the diamond industry but also on the trade in diamonds. From then on Amsterdam supplied Antwerp in rough diamonds and, since the Dutch city kept the best stones for its own diamond cutters, Antwerp was obliged to make do with diamonds of inferior quality. Far from being discouraged, the Antwerp craftsmen took advantage of these rather difficult years and managed to transform small and mediocre stones into finely worked gems.
In 1866 the first diamond was discovered in South Africa. This discovery, followed a few years later by that of the Kimberley deposits and the fabulous Kimberley era and the rise of the now-famous De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., resulted in large-scale prospecting and mining activities, which brought Europe massive supplies of rough diamonds. This massive influx of rough stones following the discoveries in South Africa was instrumental in contributing to the city’s status of Antwerp as the world’s leading diamond centre. Within a few months, this massive influx provided work for thousands of craftsmen, and the swift revival of diamond cutting in Antwerp was further stimulated by an ever-growing demand for gemstones.
The depression of the 1930s hit the diamond trade hard. The cutting shops were sometimes shut down completely for several weeks at a time. The situation remained difficult until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939 many Jewish businessmen fled the country and went to the United States, Portugal or England, where more than 500 diamond dealers from Antwerp, continued to meet and to do business.
In an attempt to save as much of the existing diamond stocks as possible from the Germans, the 500 dealers in England transferred the diamonds there. In agreement with the British government, an organisation known as the Correspondence Office for the Diamond Industry was set up to register the diamonds and keep them for the duration of the war. Thanks to this organisation large quantities of diamonds were returned to their owners after the city was liberated and the Antwerp diamond industry got off to a promising start when the war was ended.
So it is a tradition that dates back several centuries that gives incomparable experience to the Antwerp diamond dealers. Yet, for Antwerp to maintain its reputation it became necessary to create a central administration that would be responsible for what each dealer found indispensable; no individual could do this on his own. This last step was taken with the creation of the ”Hoge Raad voor Diamant”, or the Diamond High Council.