We took a quick jaunt around Antwerp when we were in Belgium. We knew that Antwerp was a center for the diamond trade, we just had no idea why. I did some research and here’s what I learned.
Until the 18th century, all diamonds came from India. Until Europeans arrived in India at the beginning of the 16th century, they made their way to Europe via trade routes. One of the major trade routes cut through Venice. It became the center of the diamond trade. Bruges was at the end of one of the trade routes. Over time, it developed into a diamond cutting center.
When the Zwin silted up in the 14th century, Bruges no longer had access to the North Sea. A lack of sea access was not good for trading and the diamond business shifted to nearby Antwerp with its burgeoning trade. At one point 40% of the world’s trade passed through its port.
Antwerp began pioneering new diamond cutting techniques. Cutting is extremely important because it influences the brilliance (the sparkle) as well as the size of the stone and therefore its value. The waste should be as minimal as possible.
Over time other towns gained in power and prestige. By the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam had in power to such an extent that it had a virtual monopoly on the diamond trade. While Antwerp still cut diamonds, Amsterdam kept the best stones to be cut by local cutters. Antwerp’s cutters got creative and brought their “A” game, transforming small and mediocre stones into higher quality gems.
When diamonds were discovered in South Africa, there was a massive influx of rough stones into Antwerp. The industry took a hit during the depression of the 1930’s. Many Jews were involved in the diamond trade and fled Belgium at the outbreak of the Second World War. To keep as much of the diamonds as possible out of the hands of the Germans, many diamonds were transferred to Great Britain for safekeeping. The diamonds were returned to their owners after Antwerp’s liberation from the Nazis. As a result, they industry was able to get back on its feet quickly after the war.
In 2003, there was a successful robbery of the Antwerp Diamond Center. I’ve included a link to a great article about it.
- A Two-Minute Tour Of Antwerp (schwingeninswitzerland.wordpress.com)