Inside Israel's diamond trade: a family affair
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But in some ways, Gertler is as rough-edged as the unpolished diamonds he deals in. In an interview, he is alternately evasive, mocking, fidgety, and sullen. He refuses to be quoted directly or explain how he started out on such a large scale.Skip to next paragraph
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Asked about the reports about military aid and the Congo deal, Gertler mockingly says he put together a consortium involving the FBI, the CIA, the Russian secret service, and the Israeli police, army, and foreign ministry, adding that he controls the last three. Pressed on the issue, his voice rises to a shout. His philosophy, he yells, is never to hide anything.
Sitting behind a kidney-shaped desk covered in papers and diamond packets, Gertler continually invokes his grandfather, whose larger-than-life photograph hangs behind him.
Israel buys some 50 percent of the world's unpolished diamonds, but Schnitzer wants it to become an even bigger center for rough stones. This would effectively elbow Antwerp, Belgium, from its top spot as the world's traditional diamond capital. Gertler is helping out as the first family member to venture out of polished stones and into the rough diamond business.
Even without the Congo monopoly, his company is still the leading exporter of Congolese gems. Last year it sold 50 percent, or $99.9 million worth, of the Congo's official diamond exports, according to Africa Intelligence magazine.
The Congo monopoly wasn't Gertler's first foray into ambitious if murky deals. The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonoth chronicled his ties to an Israeli arms dealer named Yair Klein, who is still wanted by the US for training Medellin drug-cartel militias in Colombia.
Israel convicted Mr. Klein in 1991 for his involvement with these groups, which targeted and assassinated Colombian politicians, journalists, and law-enforcement officials.
By 1999, Klein was in a Sierra Leone jail, facing charges of arming and training the country's rebels, whose brutal calling card was to amputate the hands of civilians.
Yediot Aharonoth outlines Klein's role at this time as an in-the-field representative for Gertler and some others in Sierra Leone and Liberia, both torn by bloody civil wars.
"The idea ... was the possibility of providing the 'friendly' groups in the two countries money, weapons, and military training," the Israeli paper reports. "In exchange, if their leaders come to power, they would give the Israelis ... power over the diamonds in their countries."
Today, Gertler will say nothing about his dealings with Klein or his early attempts to put together a deal in the Congo with the Russian Military Brotherhood, a group of retired Russian generals whom Gertler will only describe as good friends.
He stops there, saying that his detractors are jealous and that interviews simply give them gossip fodder. There is a faint echo of his grandfather's business smarts in those words. "Money doesn't mean anything," the senior Schnitzer likes to say. "The most important thing in this industry is your name. Lose that, and you have nothing."
In America, diamonds represent love. In Asia, they connote wealth and success. And in the Persian Gulf, elegance and beauty. For Marilyn Monroe, perhaps our most famous diamond devotee, they were a woman's best insurance policy against the vagaries of male affection.
For ancient Roman criminals, the stones meant something far more precious: freedom. Those who could smash a diamond with a hammer and anvil won their release from jail. "All diamonds," reported Pliny the Elder in his "Historia Naturalis" in AD 1, "made the iron rebound and the anvil split asunder."