600-year-old diamond trade seeks to add new sparkle

Whenever the price of diamonds goes up, Antwerp's important diamond industry cheers. It reduces the significance of labor as a factor in the production of the gems, making this Belgian city more competitive with its relatively new competitors in Israel, South Africa, or India.

"The higher prices go worldwide, the better we come out in Antwerp," says Raoul Delveaux, director general of Antwerp's Diamond High Council.

Diamond trading here goes back at least six centuries. In fact, the earliest written reference to the business was an Antwerp ordinance of 1447 that forbade the sale of imitation stones: "diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, or others."

For the past 10 years the Antwerp diamond industry has been losing production. Smaller stones of better quality (melis) were being cut and polished in Israel. Poorer-quality diamonds were being processed in India.

Antwerp kept most of the large stones, on which the costs of preparing the gems may only be 3 to 5 percent of their total cost. The cutting and polishing skills of Antwerp diamond employees are prized. They can often get a higher "yield" from a rough diamond than less skilled cutters and polishers elsewhere."They are not workers," Mr. Delveaux boasts. "they are craftsmen."

Nonetheless, he does feel that Antwerp's diamond industry had become too smug several years back. "People here became so self-confident," he says, "that they adopted the philosophy that when someone came to buy and sell diamonds, we would receive them -- like royalty. They became overconfident and lazy."

Now, however, the Antwerp diamond industry has taken steps to prevent its loss of business. "We hope and think our business is stabilized," he says. Today some 11,500 peopple are employed here in the diamond industry.

Mr. Delveaux figures that if present efforts to develop new, more sophisticated machines for the automatic polishing of diamonds are successful, Antwerp would benefit and employment could rise to 15,000 in the next few years.

One move the industry took in 1973 was the formation of the Diamond High Council. It is sponsored by four diamond bourses (exchanges), two professional organizations of diamond manufacturers, three professional organizations for diamond traders, and the Socialist and Roman Catholic workers unions.

This body has promoted Antwerp's diamond industry. More recently it has developed an official quality-certification program for diamonds under the supervision of the University of Antwerp. "We hope to avoid the cheating of people," Mr. Delveaux says. "There are still a lot of crooks in the business."

The certificate describes the diamond in detail. "We proved this feasible," the official says. The system was approved by the World Federation of Diamond Bourses and the International Diamond Manufacturers Association at a congress in May 1978.

This Diamond High Council certificate competes with and differs a little from that of the Gemological Institute of America. Mr. Delveaux speaks of the latter with respect. But he has less regard for some other certification systems.

Nowadays, most diamonds of nearly one carat or larger in weight are sold with a certificate if bought for investment purposes. The certification laboratory here employs more than 50 people.

Mr. Delveaux believes that the market for diamonds has become distorted by the demand of investors for only the most perfect of diamonds. There are some 46,000 types of diamonds, when all aspects of clarity, size, color, cut, and so are considered. But investors have pushed up the prices of the top, top quality stones beyond what Mr. Delveaux considers reasonable. "Those prices have gone crazy," he says. "I would never buy one of those stones for my wife." Not even an expert could see the difference between a top quality diamond costing much less and a top, top quality gem without a loupe that magnifies 10 times.

"We should educate the people so that diamonds are not so mysterious," he says. He would like to see more demand for gems that are less than perfect, yet of high quality.

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