Secretive Swiss and icy stones

While deals worth millions are sealed, who protects the mountains of diamonds?

Every few months, a nomadic tribe of jewelers and gem merchants gathers in a different city to flaunt their wares, meet their colleagues, and seal a few deals. They bring glittering piles of loose diamonds, chunky wreaths of South Sea pearls, and pretty baubles with prices that could easily apply to real estate.

If they manage a sale to a civilian - one of the thousands drawn to the Ali Baba-like display of riches - it's an added bonus.

These fairs hit an annual peak every spring in the tidy Swiss city of Basel, and fittingly so. A thumbnail description of Switzerland - wealthy, discreet - applies just as easily to the purveyors of $30,000 watches and $200,000 stones. Neither group particularly appreciates nosy inquiries, but at the Basel Fair one question begs asking: How do they keep their riches safe?

"Oh dear," laughs a woman in the fair's press office who gives her name as Renee. "We couldn't possibly tell you that."

At first glance, even at second, it doesn't look as if Renee would have much to say anyway. More than 80,000 people throng the fair's five aircraft-hangar-sized buildings to see exhibitor displays in booths built to resemble sleek boutiques and even Italian country villas. There are no gates, metal detectors, or security searches, and anyone with a ticket can enter.

Yet, amid this sprawling celebration of wealth, a totally unscientific survey turned up only two policemen.

It seems odd, because the Basel Fair would exceed the most imaginative burglar's dreams. It is not just the scope of the luxuries, though 2,400 dealers come laden with merchandise. It's the nature of that merchandise.

Consider the timepiece reverentially mounted in a halogen halo at the Patek Philippe booth. Caked in 630 internally flawless diamonds - 36 carats' worth - the rose-gold watch draws worshippers of a sort.

After a polite inquiry about the price, a saleswoman glanced at a visitor's clothes, pronounced the watch "quite exclusively priced," and suggested the Swatch exhibit down the hall.

Skip the Swatches, and instead you can see individual pearls sold for $300 to $500, and gems - rubies, emeralds, opals - the size of jawbreakers.

"It's unbelievable, the wealth here, there must be billions in these buildings," says Eddy Vleeshdrager, a Belgian diamond merchant who has been coming to Basel for 15 years. He has brought $2 million worth of diamonds from Antwerp.

"Not so many," he says with a shrug, describing how the whole fortune fits into his pants pocket. "Diamantaires travel light!" he says, using the term for those in the diamond business.

Security doesn't worry him. "It's 100 percent now," says Mr. Vleeshdrager, spry and graying with three fat fountain pens lined up in his pocket like Zeppelins at dock. "A few years ago, there were robberies every two, three days. People were walking right out with things! The fair people would close all the doors and no one would be let out or in. Oh, it was bad," he chuckles.

Now, private security firms, police and plainclothes officers have closed those security loopholes, Vleeshdrager says, though "you certainly don't see the precautions - unless you look up." And indeed, studding the ceilings are constellations of small black cameras, unobtrusive, all-seeing, and numbering in the hundreds.

Down below, the exhibitors maintain a united, disinterested front: Safety issue? What safety issue? "We don't worry about it," says Martin, a tight-lipped clerk with a Belgian diamond firm. "My boss is more worried about the clients who don't pay."

At another diamond stand, Elaine Katz also dismisses the issue as she watches a colleague plunk down stones so big they could choke a cat.

"What's to worry about?" she asks. "Everyone around here has good pieces on display." She also has more faith in the Basel attendees than Martin's boss. "Just look at the clientele!" she adds.

It's true, they're a glossy bunch. Women with creamy skin and careful coiffures swish by in clothes that whisper wealth. Their husbands sport heavy gold watches and looks of polite boredom. They've all paid nearly $40 to get in.

But the suave, villa-owning jewel thief played by Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's film "To Catch a Thief," would fit right in here. Vleeshdrager considers this point and then cracks a small smile.

Some people bring their own video monitoring systems, he says. In fact, he has his own, but prefers to rely on older technology.

"The reason I don't worry? I brought it in my luggage," he says, and points to the corner of the room, where a hefty blue and gray safe stands nearly as tall as he does. Diamantaires don't travel so light after all.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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