The million carats that make Antwerp and the world shine

“Diamonds are women’s best friends”, sang Marilyn Monroe, in the film Men Prefer Blondes, from 1953. But in fact this gemstone is coveted in the world by everyone, for its value and rarity, being an extremely business lucrative.

So much so that his links to smuggling have already been portrayed in several films, such as 007 – Diamonds Are Eternal, 1971, in which the famous character James Bond is dedicated to investigating the theft of large quantities of diamonds in South Africa for smuggling . Or in Blood Diamond, from 2006, which addresses the issue of diamonds mined in African war zones and sold to finance conflicts.

The greed for these gemstones is such that one of the greatest thefts in history had exactly to do with diamonds. In November 2019, “priceless” diamond jewelry was stolen from the Grünes Gewölbe museum in the German city of Dresden.

The museum, which is known for having one of the most important collections of antique jewelry in Europe, at the time said it was “probably the biggest art theft since World War II”, surpassing the theft at the Gardner Museum in Boston, USA, which resulted in a loss of 500 million dollars (454 million euros).

And these stones can fetch truly exorbitant prices. In 2015, a blue diamond weighing around 12.03 carats was sold by auctioneer Sotheby’s in Geneva for a record price of 43.2 million Swiss francs (about 40 million euros). It was the “highest price per carat” ever achieved in diamonds.

That same year, another diamond was discovered in the Karowe mine, in Botswana, the ‘Lesedi la Rona’, which was auctioned in 2016 in London by Sotheby’s. It was expected that it could reach a value in excess of 60 million euros. At 1,109 carats (222 grams) it is nearly the size of a tennis ball and is the largest diamond discovered in over a hundred years.

In September 2016, the most expensive diamond ever was purchased by the company De Grisogono, in a private auction by Sothebys, in London, for 56 million euros. Called “The Constellation”, it has 813 carats, measures 6 centimeters and was found in Botswana.

Cullinan, the largest diamond ever found, weighed about 3 106 carats and was discovered on January 26, 1905 by Frederick Wells, manager of the Premier mine in South Africa.

Although there are no diamond mines on the European continent, the truth is that the search for the perfect diamond has always been associated with the city of Antwerp, Belgium. A place of extreme importance for international trade, being legitimately recognized as the capital of this precious stone. But the countless jewelry stores, plus the coming and going of Orthodox Jews in the streets, do justice to this distinction, around 86% of the world trade in diamonds taking place here.

The diamond trade in this port city began about 500 years ago, when the first rough stones were brought from India. Gradually, local diamond merchants and cutters gained prominence for their attention to detail and the exuberant selection they held. So much so that in the 16th century, even King Francis I of France began to order his diamonds from cutters established in Antwerp rather than Paris.

Antwerp’s renowned diamond district is home to four of the world’s most important diamond markets: the Beurs Voor Dianthandel, the Diamond Club Van Antwerpen, the Vrije Dianthandel and the Antwerpse Diamantkring, each specializing in different types of diamonds, whether rough, polished or rough. It is also a hub for all the major diamond mining companies, which supply diamonds to thousands of dealers around the world.

It is also in the heart of the city, on the Hoveniersstraat, that the Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC) is located, one of the companies that officially represents and coordinates the diamond sector, being in charge of managing the import and export of diamonds within and outside Antwerp. But how does a city like this become the most obvious international destination for trading diamonds?

According to DIVA, Antwerp’s diamond, jewelery and silver museum, at the end of the 15th century, the diamond trade was centralized in India and Portuguese Sephardic Jews were engaged in this activity, as it was one of the few that did not they had been banned, given the historic persecutions. When they were expelled from Portugal, in the 16th century, they took refuge in Belgium and transferred the business to Antwerp, due to the seaport.

Its strategic location, on the river Scheldt, has direct access to the North Sea. The first evidence of the existence of the city’s diamond trade dates back to 1447. It was at this time that a city magistrate issued an ordinance for measures against the trade in fake gemstones, including diamonds.

Later, after the end of World War II, the Jewish community dominated this industry, elevating Antwerp to the status of diamond capital. Today, around 1500 diamond companies are headquartered in that Belgian city, with partners in South African, Australian, Russian and Canadian mines that send diamonds to Antwerp.

Still, there are other places that are starting to stand out in the diamond business. One of them is Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. In 2019, that city traded US$21.2 billion in diamonds, according to the Dubai Multi Commodities Center (DMCC).

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The million carats that make Antwerp and the world shine