It was finally time to go. I had been awake in my hotel room since 3:00am and the diamond office of one of my favorite diamond cutter/supplier’s didn’t open until 9:30. I travel to Antwerp in Belgium, a few times a year to buy diamonds and while the trips sound exotic, they’re short and a bit brutal. I typically go for 5 days, three days to travel and 2 days to work.
I was happy to see the clear blue sky as I walked to the Diamond District. It’s not often like this when I get here. Typically, it’s overcast and often there’s a light rain. The diamond ‘District’ is basically one block in the heart of old Antwerp that borders on the old train station. The diamond history here is amazing and goes back to the mid 16th century. For much of that history, over 80% of the world’s diamonds passed through here in either rough or polished form, and often both.
My first trip to Antwerp back in the 80’s was a real eye opener for me. The small town boy from St. Albert, Alberta had never experienced any thing like it.
I remember walking down the smooth wet cobblestone street looking in awe at the names that I had only read about in books. ‘Pelikaanstraat’, ‘Hovenierstraat’, ‘DeBeers’, ‘Argyle’, the ‘DTC’…all just feet in front of me. Throw in people of all nationalities… Americans, Indians, Africans, British, Australian, Russian, just to name a few. Of course, the Orthodox Jewish men stood out with their full length suit jackets that came down to below their knees, their hats that ranged from stylish fedoras to the unique Shtreimel (which looked to me like giant fur hockey pucks on top of their heads), and their curled Payot (the strands of long hair that they wrap around their ears). Throw in couriers on bikes weaving around the pedestrians, an armored car or two, uniformed and plain clothed security, and cameras everywhere. It was quite the scene.
The Diamond Bourses were amazing. In the days before modern technology, before security systems and alarms, all diamond trading would take place in the bourses. One bourse for polished diamonds and one for rough diamonds. The bourse was the economic and cultural center of the diamond trade. It was a secure building that housed lock boxes and safes that held the inventory of the diamond dealers that were members. You had to be a member or a guest of a member to go in. It consisted of one wall of floor to ceiling windows (usually about 30 feet tall) that faced north, so no direct sunlight would get in. Diamonds are best graded under that cool white light. Under these windows were row after row of plain tables with chairs on either side filled with dealers from around the world buying and selling. Imagine the sound of hundreds of people haggling over quality, over price, discussing among themselves in every language, some quiet in the corner, others loud, hands waving, pounding the table and shouting ‘mazal’ (the traditional Hebrew word for ‘deal’), and so much more. I was mesmerized.
There’s nowhere near the same level of activity here now as in the old days. The bourses are little more than social clubs now, with much of the trade taking place in secure offices in the high rises along the street. There are even less of these offices too, as they are moving out of Antwerp, going to Tel Aviv, to Dubai, and to New York. But there are still some major players in Antwerp. One of these is my friend, whom I am meeting today.
I arrive at my destination for this morning, surrender my passport for a security card and make my way through the gates and up to the 9th floor. It’s always good to see everyone and after hellos, handshakes, and hugs, it’s down to work. A lot to see and do in the two days that I have. Typically I start small and pick out the small diamonds that we need for tennis bracelets, earrings, side stones and the like. Then I work my way up to the larger stones for engagement rings and special pieces.
On this particular morning, as I’m looking at 1/10th of a carat stones, I hear a ‘thud’ on the desk beside me. I glance to my left and there sitting unassumingly beside me is a rough diamond. One of the larger ones I have seen in my career. The guys in the office like to drop these amazing stones around me. I think they do it just to see my reaction, but maybe just to bug me as I sort through my tiny stones. Maybe to help me remember my place in the scheme of the diamond trade (not really).
This rough diamond was 101.44 carats, and seemed flawless and of the highest “D” colour. WOW!!! It was amazing. I picked it up and rolled it around in my fingers as I examined it. It felt cold to the touch and heavy, and even though it wasn’t polished, the light rolled around inside it like sunlight on a rolling wave.
Have I mentioned that I love my job? Who would have thought all those years ago when I was selling red painted aluminum rose broaches in the Capilano Jewellery store for $5, that I would one day be sitting in the offices of one of the world’s top diamond cutters rolling a 101.44ct. rough diamond in my hands worth well over $10 Million USD? WOW is all I can say.