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So far in our look at beneficiation in the diamond industry, we have seen how many countries have attempted to leverage their rough diamond resources to create additional wealth and employment within their borders. There have been successes and failures, and for many, the longer-term outcome is still unknown. However, in keeping with our broader definition of beneficiation to include the overall benefit of diamonds to any economy, it is important to see how diamonds have helped non-producer nations as well. There are many countries in the world that have never unearthed a single rough diamond, but that still enjoy important economic benefits from the diamond trade.
According to Kimberley Process statistics, the European Union imported 113.5 million carats of rough diamonds, valued at $13.2 billion, in 2016. If you include polished diamonds, trade in Belgium alone balloons to over $50 billion. Almost all of this is routed through Antwerp. Antwerp has been a major center of diamond activity since the late 1400s, when Antwerp resident Lodewyk van Bercken invented the scaif, which drastically improved the efficiency and quality of diamond polishing. A statue of van Bercken still stands today at the entranceway to the “Meir” shopping district, a short walk from the city’s diamond district.
The nearby city of Bruges had been an important polishing hub, due to its location along the ‘silk road’ route from India, where all rough production was coming from at the time. When the river connecting Bruges to the sea began to silt up, many cutters, including van Bercken, moved to Antwerp, which had much better port facilities. Orders from European nobility began to flow into the city, and an industry was born. Today, Antwerp remains the principal sales and trading hub for both rough and polished diamonds.
Belgium’s role in the diamond industry has changed over the years. It was once a prominent destination for diamond polishing, and much of the cutting industry was centered there. The economics of the midstream have diminished Belgium’s role in manufacturing, and today there are just a handful of diamond polishers remaining. The focus tends to be only on the largest, high-value diamonds, which can still be profitably cut in Antwerp and surrounding areas. This has forced many skilled diamond people to either retire, or to move into new industries and occupations. Antwerp’s role today tends to revolve around sales and trading, as well as diamond infrastructure and secondary services. Its location makes it ideal for servicing the diamond consumer markets around Europe.
Around 1,500 diamond companies have offices in Antwerp, and the diamond trade employs an estimated 32,000 people, according to the Antwerp World Diamond Council. Diamonds represent around 5% of Belgian exports, and 15% of exports outside the EU. More than 50% of all the Kimberley Process export certificates are generated in Belgium, and the diamond industry generated an added value of more than $669 million for the Belgian economy (2013).
Israel is another country that has developed a thriving diamond industry despite no local mine production. The role of Jewish diamond cutters in Europe goes back many centuries. As Bruges and Antwerp were developing into diamond centers, gem cutters were excluded from the guild system, similar to a trade union or professional association. This allowed Jewish artisans to enter the diamond-cutting field, and the small, close-knit communities passed their knowledge down through generations.
Leading up to, as well as during World War II, many Jewish people were fleeing Europe to British Mandate Palestine, even before the declaration of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. The nation’s diamond industry got its start in 1937, when Zvi Rosenberg and Eshed Daskel opened the first polishing factory in the country. This came shortly after the abolition of a tax on diamond imports. In the 1940s, Jewish traders convinced De Beers to begin sending rough diamond parcels to Israel, and the trade would later organize and form the Israeli Diamond Exchange. By the late 1980s, Israeli exports of polished diamonds had grown to exceed $2 billion per year.
Today, however, the diamond industry in Israel has suffered a similar fate to Belgium, as much of the diamond polishing has moved out of the country. Israel remains a key trading point to the world’s largest diamond market in the USA. To compensate for the growing wage imbalances, many Israeli firms moved their manufacturing facilities to other countries. Today, Israel-based firms are still amongst the largest rough buyers in the world. The Israeli Diamond Exchange continues to attract over 330,000 visitors and foreign buyers each year. Approximately 1,200 companies directly employ as many as 20,000 people, and polished exports were nearly $4.7 billion in 2016. The diamond industry contributes $800 million to Israel’s current account surplus.
Israel also remains at the forefront of technology development for the diamond industry. Israel is a technology superpower, and many of the technologies employed by diamond companies were designed and built by Israeli firms, both at home and abroad. These technologies have helped to transform the industry, significantly improve the yields from rough diamonds, and open up countless new diamond cuts to the consumer market.
Perhaps the largest beneficiary from diamonds is India, which has developed into the primary manufacturing hub for the global diamond industry. Diamonds have been a part of Indian culture for millennia, having been first discovered between 800 and 600 BC. Up until diamonds were discovered in Brazil in the early 1700s, India was the only source of diamond mining in the world. Diamond cutting in India began in the early 1900s, when a Surat businessman brought a boat full of East African diamond cutters to the country. It was not until the 1960s that the cutting industry really began to take form. In the early 1980s, the opening of the Argyle mine in Australia gave the Indian industry an enormous boost, which helped it develop into the superpower it remains today. The Argyle mine produced a large proportion of small, low-quality diamonds that previously would have been considered almost worthless. The Indian community bought these stones at very low prices, and were able to build their industry on the back of these cheap stones.
Even today, smaller, low-quality stones are still considered “Indian goods,” although Indian manufacturers long ago evolved to produce stones of all sizes, qualities, and colors. Approximately 92% of all diamonds cut today are made in India. They are imported from trading hubs like Antwerp and Dubai, as well as directly from miners in Africa. At its peak, the Indian polishing industry directly employed more than a million cutters, although this number is believed to have declined to around 800,000 today. Unlike in many other diamond cutting centers, India actually consumes a great deal of the diamonds and jewelry that it produces. India is the world’s largest consumer of gold, and the third largest consumer of diamonds behind USA and China. The broader jeweler industry contributes 6%-7% of the country’s GDP, according to India Brand Equity Foundation.
In addition, there are many countries around the world that have developed budding diamond industries. Countries like China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Singapore, and Armenia have built polishing industries to provide employment to their citizens. Other countries, like Hong Kong and the UAE, have developed into trading hubs that provide value-added tax revenues for all levels of government and additional supporting service businesses and infrastructure. Diamonds have helped to bring some of the poorest countries in the world into prosperity. Even in some wealthy nations where diamonds have been discovered, mining and manufacturing has helped disadvantaged rural communities to flourish.
Our industry employs millions of people around the world. Despite some successes and failures of government policy to leverage the impact of diamonds within regional economies, the broader impact has been transformational for many. It is a good bet that most of my readers are employed in some way in the diamond industry, and we all have a vested interest in making sure that our businesses survive and flourish into the future.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity. No one should act upon any opinion or information in this website without consulting a professional qualified adviser.