The diamond district in Antwerp, Belgium is a unique place. In a network of winding streets and narrow office towers, most of the world’s diamond trade takes place – and has been for centuries. „Diamonds are forever“ is the pithy slogan of the industry. But the noble stone gets tough competition, and the quarter is facing upheavals.
Antwerp’s train station, the „Railway Cathedral“, is one of the most beautiful in the world. However, anyone who expects the diamond quarter a few steps further glamor and glamor, is disappointed: The epicenter of trade in the luxury stunks is reminiscent of a shabby Bahnhofsviertel with disproportionately many jewelers. But the impression is deceptive.
Behind the facades hides a center of extreme wealth. According to the industry association Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC), diamonds worth 46 billion dollars (40 billion euros) were bought and sold there last year. Eighty-six percent of diamonds traded around the world travel through the district at least once. Little wonder that they are under strict surveillance – allegedly there are more surveillance cameras in the Diamond Quarter than in the European Parliament.
For more than 500 years, the Flemish city has been the center of gem trade – all the more serious are the upheavals that are emerging. This starts with the craft, which turns a rough diamond into a valuable gemstone. In the past, tens of thousands of diamond grinders were employed in the city, today there are only 600. Most of the rough diamonds are now ground in India. Only very valuable, large stones are processed in Antwerp.
Millennials against Klunker
This relocation has created new diamond hotspots, especially in Asia. Just in India, but also in China – there are also more and more potential consumers living in the growing middle class. The biggest problem in Antwerp is not the competition but the clientele. The social change gnaws at the myth diamond. Marrying is no longer a must in many places, nor is there a clinker ring on the wedding ring (a tradition that was significantly accelerated by the world’s largest diamond group De Beers). Spend thousands of euros on jewelry? Unthinkable for many millennials and their followers. The money flows today in experiences, travel and consumer goods.
The zeitgeist is difficult for the diamond trade. But technology offers a way out that seems to be both a solution and source of new conflicts: diamonds from the laboratory. For decades, machines have been turning carbon into diamonds by simulating the conditions under which real diamonds are produced – extreme pressure and heat. For decades, the quality was „only“ enough for use in industry. However, these times are over: In the meantime, laboratory diamonds are no longer visually, chemically and physically distinguishable from real diamonds, and have long since been used for jewelery.
„No longer possible to ignore product“
That pleases among other things Thierry silver. He is the third-generation diamond trader in the industry for 38 years and has been relying on „innovative technology in a conservative industry“ for about ten years, as he tells ORF.at. With the company Madestones he leads from Antwerp from Europe’s largest company for diamonds from the laboratory. These are produced in four production plants in the USA, China, India and Russia, and they are also ground mainly in India.
He believes in a „bright future“ for his product: „It is no longer possible to ignore the product,“ he says – and feels confirmed by the numbers. The market share of laboratory diamonds is currently at three to four percent, but the segment is predicted in the medium term, an annual growth of seven percent.
That’s because of the advantages that laboratory diamonds offer: First, they can be made quickly. While real diamonds only land on the surface of the earth after millions of years, their artificial equivalents, depending on the process, are completed in months or even days. Secondly, the laboratory can produce exclusive color shades as well as considerable sizes. But the most important argument is the price: Depending on the quality and the largest, diamonds from the laboratory cost between 20 and 50 percent less than those from the earth.
„Blood Diamonds“ and Ecodesine
And then there’s the problem with ecology and social responsibility. The opencast mining in Russia, Canada, Africa and Co. tears holes in sensitive landscapes that can still be seen from space and have extreme consequences for ecosystems. Even the Leonardo DiCapro film „Blood Diamonds“ on blood diamond trade is a stigma that the industry will probably no longer strip despite all efforts.
In addition, while the blood-diamond trade has been decimated by the Kimberley Certification process, there is no guarantee that diamonds will be mined under ethically acceptable conditions – many countries still exploit. Because the certification by definition only diamonds are withdrawn from the market, which finance violent conflicts, subversion attempts or rebellions. By the way, these are currently coming from the Central African Republic (ZAR).
The diamonds from the laboratory do away with these ethical problems, and the ecological one is at least relocated – the machines have an enormous energy requirement. For silver, these arguments lead to four customer groups who are convinced by diamonds from the lab: On the one hand, those who want more gemstone for less money. Second, those who want exclusive colors. Then the group of those who want to act ethically. And last but not least, tech-savvy, for whom a diamond from the machine is a „great story“.
Price decline feared
But „the industry is not used to competition“, as Silber says. And not everyone is so positive about the lab diamond. For many, only the diamond from the earth is the only true thing. They are worried that lab diamonds may become cheaper, flood the market, and depress prices. In addition, both advocates and skeptics fear that labian diamonds could be sold as genuine and thereby discredit both sectors. „It’s about transparency. Consumers need to know if they are buying real or laboratory diamonds, „says the AWDC.
In view of this, the scanning and certification of diamonds has created a new line of business. Machinery for this also owns the AWDC. These work very simple: open the compartment, put the diamonds in and press Start. According to the center, the machine measures how much UV light passes through the diamonds and can determine whether it is a real diamond or a laboratory one. 500 stones can be scanned in three minutes. The machines are „very reliable, very comfortable“. Nevertheless, once again all diamonds wander to the double-check in the laboratory. Only then is there a certificate of authenticity for diamonds.
Swarovski also experimented
Anyway, as a precaution, the big ones in the diamond industry seem to be double-tracked once before. For example, last year De Beers launched an obviously millennial jewelry collection containing laboratory diamonds, which had a significant impact on the industry. There is also interest in a domestic brand: Swarovski has been experimenting with laboratory diamonds for a long time – and can already rely on a name when marketing. In the final analysis, if laboratory diamonds become cheaper, silver believes that it would be necessary to establish a strong brand to match the stone. Because these „always win“.
In any case, the industry is on hold, with undiminished efforts being made and trading. In 2017, according to the Global Diamond Report, 20 percent more rough diamonds were produced than in the previous year. Canada is responsible for the increase. There diamonds have been mined since the 90s on a large scale. That’s why new mines are being put into operation there.
This is also necessary for the industry because it does not draw from an inexhaustible source. It must be assumed that the available diamond reserves of the earth will sooner or later come to an end. According to the AWDC, that could be the case in 25 to 55 years. The industry also sees this with confidence: For then „real“ diamonds as collector’s items would probably gain in value again.