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Antwerp’s humble diamantaires

  • Written by  Estelle Hakner
  • Published in Cultures
Antwerp’s humble diamantaires
22 Mar
Diamonds are perhaps the least modest of all jewels. But, in Antwerp, they have attracted a community known for its humility

On the outskirts of Antwerp, in the Wilrijk neighbourhood, a piece of India stands tall and serene: a magnificent and intricately ornate temple made from 3,500 tons of white, hand-carved Makrana marble, the same as that used in the Taj Mahal. At its entrance, an Indian man in a white robe, no shoes and a square piece of cloth over his mouth sweeps the path before him as he walks, brushing away any insects so as not to tread on them. The cloth square on his mouth is a muhapatti and stops him accidentally inhaling and killing organisms in the air.

This regal and elaborate temple belongs to the Jains – a community that, since the early 1970s, has had an ever-growing presence in Belgium’s Flemish city. Guided by principles of non-possession and non-violence, they traditionally live in a way that does not harm other living beings. Four hundred Jain families now live in the city, mostly from Palanpur in Gujarat, Western India, making their living in Antwerp’s most precious trade: diamonds.

Wilrijk Jain templeThe Jain temple in Wilrijk, Antwerp

On weekdays, Jain businessmen travel to Antwerp’s diamond district to trade some of the €263million-worth of diamonds that passes through the city every day. Their sharp suits and mobile phones hint that not all of the city’s Jains are as Orthodox as they used to be, but the presence of strict vegan Jain kitchens suggests that the main tenet of non-violence is still an important factor in most Jains’ day-to-day lives. They now control 65 per cent of the city’s trade in rough diamonds and, with a Gujarati businessman as vice president of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC), they have significant influence within the diamond district.

The drab, nondescript offices of the diamond square mile do not give away any secrets about the fact that some of the world’s largest diamond companies operate from within them, including Rosy Blue, Diarough and Eurostar Diamonds – all of which were started and are owned by Jain families from Palanpur. They began as humble one-person ventures, based on just a pocketful of small stones, and are now multibillion-euro global enterprises that employ thousands of diamond traders, polishers, cutters and graders around the world.

The Jains’ rise to success in Antwerp has been sudden and dramatic. As Liesbeth Moreels of AWDC explains, ‘The Jains started arriving in the 1970s and 1980s. The Jain community did the small goods, very small stones.’ With the low-cost labour that was available in India, they were able to buy up the small, rough diamonds that the then-dominant Jewish traders were not interested in, send them back to India for processing, and then sell the cut and polished jewels at a much lower price than their European counterparts could compete with.

And they did not stop there. ‘They said to themselves, “Why do we only do the small stones? We can do the bigger things as well!”,’ explains Liesbeth. ‘So they did, and that actually corresponded with the climb in the prices of the rough. The Jewish community at that time was master of the entire industry. The prices on the rough plummeted and, at that moment, a price vacuum was created. The Jain community took the gap and they were in.’

With huge, close-knit, extended families, Jains could quickly and securely move diamonds from place to place, building up a highly efficient network based almost entirely on trust. The prosperity that this has brought the Jains is noticeable in the Wilrijk area, especially when set against the shabbier Jewish Quarter. The Jain temple and the adjoining meditation centre alone cost €25million, most of which was funded by Jains in Antwerp and India.

The diamond quarter, AntwerpShops in the diamond district, Antwerp

But a Jain will say that the allure of diamonds is not related to financial gain. It is for the promise of spiritual wealth. Like many eastern religions, Jainism views diamonds as the purest of all stones, and so a polished diamond that is free from impurities is spiritually linked to a soul that is clear.

This symbolism is visible across Jain art and culture. In one of the most popular Jain tales, the story of Shalibhadra, a rich merchant exchanges gems for a life of monkhood. In another work of art – a 19th-century statue of the Seated Jina, which was on show at the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS)’s Dazzling Desire exhibition – a Buddha-like figure is set with a diamond chest jewel that symbolises peace and interconnectedness.

The Seated JinaThe Seated Jina

Diamonds are also a suitable profession for Jains because of the perceived lack of harm that trading them has on other living beings. Farming is a common occupation in rural India, but, because of the Jains’ hugely restricted vegan diet, it is not an option. ‘Things that grow from the bottom of the Earth, such as garlic or potato, or something that creates life, they cannot eat,’ explains Liesbeth. ‘Onions, for example: that’s a bulb that produces a plant, so they cannot eat it. Becoming a farmer is not really a viable occupation. A diamond is not living – it’s dead already – so that’s why they got into the industry.’

Some contradictions spring to mind when considering this philosophy, seeing as open-pit mining requires 20 tons of gravel to be excavated for just one carat of diamond. Such intense mining leaves scars on the landscape that can be seen from space and, presumably, kills thousands of organisms in the process. When I ask my MAS guide, Liene, about this, she nods, agrees that there’s a conflict, and says that this is not an issue for Jains because they trade the stones rather than mine them. As for conflict (blood) diamonds, Antwerp’s strict Kimberley certification policies mean that, for Jains, the city’s diamond trade is non-violent.

Antwerp’s Jains have found ways to update their religious practices for modern life. While Orthodox Jains continue with rituals like sweeping the path, others may settle for simply following a vegan diet, worshipping when possible, and being ethical in business.

For an in-depth look at the uncertain future of Antwerp’s diamond industry, pick up the April 2018 issue of Geographical, on sale now.

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