Antwerp Diamonds For The World

In the uncertain world of diamonds, Antwerp has always set a certain course for itself as the premiere diamond trading center. Now it wants to enhance that position by attracting even more business ­ yours.

The diamond business in Belgium’s second largest city works hard to answer any concerns that may arise about buying or selling in a foreign country. It offers a five-century tradition in diamonds for those concerned about longevity and reliability. Its four bourses and 1,250 diamond companies handle rough and polished gem as well as industrial diamonds to fill any order. It also provides grading certificates, a local import-export office, banks with financing geared to the diamond industry and centers for gemological and technical research.

Sound like a sales pitch? It is, courtesy of the Diamond High Council, the agency that keeps the promotional energy pumping through the city’s diamond district. Antwerp already accounts for 50% of worldwide turnover (imports + exports) of rough and polished gem and natural industrial diamonds with an estimated value of US$20 billion in 1995. But the council (known as Hoge Raad voor Diamont or HRD in Belgium) wants to build that total even higher by offering a full complement of business and gemological services to foreigners.

Getting started: For Americans interested in doing business in Antwerp, the HRD’s annual Kompass guide lists names, addresses and details about nearly all diamond traders and manufacturers in Antwerp. Choose who you want to visit and make appointments before you go. Because most of the companies are located in a 1-sq.-mile section of the city, says HRD, you can make up to eight appointments per day, guaranteeing a competitive selection.

Most of the major diamond trading occurs in one of four bourses (Beurs voor Diamanthandel, Diamantclub van Antwerpen, Vrije Diamanthandel and Antwerpsche Diamantkring). Foreigners can visit a bourse by finding a member to sponsor them (membership in a bourse in another country simplifies entry procedures). Or you may visit a company privately rather than go to a bourse.

Once you’ve made a purchase, the seller will contact the HRD’s Diamond Office, which the Belgian government has designated as its import/export office for all diamonds. The seller then can arrange for you to take possession of the diamonds right away or to send them to you by registered mail or security transport. You pay no taxes or export duties.

Much of HRD’s budget is funded by fees charged for its import/export services. (HRD is not a government agency, rather it represents the diamond bourses, trade organizations and trade unions and acts as spokesman and lobbyist for the Belgian diamond trade.)

HRD also has a Certificates Department that issues grading reports for polished diamonds. The reports are based on standards established by the International Diamond Council and adopted by the World Federation of Diamond Bourses and International Diamond Manufacturers Association. They include weight, color, clarity and cut. The cut ­ or make ­ is the area of most difference among the world’s major grading systems. For example, the IDC system used by HRD grades proportion, finish and polish in relation to cut; in the U.S., the Gemological Institute of America currently grades symmetry (roughly equivalent to finish) and polish but not proportion.

Terminology varies also. In the IDC system used by HRD, for example, “loupe clean” is the term used for the “internally flawless/flawless” grades used in the U.S. Grading labs around the world have been trying to harmonize standards through the International Standardization Organization. But Americans should understand that some differences still exist, says Pierre Grabowski, manager of the HRD Certificates Department. “Right now it looks more like compromise than harmonization,” he says.

The HRD Certificates Department also issues separate diamond color certificates, which list the color name and origin (natural or treated) and luminescence.

While these are the nuts and bolts, there’s more than just commerce to the diamond business in Antwerp.

Education: As knowledge about diamonds and colored gems proliferated ­ along with treatments and synthesizing ­ HRD saw a need to establish an Institute of Gemmology in 1980. Today, the institute organizes training on the identification, analysis and evaluation of diamonds and colored gems in several languages at its headquarters in Antwerp and in seminars around the world.

In Antwerp ­ as elsewhere around the world ­ two of the hottest topics in gemology are treated and synthetic diamonds, says Mark Van Bockstael, manager of the institute. “The application of modern technology has created wholly new possibilities in this field,” he says. “Laser-drilled diamonds, diamonds with filled cleavages, irradiated and heat-treated diamonds and coatings on the diamond surface can make our business somewhat hazardous.”

But cleavage- or fracture-filling ­ one of the most controversial treatments because it isn’t detected as easily as some others ­ isn’t a big problem in Antwerp. “We typically boil all diamonds in acid to clean them,” says Van Bockstael. “Because this would force out the filling, we don’t get many crack-filled diamonds in the first place.”

Synthetics are more of a concern. “We’re seeing more and more synthetic diamonds on the market,” says Van Bockstael. “But that’s not much of a problem until they are mixed with natural diamonds or represented as natural diamonds. And let’s be honest. We’re not talking about General Electric in the United States or Sumitomo in Japan [two producers of synthetic diamonds, mostly industrial]; we’re talking about the Russian Federation. We are not here to condemn synthetic diamonds; our problem is how to identify them.”

Until now, most synthetic diamonds have been yellow or variations of yellow, and gem-quality synthetic diamonds have been prohibitively expensive to produce on a large scale. But as technology improves, near colorless stones will come onto the gem diamond market and at more acceptable prices, says Jeff Van Royen, research executive at the institute. For this reason, the institute teaches students how to use ultraviolet and infrared spectrometry and cathode luminescence to distinguish synthetic from natural diamond.

“The tests are important,” says Van Bockstael, “because crystal growers constantly work to make their crystals look more natural. The Russians have even developed a technique to mimic inclusions that occur in natural diamonds. You will make a mistake if you see such an inclusion and assume it means the stone is natural without testing to confirm its origin.”

Should jewelers worry? No, says Van Bockstael. “Remember that as fast as crystal growers make advancements, instrument makers develop tools to identify the advancements,” he says. But it’s up to you to keep informed.

Cutting industry: In addition to diamond trading, Belgium also has a diamond cutting industry. To remain in the forefront of technological advances in diamond cutting, HRD’s Scientific and Technical Research Center develops equipment to improve production. In the past few years, research has centered on automatic bruting, the process in which diamonds are given their circular or fancy shape.

A separate but related organization, Comdiam, sells the products and services of the research center to the Belgian diamond industry.

At one polishing factory ­ Antwerp United Diamonds just outside of Antwerp ­ workers huddle around such state-of-the-art equipment as Super Bruters for shaping stones, Sarin Diamension machines to measure angles and percentages and computerized polishing machines. It’s this technologically advanced equipment that allows the Antwerp industry to remain competitive in world markets, says HRD.

In recent years, Antwerp’s cutting industry has become closely associated with the “Cupid effect,” a phenomenon that has grabbed the imagination of the Japanese bridal market. The Cupid effect results from combining a cut that closely resembles the “Ideal Cut” with near perfect symmetry. Under special illumination, this cut reveals eight arrows when viewed through the table and eight hearts when viewed through the culet. The phenomenon can’t be seen without special equipment, so Japanese labs (one of which works with HRD) developed glossy certificates with pictures of each stone’s hearts and arrows. The phenomenon hasn’t caught on yet in other markets, but demand from Japan has made it a profitable venture for the Antwerp diamond community.

Industrials, colored gems: Antwerp also is a center for the industrial diamond trade, and most dealers carry synthetic and natural industrials. The U.S. and Japan are the most important industrial diamond export markets for Antwerp, and synthetics claim about 80% of the market, says Norbert Moor, president of the Federation of Industrial Diamond Cos. in Belgium. But there’s no thought to dispense with naturals because they are superior to synthetics for certain applications. Two examples: fiber-optic wires are drawn through lasered holes in natural diamonds because synthetics are too rough, and medical instruments are made with natural diamonds because they reject microbes and water, allowing a higher degree of hygienics and precision.

Though Antwerp is best known for diamonds, it also has an active colored gemstone trading business. In fact, the Precious Stones Federation of Antwerp has grown to 60 members in its 13 years, including cutting factories, dealers, manufacturers and wholesalers.

The federation works closely with the HRD Institute of Gemmology and requires members to exhibit certain competencies. It also sponsors the biennial European Precious Stones Conference and promotes Antwerp as a colored gem center to attract traders from producing countries such as Brazil, Russia, Colombia, Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

For more information about the Antwerp World Diamond Center, contact the Diamond High Council, Hoveniersstraat 22, B-2018 Antwerp 1, Belgium; (32-3) 222-0511, fax (32-3) 222-0724.