by: Nathan Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications
Long before the creation of the modern State of Israel, the story of the Israeli diamond industry began. Inextricably linked with the story of the Jewish people, the craftsmanship of precious stones can be traced all the way back to the time of Moses, when different types of jewels were used in the breastplate of the Levitical high priest. In modern times, the polishing and trading of diamonds have become a craft in which Jewish people excelled. The industry not only strengthened the success of the first Jewish immigrants to the State of Israel, but also resulted in Israel becoming one of the largest exporters of polished diamonds in the world.
Victims of Circumstance
In Europe throughout the Middle Ages and afterwards, anti-Semitic rules were widespread. Since Jewish citizens were barred from owning land or farming commercially, circumstance demanded that they seek out other professions in order to survive. The diamond trade was a less regulated profession that suited the persecuted people group in many ways. Diamond cleaving, cutting and polishing were skills that did not require schooling and paid well. Diamond trading required little workspace, few tools and could easily be run from a home, which provided the flexibility to adjust working practices to the observance of Jewish religious customs without engendering further persecution.
Europe’s Jewish population were immigrants. As they were driven to move around the continent, they were never sure of the reception they would receive in a new country. The threat of persecution or being forced to move—or flee—was ever present. Since diamonds are small, high-value items, the diamond trade became a safe haven for preserving livelihood and assets. It also guaranteed work since the business could be moved easily. The fundamental social structure of the Jewish community also provided an excellent basis from which to run the diamond trade. The vast network of well-established Jewish communities and family members throughout Europe provided a system for transporting gemstones to their destination and receiving back the necessary fee.
Antwerp, Belgium today remains a center for the diamond trade, as it has for the past five centuries. The origin thereof can be attributed to the presence of Jewish people expelled from Spain and Portugal fleeing to Belgium in the 15th and 16th centuries. Along with the exiles came skilled Jewish gemstone craftsman. The Hasidic Jews of Antwerp became known throughout Europe as Les Diamantaires, a French term for master diamond cutters. One such diamantaire was Lodewyk van Berken, famed for inventing the polishing instrument known as a scaif in 1456. Before the invention of the polishing scaif, diamonds that glistened were a mere coincidence, an anomaly. Van Berken used diamond dust and olive oil in a polishing wheel to create striking symmetry and angles that allowed the precious stones to glisten and shine as they never had before, transforming the diamond cutting industry forever. The details of his diamond polishing techniques were a well-guarded family secret. Van Berken’s descendants in Holland and Belgium provided jewelry for royalty throughout Europe and it is rumored that his family polished the gem known as the Inquisition Diamond, which was sent to Spanish inquisitors as ransom for a Jewish cousin facing execution for heresy.
Estimates say that by the time Nazi Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, 80–90% of the Diamond Federation members were Jewish. World War II decimated the Jewish existence in Antwerp, as it did throughout Europe. When the Nazis left Antwerp in 1944, it was officially judenrein, free of Jews. This resulted in the diamond trade being severely affected. However, while this purge was taking place in Europe, a birthing was taking place in the Land of Israel. Officially, the diamond trade in Israel was started in 1937 on the cusp of the war, as Jewish diamond cutters escaped from Europe. Laws in British Mandate Palestine were favorable to the diamond trade, as import duties were abolished on rough diamonds. Jewish immigrants brought with them the diamond industry know-how handed down over generations and started an Israeli polishing facility in Petah Tikva. While the war ravaged Europe, the Israeli diamond industry flourished.
The second and third generations of the Israeli diamantaires ploughed into their family businesses with renewed production processes and industrious ideas. The industry boomed and in the 1960s was formalized into an association that later developed into the Israel Diamond Exchange (IDE). The IDE is considered one of the largest, most advanced diamond exchanges in the world, with between 40–50% of the world’s diamonds passing through these buildings. The biggest names in the jewelry design world travel to Tel Aviv regularly to acquire the highest quality diamonds for use in bespoke jewelry. Diamond dealers and buyers gather annually in Tel Aviv for the Israel Diamond Week (IDWI). The next diamond week will be held from February 10–12, 2020. According to IDE President Yoram Dvash, “IDWI is one of the leading boutique shows in the diamond world and each year it has become bigger and better.”
Today, the Tel Aviv diamond industry remains an integral part of the Israeli economy, with exports in polished diamonds totaling approximately US $5 billion annually. Like Antwerp once was, Tel Aviv is now a major center for the global diamond trade with no equal. What began as one of the few professions that Jewish people could practice has blossomed into an industry of the highest professional expertise and craftsmanship, cementing Israel’s place as a global leader in the diamond industry.
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