DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND
BY WENDY HUGHES
The beauty of a glistening diamond cannot be equalled, and surely it must be every woman’s secret desire to own one. The diamond is the purest and toughest substance in nature and is formed when carbon is compressed into crystals under great heat and pressure., and they are often bought as an edge against inflation.
It is reported that Zsa Zsa Gabor once said she never hated a man enough to give him back his diamonds, although when Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage to Richard Burton broke up she sold a pear-shaped diamond that he had bought her for 2.8 million dollars!
Diamonds have an exceptional long history as beautiful objects of desire. In fact as far back as the 1st century AD, the Roman naturalist Pliny said, ‘The diamond is the most valuable, not only of the precious stones, but of all things in the world.’ A diamond has to go through a great deal before it ends up being displayed in a jewellery shop. It starts life deep in the earth under extreme heat and pressure before it is ejected violently upward until it emerges at or near to the earth’s surface, being forced from it’s hiding place by nature or man. It is then cleaned, cut and polised until its natural beauty shines through. The world’s love affair with diamonds had its beginnings in India where the diamonds are gathered from gathered from the rivers and streams, and some historians even estimate that India was trading in diamonds as early as the 4th century BC. Gradually, however this changed and Indian diamonds found ther way, along with other exotic merchandise to Western Europe in the caravans that travelled to the Venice markets. By the 1400s diamonds were becoming a status symbols for Europe’s elite. In the early 1700s, as India’s diamond supplies began to decline, Brazil began to emerge as an important source when diamonds were discovered in the pans of gold miners as they shifted through the gravel of the local rivers, and reached ifs full potential and remained so for more than 150 years.
The 1800s brought increasing affluence to western Europe and the United States. Explorers unearthed the first great South African diamond deposits in the late 1800s just as diamond demand broadened, and by the early 1900s, De Beers controlled about 90 percent of the world’s production of rough diamond.
The story of the modern diamond market really begins on the African continent, with the 1866 discovery of diamonds in Kimberley, South Africa where entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes, in 1888, established De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited 22 years later. By 1900, De Beers, through its mines in South Africa, controlled an estimated 90 percent of the world’s production of rough diamonds.
But mention diamonds today and one immediately thinks of Antwerp and Amsterdam. The word diamond is believed to have some from the Greek word “adamas” meaning unconquerable or as hard as steel, and very few industries have experienced so many booms and depressions and the diamond industry.
How the art of diamond polishing first found its way into Europe remains a mystery. Some say that the Phoenicians introduced it, others state that the Jews from Alexandria brought it to Europe via the Iberian Peninsula. We do know that by the Middle Ages the Spanish, Portuguese and Venetians were disseminating the skills of diamond polishing across Europe, although it was so until the 16th century that Antwerp and then Amsterdam came into the diamond picture.
In 1585 the Spanish troops conquered Antwerp and among the many thousands that were forced to flee were Portuguese and Spanish Jews, many of whom were diamond merchants and cutters. They soon found refuge in Holland, and more specifically, Amsterdam. A marriage register of 1586 records that a man called William Vermont, a refugee from Antwerp, was the first person to register in the city as a diamond polisher.
It is widely believed that diamonds were first discovered in India, and until the early 18th century this was the source of all diamonds. But by this time mines in India were all but empty, throwing the industry into decline.
Then in 1725, Brazil made its first diamond discoveries and as a result Amsterdam experienced one of its many booms. But as the century progressed, so the numbers of diamond workers grew, whilst the amount of work for then declined until, between the years 1750-1790, the number of diamonds workers dropped from 1600 to 200. Many unemployed and poorly paid diamond workers were forced to depend on charity to survive. The extent of poverty was made clear through a proclamation issued in 1795 forbidding diamond workers to walk the streets naked.
The industry struggled on and during the 19th century important changes took place. Work moved from the home to factories and by 1840 steam engines were turning the diamond polishers’ wheels – a job that had previously been done by women and children.
In 1866 the first diamond was found in South Africa and the boom returned with a vengeance once more. Popular stories of the time were that diamond workers not only travelled to work by hansom cab, but had a second cab following carrying their tops hats. They were also said to light their cigars with 10-guilder notes.
This prosperity allowed Amsterdam to enjoy a new injection of life, theatres, cafes and restaurants sprang up and the atmosphere of the city became vibrant. But this boom, which became known as the Cape Period, was only to last until 1876. Quality suffered in favour of quality. Many workers set up their own establishments and lost money. Those who had only a few years ago owned two hansom cabs were now back in the streets begging for a living.
The general Dutch Diamond Workers Union was formed in 1894. Fourteen hour working days became a thing of the past, conditions of work improved dramatically, and within a short time, the diamond workers were earning more than they had ever earned. The Boar Wars brought yet another decline, which was followed by recovery which was destroyed by the First World War. A rapid Post War recovery was sustained for a few years, then came the depression.
Despite all the astonishing up and downs nothing was to divest the industry as much as World War II. 2800 Amsterdam diamond workers were sent to the concentration camps, but only 300 came back. The grief that the city felt on losing a community and the heart of the diamond industry cannot be expressed, and vast stocks and large qualities of diamonds had disappeared. Amsterdam was left to face the task of rebuilding its diamond industry from almost total destruction.
Today Amsterdam’s diamond industry employs just under 1000 people and has a turnover in excess of 5bn guilders per annum. Last year more than one million people visited Amsterdam’s diamond establishments.