The down and dirty on diamonds, part 3

So far I’ve covered the natural history of diamonds in Part 1 and the earlier history of human use of diamonds in Part 2. By the end of Part 2, diamond cutting had moved from a rather crude craft to a more specialized art that involved the use of tools and machinery specifically designed for diamond cutting, facet shaping and polishing. These tools, designed by Lodewyk van Bercken, transformed diamonds from translucent stones to the clear and sparkling gems we know today.

In this post, I’ll show you how diamonds came to be both associated with Amsterdam and with the Jewish people. To this day, Amsterdam remains an important city in the global diamond industry, even though its status has been greatly diminished from what it once was.

Of Jews and jewelry

In fact, no one really knows for sure just how it came to be that the diamond industry — from mining to brokering to cutting to retail — has been dominated by Jewish families for centuries. But there are a few theories (Richman, 2006).

The first theory ties into the persecution Jews were experiencing in Portugal during the Inquisition and the career limitations they faced throughout Europe. In most places, they were prohibited from owning land or joining the guild systems that controlled most lucrative careers, such as the building trades. Jews had fewer options, such as financial services and mercantile trade. At the same time, Portugal had become the center of the global diamond trade.

Against this backdrop, Jews everywhere — but especially in places where their situation seemed tenuous — looked for careers that involved capital that was highly mobile. If the family had to flee quickly, there would be no time to dismantle large machines or pack up massive amounts of inventory and take them on the run. Diamonds fit the bill quite nicely. They are perhaps the most valuable substance in the world by the ounce. And that was about to come in handy, because Portugal was gearing up force-convert all its Jews, pushing many of them to flee.

Not only did diamonds give Jews a valuable commodity that could be easily moved, but the Jewish families who entered the diamond industry did so at a particularly fortuitous time. Portugal’s ascendancy in the diamond trade, the Portuguese Inquisition and Lodewyk van Bercken’s revolutionary inventions all happened to coincide. The Jews who entered the trade at this point in time were hopping on board the boat just as it was leaving the dock, so to speak. Had they tried to enter the business a century later, they might have found the diamond trade dominated by a newly formed Christian guild and closed to them.

lodewyk van bercken
A statue of Lodewyk van Bercken in Antwerp

Another theory suggests that outright ethnic chauvinism. Once Jews obtained a foothold in the new diamond trade, they worked hard to keep others out. It’s true that to this day, Jewish families from DeBeers, who mines diamonds, to the Ascher diamond cutting family of Amsterdam and the thousands of Jewish diamond cutters in Antwerp, Amsterdam, New York and Israel still predominate the industry. But more and more these days, so do Indians. 

Finally, some pages on the Internet suggest that Lodewyk van Bercken himself was Jewish. However, I can find no scholarly sources to back that up, and .. well … the name doesn’t immediately strike me as a particularly Jewish one. Not that that’s enough to rule out the theory. But a I mentioned in Part 2, there are a lot of myths circulating about Van Bercken already, I take a lot of what I read about him with a grain of salt.

Coming to Amsterdam

So, with that mystery solved (or not), how is it that Amsterdam came to be the center of the diamond trade?

When we left Van Bercken in his Antwerp workshop, the year was 1475, an he had just invented the skeif for cutting facets into diamonds. At that point in time, Antwerp was just beginning it’s own Golden Age, which would last roughly 100 years. 

Antwerp to this day owes its good fortunes to its port — it’s Europe’s second-busiest today, though it was No. 1 then. Its location made it the sugar refining capital of the world at that time, because Spanish and Portuguese plantations in the New World sent their muscovado sugar to Antwerp rather than Lisbon or Valencia. The Iberian Peninsula, after all, was rather remote from the population centers of Europe; Antwerp, located on the navigable Sheldt River, was close to the big cities of France, Germany and England.

Portugal especially relied on Antwerp as a trading center, sending much of its pepper and cinnamon there. The English relied on Antwerp’s financiers to fund its government between 1544-1574. Cloth entered from England, Italy and Germany; wines flowed in from Italy, Germany and France. 

And Jews came running in from Spain and Portugal. Antwerp had an open doors policy, so when the Inquisitions made life unlivable in the Iberian Peninsula, it only made sense for Jewish families to turn to Antwerp, if they were able to get there. And once in Antwerp, depending on which theory you want to believe, they either re-established their diamond businesses or learned the trade from Van Becken and his colleagues.

So you can imagine the panic that set in when the Spanish sacked the city in 1585. Many of the Jewish families in Antwerp had already seen what the Spaniards and their Inquisition did to Jews once before. They didn’t want to wait around for the repeat.

Whether intentional or not, diamonds are easily portable. It was time to take the goods and go.

Looking for a safe harbor

Amsterdam was an established port city in 1585, but its harbor was far less used than Antwerp’s. That was all about to change in a big way.

diamond cutting shop in amsterdam 1694
Diamond cutting shop in Amsterdam, 1694

The effects of the Spanish takeover of Antwerp were astounding. Not only did the Jews flee north to Amsterdam, so did most of Antwerp’s wealthy merchant class who happened to be Protestant and were given eviction notice, too. All of this was to the benefit of the Dutch, who incidentally — instituted a blockade of Antwerp to hasten that city’s demise.

In the 1600s, the diamond trade in Europe was largely split between London and Amsterdam. London handled rough diamonds. Amsterdam’s specialty was cut and polished gemstones. 

Until 1813, the diamond industry in the city remained mainly a family business run out of mom-and-pop workshops, but that was about to change with the dawn of the industrial age. By 1845, all the diamond shops in Amsterdam except for Costers had been consolidated into the “Diamant Slijperij Maatschappij,” literally, The Diamond Cutting Co. 

Joseph-Asscher
Joseph Asscher, a man who must have had nerves of steel.

There were 800 of these mills at The Diamond Cutting Co. in 1845. By 1896, there were 6,500 mills in Amsterdam. Not all were at The Diamond Cutting Co., as by then rival firms had formed.

One of the most famous Amsterdam diamond companies to arise was the Asscher family’s company, founded in 1854 by Joseph Isaac Asscher. Hi son, Joseph, developed the Asscher cut diamond in 1902. The following year, the company had the honor of cutting the 997-carat Excelsior Diamond, the largest diamond ever found until the Cullinan Diamond was found in 1905. The Asschers were asked to cut that one, too.

Resilient like diamonds

The Jewish community in the Netherlands suffered immensely under Nazi occupation. They saw a greater percentage of their community murdered than Jews from any other country in Western Europe.

The so-called “diamond Jews” of Amsterdam fared no better, though for a time they tried to leverage their wealth to stave off the inevitable. The nazis understood the inherent value of diamonds, and the need to have skilled artisans who could cut and polish them.  

Royal Asscher Cut
A Royal Asscher cut diamond

But it was all a ruse. By May 1944, all of Amsterdam’s Jews had been deported. When plans to set up a diamond factory at Bergen-Belsen fell through, the diamond cutter there were sent to the Sachenhausen death camp, where most were murdered.

Amsterdam’s Jewish community was devastated by the Holocaust, and with it, it’s diamond trade. Of the Asscher family, for instance, only ten members survived, and just fifteen of their 500 polishers. But the family chose to stay in Amsterdam and rebuild, and is still there today.

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