Artisans Challenge Tradition in the World’s Diamond Capital

Step out of Antwerp’s central train station and you’ll immediately step into its world-renowned diamond district. The one square mile is dense with jewellery and diamond shops sandwiched together, luring customers in with their jewellery displays as shop owners stand at the doors. Antwerp’s diamond district is known as the largest trading centre in the world, with 32 thousand people employed and 80 per cent of all the world's diamonds passing through the city at some point in their lifetime.

What most don’t see is the diamond trade happening behind the scenes.

Well coifed men in crisp suits, gelled hair, with their chin up and shoulders back, appearing like they’ve just come off Wall Street, hover under large banners plastered with their company name; that’s who you’ll find behind every booth at Antwerp’s diamond exhibition. Here, it’s less about the craft and more about the business.

Alexandre Barsamian fits right in with them.

“We are buying to sell,” says Barsamian, a diamond trader based in Antwerp. “My team is working all day long sorting very small stones by quality, colour, everything.”

Barsamian works for Barsamian Diamonds, an independent Armenian family owned wholesale diamond company that was founded by his great grandfather in the early 1900s in Paris. He says his grandfather continued the business in Antwerp where most of the diamond trade was based, then passed it onto his father, then eventually to him. The diamond dealers are connected through lines of family and that is most commonly how they break into the trade.

“If you enter the diamond trade, the rule is you have to identify yourself and come in with someone known to the community,” says Karin Hofmeester, professor of Jewish Culture at University of Antwerp, with an expertise on history of labour relations. “This gives the image of a very closed trade; they don't want people to come in and look around.”

The trade was mostly dominated by Orthodox Jews and some Armenians who entered the industry at the end of the 19th century when they immigrated from Eastern Europe. During this period, Belgium was an easy country to settle in. “You could learn the profession and stick to all the rules so it was easy to find a job in Antwerp,” says Professor Hofmeester. “[Jews] more or less shaped the neighbourhood and the industry, and vice versa.”

Today the industry is becoming more diverse with the involvement of Indian Jains who immigrated to Belgium beginning in the 1960s. They had the skill and resources to cut smaller diamonds for a lower cost. According to author Devesh Kapur in his book The Domestic Impact of International Migration from India, Belgian Indian Jains currently control two-thirds of the rough diamond trade between Belgium and India.

The diamond industry is becoming more culturally diverse but gender wise, it is still very male dominated. “Women are working in services around the trade so you do find women but you don't see them,” says Professor Hofmeester. “There is a very [Jewish] orthodox community in Antwerp and they live according to their own rules; women can work but only in areas where other women work, like bakeries and school teachers.”

Diamonds: A Tourism Attraction

There are 57 facets in any brilliant cut diamond, and this year marks the 570th celebration of diamonds in Antwerp. In honour to celebrate the story of the relationship of diamonds to the city, Antwerp is launching its new DIVA Antwerp House of Diamonds project in the Fall. The project is Antwerp’s newest diamond museum that will be located in Grote Markt, in the centre of the old city quarter. The museum will showcase diamonds as well as silversmithing and jewellery pieces.

“I believe there is artistry in precious metals and jewellery, there is much respect for their crafts,” says Jeroen Martens, director of the DIVA Antwerp House of Diamonds project. “I hope we can convince people of this beautiful art.” The goal is to bring in 200 thousand tourists per year with a purpose to educate visitors about the diamond trade and industry in Antwerp, says Martens.

According to the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, 48 billion USD of rough and polished diamonds were traded in the city in 2016, totalling to a weight of 202 million carats. However, though diamonds are popular, they don’t always satisfy everyone’s taste.

“What I see in these jewellery shows near central station is not something I would like to have,” says Professor Hofmeester. “My taste is a bit more modern.”

That’s where contemporary jewellery comes in.

Working Towards A Break In Tradition

On the other side of the city is Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Walk into the academy’s studios of their Bachelor and Master of Visual Arts in Jewellery Design and Gold and Silversmithing program and you’ll find rows of wooden workbenches, beaten up by the process of hand-crafted jewellery with leather baskets stapled underneath the tables to catch fallen materials. The most noticeable part of it all though is the fact that each studio is filled with students, and those students are mostly female.

“I take being a woman as an advantage, I’m not seeing it as a negative thing, but it is the reality,” says Nedda El-Asmar, head of the jewellery design and silversmithing department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. El-Asmar is a silversmith designer, who graduated from the program in 1991 and has been leading the department for 10 years. El-Asmar is dressed in an all black oversized pant suit with thick framed glasses. Her accessories are striking: a vibrant red bangle sits on top of her sleeve and a beaded necklace that looks like large rocks were threaded onto a yarn then covered in a vibrant purple glaze. Through her experiences, she’s noticed how the students of the academy are pushing boundaries of the tradition in jewellery production and design, and the female domination in the program is one way in which it is remaking the male dominated traditional jewellery and diamond scene.

“The whole thing is, as a female, if you want to start trading into diamonds it is very hard,” says El-Asmar. “I think that this is something that needs to get back in balance.”

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts is one of the world’s oldest academies, founded in 1663 and located in what was previously a church. But, it was only in 1971 when the jewellery program was founded. The goal of the program is to educate while providing hands-on experiences to students who are eager to craft pieces and bring change into the jewellery industry, both in Antwerp and world-wide.

This is done by focusing less on the business and working with expensive diamonds, and more on the art of each piece. They learn about stone setting in specific classes but the emphasis is on contemporary jewellery and flexibility with the design and craft for students.

What ties the contemporary jewellery and diamond trade together is the labour put into a single item. In both traditions, each piece is special and unique, carefully cut and crafted. However, though they are both similar and centred in Antwerp, the two worlds rarely work together.

“We as a jewellery design school, we hardly have contact with the jewellery trade and diamond industry; they find it very strange what we are doing here.” says El-Asmar. “I think for [traditional jewellers], they see people have to be trained in a traditional way to make jewellery. We have another approach than traditional; this is a more free and artistic, and of course the traditional jewellers are capable but our students can catch up technically as well.”

This brings up a particular question of what should be worth more in a piece of jewellery: the craft or the material?

“Nowadays it is very important to have skill and show how things are made by hand,” says Professor Hofmeester. “I think there's a world to win here for these kinds of developments but I think the diamond trade here is very conservative and it's difficult for them to grasp what is going on in the rest of the world.”

In the Studio with Dabin Lee

In the Master’s studio of the jewellery program sits student from South Korea, Dabin Lee. Lee previously studied fashion in England and fell into the contemporary jewellery world after offering to help a friend with a jewellery project. That’s when she realized she enjoyed working with materials and creating jewellery with her hands.

“I just sold one of my multiple piece to my teacher and I wasn't expecting it to be a man, but it was kind of nice to see that people like older men wanting to buy a brooch,” says Lee. “It doesn't mean people will wear it but it's the impact.”

Lee’s new collection of brooches are matte and bright yellow, in the shape of a farm animal tag often found on the ear of the animal to keep track of each one. “I'm doing my project about animal testing so I made a statement with this collection,” says Lee.

She explains her process as first cutting the metal into shape, using an enamel technique to create a thicker glass on top, UV light to create its bold yellow colour, and for a matte finish, she used spray paint that is originally intended for cars.

“In this way material that is not valuable anymore, it kind of becomes valuable,” she says. “Some people use gold as material, which is very expensive and valuable but they're making it look like cardboard.”

The academy welcomes students to use any type of material to craft their pieces. “We have people who are making fine jewellery and then you can have very alternative materials used as well,” says El-Asmar.

However they also encourage each jewellery piece to be well researched depending on for whom they make for. If it's a one-off and an artistic piece, they don't have to take into consideration for whom it is. This variation in different assignments allow students to be flexible with their creativity while still being mindful of the meaning and craft behind the jewellery, especially in combining the story and the design together.

Economic Struggles in Contemporary Jewellery

Contemporary jewellery is in a difficult position now as it is not quite accepted in the world of galleries, yet, it is also not accepted in the traditional jewellery industry either. “The value of the material is sometimes absolutely not appreciated but in art it is,” says El-Asmar. “In art it's accepted but in jewellery it is very difficult.”

The jewellery and gold and silversmithing program at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp continues to thrive by working with creating one-off pieces for artists or for the students themselves. “People can come in and get the pieces that they want made by the students,” says El-Asmar.

Post-graduation however, succeeding in the industry is a challenge, especially when it comes to buyers investing in pieces that focus mostly on the craft.

Lee says, “Still some students here they want to keep it as a commercial jewellery, they don't want to go too far into contemporary because they think they will not be able to sell well.” She says this prevents students from doing what they want because they know it will not get as much appreciation as it may deserve.

Lee graduates this June and says she’d like to get hands on experience in the working force before she moves into her PhD. To fund her education and materials to craft her jewellery projects, Lee works part time at a bubble tea cafe in Antwerp. “I don't want to do it directly so I'm just going to take my time,” says Lee. “It will be difficult, but worth it.”