NEW OLD WORLD

How Indian families took over the Antwerp diamond trade from orthodox Jews

Quartz india
Quartz india

Antwerp’s diamond business had long been controlled by its orthodox, largely Hasidic Jewish community.

Although 65% of the Jewish population of the city was exterminated during the Second World War, those who had remained, their ranks swelled by others fleeing former Nazi-occupied countries in Eastern Europe, had been able to regain control of the centuries-old diamond trade.

In the popular European imagination, diamonds remain inextricably linked with the Jews. When I’d told a group of Julio’s colleagues in Brussels my plans for a story on the Indian community’s role in the trade, they’d expressed surprise. Diamonds? Wasn’t that a Jewish fiefdom?

Once upon a time, it had been. But today it is the Mehtas and the Shahs rather than the Epsteins and Finkelszteins who rule Hoveniersstraat. Indians have come to control almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry, a figure that had been associated with the Jews only a few decades ago.

The first wave of Indians began to wash up on Antwerp’s shores in the 1960s. They started at the bottom of the business with low quality roughs, which offered very small margins of profit, and were of little interest to the established Jewish diamantaire houses. These stones were sent to family members back in India for cutting and polishing, where labour costs were a fraction that of Antwerp’s. Indians have come to control almost three-quarters of Antwerp’s diamond industry. 

Three decades on, the Indian community in Antwerp consists of around 400 families, a majority from the single town of Palanpur in Gujarat. Today, companies that had begun as one-man operations dealing with a handful of diamonds at a time, have been transformed into billion dollar, global enterprises, employing thousands of workers, with factories and offices dotted across the world.

There are three main ingredients to this Indian success story: cheap labour, large families and a willingness to work harder than the competition.

The cost of polishing and cutting diamonds in factories in Surat, the main diamond-processing centre in India, is as little as a tenth of the equivalent price in Europe. The inexorable logic of costs and demographics has meant that over the years the cutting and polishing business has almost disappeared into oblivion in European cities like Antwerp and relocated to Asia, in particular India.

In the 1970s Antwerp had boasted a skilled diamond processing labour force of between 25,000 and 30,000. This number is now down to less than 1,000. In contrast, Surat employs some 450,000 people in the business, and over 80 percent of the world’s rough diamonds are now processed in india.

For Indian diamantaires in Antwerp, the familiarity with Surat and other manufacturing centres in India is a big advantage. “For us, sending rough diamonds to India for processing isn’t outsourcing as much as “homesourcing,” Santosh Kedia, owner of the jewelry company Indigems, quipped over lunch.

We were eating in the functional environs of the Antwerp Indian Association’s dining room, also on Hoveniersstraat. Kedia served as chairman of the Association, a social club with over 2,000 members, virtually all in the diamond business. Three other board members of the Association joined us for the meal, two of whom had lived in the city since they’d been toddlers back in the 60s.

Kedia explained that when Indians first started to operate out of Antwerp they were bit players in the trade. “Most of us (Indians), had very little money in the 60s, but we created a new business area for small stones and low quality roughs.” Building on this virgin territory, by the 1980s many Indian traders had made substantial profits and begun the move up the value chain.

The food was delicious: aromatic, steaming bowls of rajma and kadhi. Antwerp’s Indian diamantaires are almost without exception Jains and, given the religious restrictions on their diet, tend to import personal cooks from India who are familiar with their particular culinary needs. Antwerp’s Indian diamantaires are almost without exception Jains and tend to import personal cooks from India. 

In China, I’d had the occasion to try to explain to a Chinese host the details of this diet in preparation for a dinner party where a few Jains would be in attendance. The Chinese already struggled with Indian pickiness when it came to food. Indians, especially upper caste/class ones, delineated their status by increasingly finicky choices: no meat, no garlic, no onions. Many, including most Jains, wouldn’t even tolerate a non-vegetarian in the kitchen.

“Non-Veg” Indians would eat chicken, but not chicken feet; lamb, but not the intestines; prawns, but not octopus. To the average Chinese for whom status was flagged by the ability to afford as large a variety of food, the meatier the better, such discriminations were deeply mystifying.

When I informed the Chinese host that his Jain guests were not only vegetarian but didn’t eat onions or indeed any kind of root vegetable at all, the gentleman in question gasped as if in the throes of a painful bout of indigestion. And I hadn’t even got to the part about the prohibition on green coloured vegetables on certain days of the religious calendar.

Happily tucking into that steaming-hot rajma in Antwerp, I’d wondered aloud about how difficult it must have been living in Belgium, given Jain dietary strictures. I could only imagine the apoplectic reaction of the typical Belgian waiter to a customer demanding a vegetarian meal, but one without any carrots, potatoes, garlic or onions.

Aditya Jasani, a sharply dressed youngster in his twenties, whose father had moved to Antwerp in the 1970s, shook his head. It wasn’t that bad, he’d said in his generic, international-school accent. “Many of us aren’t very strict anymore. Some people even eat eggs.”

I’d tried to look suitably impressed at this radical declaration. But unsure about how to respond appropriately (“Wow! Even eggs?!” felt rather disingenuous), had swiftly moved to change the subject. What about the other reasons for the Gujarati’s success in Antwerp, I asked, steering the conversation back to where it had started.

“It’s our joint-families”, Kedia replied. Joint families refer to the convention of many family members living together in one house. But what Kedia meant was the propensity amongst Gujarati Jains to have large, closely-knit families.

Dilip Mehta, the CEO of Rosy Blue, an Antwerp-headquartered company that bills itself as the world’s largest diamond manufacturer, agreed, when I met him at his office on Hoveniersstraat later in the afternoon. “We always have the possibility of global distribution because a cousin or nephew who can blindly be trusted can always be sent to any country to set up operations,” he explained, leaning into a high-backed leather swivel chair.

That the Jews lacked similar extended families was a major disadvantage for them, in Mehta’s opinion. Given the global nature of the trade, he argued that it was necessary for successful diamantaires to have a reach that extended from the African countries where the diamond mines were located, to Antwerp where stones were traded, to India and increasingly China, where cutting and polishing was focused, and finally to the jewelry centers of the world like New York, Hong Kong, and Dubai.

Rosy Blue earns annual revenues of well over $1 billion and has a presence in 14 countries including factories in India, China, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Armenia. “We employ over 10,000 people globally, but a member of the Mehta family heads every operation,” he said, his eyes crinkling above his beak-like nose. “We employ over 10,000 people globally, but a member of the Mehta family heads every operation.” 

Dilip Mehta had been given the honorific title of ‘Baron,’ by the Belgian King in 2006, for services rendered to the country—a fact he was coyly proud of. He spent some time reminiscing about his youth to illustrate how far he’d come from his modest beginnings. Having dropped out of college he’d been dispatched by his family to Surat, then an up and coming polishing centre, to work on factory floors. “I had no car, just a bicycle, and would cook for myself every night,” he said, absently stroking his balding head.

Mehta moved to Antwerp in 1973, following his father and brother who had set up shop in the port city a few years earlier. Theirs was a typical story. They’d made a living buying cheap, low quality, roughs, which they sent to Surat for polishing and finally sold at a small profit, back in Antwerp again.

“It was just me and a cousin in a two-room office,” recalled Mehta. “We would go door to door with our stones. I’ve always held that no matter how big you are in this business, you are still a salesman and a salesman should have no ego.”

Fast-forward a decade or two and Baron Mehta’s name commands instant respect on Hoveniersstraat. The cheap labour and extended family had helped. But it was the third ingredient to the Indian story that was really the key, according to Mehta: a willingness to work harder and longer hours than the competition.

“The Jews just couldn’t withstand our competitiveness,“ he said with a matter-of-fact shrug of the shoulders. “We are married to our businesses. We will work at night. We will work on the weekends. We will do whatever it takes to get a client. And we are willing to work this hard even for small margins.”

The Baron sighed. “Of course, sometimes I feel guilty that I’m such a company-driven person. My family always comes second to the business. But that’s just the way it is.” “The Jews just couldn’t withstand our competitiveness,“ he said. “We are married to our businesses.” 

How integrated into broader Belgian society were the Indians, I asked him. Did his kids go to Belgian school? Was there any inter-marrying? The Jains were a notoriously conservative community back in India, and I was curious about how the decades of living in Belgium had impacted their mores.

“I think our challenge is really to learn how to keep some distance between ourselves and the Belgians on the one hand, and learn from them on friendly terms, on the other,” opined Mehta. Most Indians lived in ghettos he’d said, because nothing in their education back home had equipped them to deal with living amongst Europeans. They avoided contact with locals because they were nervous about coming across as unmannered and incompetent.

Mehta was an advocate of “greater mixing.” But it was important to remember your own identity at the same time, he warned. “You can go to a cocktail party if it’s necessary for business. But that doesn’t mean you should drink yourself. Never be ashamed of who you are.” Jains are forbidden from alcohol by religious strictures.

But what about the second generation who had been born and schooled in Antwerp? Mehta said most families sent their kids to English-speaking international schools, so that only a handful of youngsters had learnt Flemish, the variant of Dutch spoken in northern Belgium. Inter-marrying was almost unknown.

Aditya Jasani, the youngster I’d met at lunch earlier confirmed this. “Most of us still live like expats,” he’d said. “We have one foot here, but another foot in India. Belgium is for business only. It’s not our home.”

I remembered these words a few months later when I was on the trail of a story about the sport of cricket’s alleged Flemish origins. The evidence for this claim involves a medieval English poem and a painting by Flemish master Pieter Brueghel the elder, but to avoid bewildering the reader by a lengthy digression, I will skip the details and go straight to a meeting I had with Charles Blommaert, an earnest-faced Belgian cricket lover a few months later. “We have one foot here, but another foot in India. Belgium is for business only. It’s not our home.” 

Blommaert had founded a cricket club in the Flemish city of Ghent and was a driving force behind the country’s fledgling cricket league. The game was completely new to Belgium, its possible Flemish origins notwithstanding, and it was usually Indian and Pakistani expats who taught interested Belgians the finer points of the notoriously complicated sport.

The best-financed cricket club in Belgium, Blommaert revealed, was called the Antwerp Indians, whose members comprised the prosperous Gujarati diamond traders. But instead of using their resources to popularize the sport within the wider community, the Antwerp Indians didn’t permit anyone not of Indian origin to join their club. Clearly, promoting integration, even of the innocent sporting kind, was not a priority for them.

This fact was driven home at the opening ceremony of the Jain temple, where despite the community’s public statements about the temple’s value to Belgian society (publicity material claimed it enhanced “the glory of Belgium” and was intended as a “return gift to the country” from the Jain community), the only “natives” visible amongst the celebrating hordes were a clutch of waiters.

This is excerpted from New Old World: An Indian Journalist Discovers the Changing Face of Europe. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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