[Photo Story] When it comes to diamonds, all roads lead to Antwerp

When 120 boxes of diamonds worth $50 million were stolen from a suitcase that was being loaded onto a Zurich-bound plane leaving from Belgium’s Zaventem Airport on Monday Feb. 18, all eyes turned to the global center for diamonds, Antwerp.

The city of Antwerp, which was where these stolen diamonds had originated, is a port city with a 550-year tradition of diamond processing, not to mention its own diamond exchange. According to data from the sector’s official representative, the Antwerp World Diamond Center (AWDC), 80 percent of the world’s rough diamonds change hands here, not to mention 50 percent of processed diamonds. The Antwerp diamond sector has a daily trade volume of $200 million, with its turnover in 2012 at an estimated $1.9 billion. The diamond trade represents 5 percent of Belgium’s total exports. The AWDC is composed of just three streets, but on these three streets are located not only the offices of large companies like BHP-Billiton, Rio Tinto, Alrosa and De Beers, but also representatives for1,850 smaller diamonds companies, not to mention 2,000 related industries.

Though Antwerp is these days finding some of its diamond trade work replaced by cities in India and China, it is true that the largest and most valuable diamonds are still processed here.

The processing of a rough diamond is a job that requires serious expertise and can take weeks. Diamonds that have been cut and polished are then examined carefully in laboratories for “carat, color, clarity and cut,” after which they receive their certificates. These certificates are so trusted that a diamond merchant can have complete confidence when buying a diamond, even if they have not seen it, just by its certificate.

There are four diamond exchanges located in Antwerp. It is forbidden to take photos of the inside workings of these exchanges, which have around 2,000 staff members. The newer generations of diamond merchants here do not want others to see with whom they are trading and at what prices. The diamond trade here tends to take place in private bureaus and online. The diamond exchanges, which have restaurants and even synagogues located inside them, also serve as a meeting place for the older generations of diamond merchants in Antwerp.

The theft, which has been characterized as the “heist of the century” by some and came less than a decade after a similarly enormous heist in 2005, has caused some to question the security surrounding the Antwerp diamond sector. Still, security precautions in the diamond center that were put into place following a bomb attack in 1981 mean that now anyone who even sets foot into the diamond center has a three dimensional cyber profile created of them in just a few minutes. As for vehicles, they are allowed into the area in very limited numbers, and only after passing through strict checks and controls. There are 700 video cameras in the AWDC alone. To put this into perspective, this is more than the number of video cameras located on the outside of the NATO buildings in Brussels.