Bombay on Scheldt

The Orthodox Jewish monopoly on the cutting and distribution of gem stones in the world diamond capital Antwerp is now a thing of the past. Since the 1980s, the industry has been increasingly dominated by the Indian Jain community: a change reflected by the transformation of the Flemish city.

Published on 23 March 2010 at 13:25
Antwerp Diamonds stock exchange. Once a Jewish stronghold, it has since been controlled by Jain Indians. Image:

An Antwerp diamond dealer summarizes the situation: "The economic importance of the Indian dealers is enormous, and there's no way to halt their increasing domination of the market. Over the last six or seven years, they have completely marginalized the Jewish diamond dealers." According to official figures, approximately 80% of the diamond trade is now in Indian hands. Industry spokesman and CEO of the Antwerp World Diamond Center Freddy Hanard estimates that their share is between 60% and 70%. And this is even more significant when you consider that most of the market is controlled by the 300 to 400 Indian families who own the largest businesses in the sector, which last year recorded sales of 22 billion euros. No need to be a genius to draw conclusions about wealth of the average Indian in the Antwerp diamond trade.

16 million euro wedding

The majority of the Indian diamond dealers live in a neighbourhood that surrounds Den Brandt park in Wilrijk, which natives of Antwerp call Little Bombay or on occasion Beverly Hills, in reference to the huge size of the houses, and most of them did not start from scratch when they arrived in the city. Their families had gemcutting businesses in India, which were already generating significant wealth. Starting in the late 1950s, Indian diamond dealers began to move to other countries to take control of all aspects of the diamond production and distribution process: and this was the guiding philosophy for the conquest of Antwerp. The weaving of links between different diamond families also plays an important role in increasing the market share under Indian control.

For several decades the sons and daughters of Indian diamond dealing families have intermarried to the point where practically all of the families in Antwerp are to some extent related. Naturally, the weddings provide the occasion for lavish displays of pomp and luxury, but no one will outdo the splendour of the event organized to celebrate the union of two descendants of the Shah family, who are something of a legend in Antwerp. In 2002, the family patriarch Vijay Shah organized a party that cost an estimated 16 million euros, which transformed Nekkerhal exhibition hall in Malines into an Indian temple where 4,000 guests celebrated for four days. But this level of extravagance is an exception rather than the rule for the Indian diamond dealers, who are usually known for their sobriety.

Diamond dealing and Jainism

The Indian diamond dealers are not only united by their national origins, but also by their religion. The vast majority of them are practicing Jains, bound by the absolute principle of non violence. Not only are they vegetarian but they also avoid eating vegetables that grow underground, because these contain higher levels of bacteria and thus imply a greater destruction of life. In short, they quite literally would not hurt a fly, which is why they are so offended by allegations that they deal in blood diamonds sourced from war zones. "The fact that so many Jains work in the diamond industry is by no means a coincidence," explains Chris De Lauwer, of Antwerp's Ethnographic Museum, who teaches courses on Jainism.

"Restrictions imposed by their religion, notably the total ban on any kind of violence effectively excludes them from a wide range of professions. They can't work in agriculture or the military. They can't even cut down trees... That is why so many Jains work in banking and the diamond industry." According to De Lauwer, wealth in itself is not incompatible with the principles of Jainism. "The challenge is to always be able to give up one's possessions. I know a lot of extremely rich Indian diamond dealers, but I also know of two dealers who handed over their companies to their children, so that they could return to India to become wandering Jain monks. Now they don't own anything except for the robes they wear."

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