Indian diamond traders unseating Antwerp Jews: WSJ

Wednesday, 28 May 2003, 07:00 Hrs
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NEW DELHI: Indian diamond traders are progressively displacing the Jewish community that dominated this trade in Belgium's diamond city - Antwerp, and are now calling for better representation on Antwerp's High Diamond Council, the powerful regulatory body in the trade, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The lower cost production in Mumbai and Gujarat has helped Indians takeover the trade that was once the preserve of Antwerp's Jewish neighbourhood.

The Journal ran a lengthy feature article entitled "Indians Unseat Antwerp's Jews As the Biggest Diamond Traders", a colourful piece that shows how Indians (mainly Gujaratis) in Armani suits haggling with Hasidic Jews in long black coats and side curls, have the same business traits and practices and have come to trust each other in the market for the precious stones.

"Hoveniersstraat, a street once celebrated for its kosher restaurants, now offers the best curry in town," notes the Journal, as versatile Indian businessmen who are famous for changing with the times and breaking into markets that have been strongholds of other communities.

"Indians are among the world's most successful newcomers. They have reinvigorated the jewellery districts in New York and Hong Kong and revived the U.S. motel industry; they are among the programmers of choice in Silicon Valley and Berlin. In the global diamond world, Indians have been so successful that they are challenging Jewish dealers, even in Tel Aviv. About 80 percent of all polished diamonds sold world-wide pass through Indian hands," notes the Journal.

Indians hold 65 percent of the $26 billion business while Jews have been reduced to holding 25 percent of it where once they controlled 70 percent of revenues.

This shift has not happened without tensions, the Journal notes, but there are cases where Jews have partnered with Indians in a bid to continue and grow.

"The new economic power of the Indian diamantaires (as Antwerp diamond traders are called) has spilled over to the U.S. diamond market," the Journal asserts. "After gaining a foothold in Antwerp, many of the Indian traders have expanded their businesses globally, to include California and New York."

This February, two Indians were put on the High Diamond Council, but they are not happy yet.

"We make up the bulk of Antwerp's diamond trade and yet have no voice on the most important trade bodies in town," diamond trader Bharat Shah, complained.

And he is talking about a business that covers annual sales of 90 percent of the world's uncut diamonds, and half of its polished diamonds. Antwerp boasts 1,500 retail and wholesale diamond companies and four diamond exchanges.

Considering the fact that Jewish control of the diamond trade in this city goes back to the 15th century, the virtual sweep by Indians after their foray into Antwerp in the 1970s seems particularly hasty.

Instead of the air of a traditional Jewish village, the trading area seems more and more like Mumbai, the Journal says. But at heart, say some Indian traders, the Jain and Jewish cultures share many qualities.

"Both value kinship, hard work and cross-border networking, useful qualities in a global industry that depends on wheeling and dealing."

While Indians sent their rough diamonds to be finished in family-owned factories in Mumbai and elsewhere, the Jews did not search out the cheaper alternatives.

"The reluctance of the Jews to seek out lower-cost production sites was partly pride -- many considered themselves artisans and were loath to have the delicate production process performed beyond their supervision. It also was partly due to postwar psychology: Many were Holocaust survivors afraid to part with their assets or send very expensive valuables far away," according to the Journal.

India also has a long history of diamond trading. "India, where the world's first diamonds were discovered in 800 B.C., provided most of the world's supply until the 18th-century diamond rushes in South Africa and Brazil."

While the two communities share many business ethics and may participate in each other's cultural mores, they are each very conservative and rarely does one see intermarriage.
Source: IANS
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