Because the need for new diamond polishers in Antwerp is increasing, the diamond sector and the city of Antwerp are organizing an entry-level course in May where interested parties can learn the trade. Each student will be assigned a company as a mentor to follow the training and if he succeeds, he can start working there.
Although the bulk of the polishing activities in Antwerp moved to low-wage countries since the 1970s, according to the diamond sector, Antwerp remains the world’s largest center in diamond trade today, and the most precious diamonds are still polished here. “We as a city are enormously proud of that,” says Alderman for Diamonds Peter Wouters (N-VA). “It is important that this knowledge is passed on. That is why we are delighted to enter into a partnership with the sector.”
Diamond companies like HB Antwerp are making their studios available for the course for twelve weeks. “Although we use the most innovative technologies for the polishing of rough diamonds, HB Antwerp needs brillianters for the finishing of the stones,” says spokeswoman Margaux Donckier. The course should help the industry to fill vacancies for diamond polishers more quickly. The industry says the course gives job security in case of success and diamond polishers enjoy favorable working conditions.
To take the course, you don’t need any background knowledge. “If you are handy, have patience, can concentrate well and like precise work, then you are the suitable candidate,” the initiators state.
How did diamond polishing ever get started in the Antwerp region?
In 1456, Bruges’ Lodewijk van Berken, who polished the Florentiner for Charles the Bold, already discovered the modern diamond polishing process with a cast iron wheel, diamond powder and oil. This was the beginning of the diamond industry in Bruges. In the 15th century, the center of gravity of the diamond industry shifted to Antwerp.
With the discovery of the African Pretoria mine in 1896, a massive amount of rough diamonds were shipped to Antwerp to be processed. Antwerp could not handle this workload alone and therefore resorted to the cheaper labor force of the Kempen. The poor “sand farmers” of the Kempen eagerly rushed to work on the stone. What started with a few polishing factories grew into an industry of up to 60,000 diamond workers and related activities such as the sale of diamond processing equipment. Characteristic of the Kempen was that mainly small diamonds were processed into very simple shapes. Polishers were paid by the piece and enjoyed great freedom. As techniques improved and the craft of polishing was passed on from generation to generation, the Kempen polisher became a true, specialized craftsman.
Yet the diamond industry in the Kempen went under. Especially the relocation of the processing of the small stones to low-wage countries was a heavy blow. Those who retrained and specialized could go to Antwerp. The vast majority of diamond workers from Kempen left for large companies such as Van Hool and General Motors. More than one hundred years of diamond history have left their mark. The many stories and references to diamonds in names of soccer teams, cafes and streets testify of the important role diamonds have played in this region.