The FEB (Federation of Enterprises in Belgium) asked its member sector federations how they see their sector evolving towards 2030. Ari Epstein, CEO of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, looks ahead.
A brilliant future
For 570 years Antwerp has been the undisputed world capital for diamonds. But you don’t become a world leader just like that. When Antwerp grew into the commercial capital of Northwest Europe in the fifteenth century, the first diamonds, mostly mined in India, arrived via the port of Antwerp.
In our bustling Venice of the North the precious stones were not only traded, but also worked. And soon the craftsmanship of the Antwerp cutters was a fact. Driven by the economic, political and financial stability of the Golden Age, Antwerp became the most important trading center for diamonds.
When the majority of Antwerp’s diamond merchants and cutters fled to Amsterdam during the Eighty Years’ War, the tide turned and the city had to reinvent itself. Those who still stayed had to do with much smaller and less valuable diamonds and made the need a virtue. Polishing techniques were optimized and the Antwerp mastery was refined. Innovating and transforming crises into opportunities is a long tradition here.
A future with sufficient clout
Craftsmanship is a must, because even today there are still hijackers remaining. In order to maintain our leading position, we first and foremost need a stable political, fiscal, financial and social climate. Diamonds are one of Belgium’s most important export products, accounting for 5% of total Belgian exports and 15% of all Belgian extra-community exports. That is why we like to see our proverbial weight in this balance efficiently translated into a targeted economic policy, both nationally and internationally. Only through open and transparent free trade, without obstacles, can Antwerp continue to attract the necessary critical mass of buyers and sellers and rough flows.
Thanks to the fixed gross profit margin in the diamond system and the certainty that this system offers, we already manage to cope with the fiscal competition from other diamond hubs. Another trump card we can play is the multicultural and hospitable character of our country. However, our Achilles’ heel is the financial framework in which we operate, especially when compared to our direct competitors. Access to banking services and solid financing are crucial for our sector. In recent years, the global trend towards risk mitigation within the Antwerp diamond sector has narrowed the range of financial services offered by traditional banks to a handful, mainly foreign banks. Although alternative forms of financing and payment services will set the tone in the future, a solid anchoring with (Belgian) banks remains vital for a high-performance, growth-oriented economic weaving in our country.
Sustainable diamond trade …
An adequate vision of the future goes beyond an optimal economic climate. Monitoring and preserving the integrity of the value chain and, more broadly, our product, with respect to all stakeholders, is not a non-binding option, but a must in our business model. Stronger, sustainability and growth are not mutually exclusive. In today’s and tomorrow’s world, both concepts are inextricably linked.
It is no coincidence that Antwerp has resolutely adopted a sustainable and transparent policy in recent years. Sustainability is a concept that extends from mapping out and avoiding risks, linked, for example, to human rights, working conditions, corruption and money laundering, to responding to consumers’ need to know the origin of their product and the way in which it was created.
Already today, the diamond sector is the most regulated sector and the diamond is the most controlled product in our country. We consciously set the bar high and want to keep it high. This means that our sector needs to invest more than ever in tools that enable our companies to participate in the sustainability process. Not only the large companies that generally have sufficient own resources and people at their disposal, but also the many SMEs in our sector. Moreover, our impact extends beyond national borders and we support training projects and capacity building. Because one thing is certain, you cannot build a sustainable world on your own.
… committed to innovation
A sense of innovation is ingrained in the DNA of Antwerp as the world capital of diamonds. It is no coincidence that a century ago in Antwerp the mathematical formula was devised that captures the optimal brilliance of the diamond with mathematical precision. That typical round diamond is the most iconic cut in the world and perhaps the most successful invention our country has ever produced.
We continue to play this pioneering role today. Technological innovations (such as a revolutionary automatic polishing machine), state-of-the-art equipment (which distinguishes natural diamonds from synthetic ones) to high-tech equipment that make the assessment and processing of diamonds faster and more accurate give Antwerp a competitive edge. The diamond sector also has many opportunities in the field of e-services, fintech solutions, digital sales platforms and tracking mechanisms. For the future of Antwerp as a world diamond center, it is essential that we can continue to invest in research and development. At the same time, our companies must become agile and resilient in a world that is constantly evolving. The future has everything to make our sector shine!