Image: HRD Antwerp
High tension in the Antwerp diamond world: the renowned certificate lab and research centre HRD Antwerp is being sold. The battle focuses on two candidates: IGI, 80 percent owned by the Chinese company Fosun, and a group around former HRD leader Peter Meeus.
The diamond trade is being hit all over the world. Also in Antwerp, traditionally the ‘supermarket’ for diamonds, diamonds face turbulent times. In the first nine months of the year the turnover of rough diamonds decreased by almost 30 percent, in polished stones it was about ten percent. Causes? Just think of the trade disputes between the US and China, the great unrest in Hong Kong (an important diamond centre) and the financial uncertainty of Antwerp diamond merchants. Despite political promises, they do not receive a current account from banks. Moreover, synthetic diamonds have driven the bottom out of the market. Cheaper stones fell further in price and that has its effect on the whole ‘chain’. Polished diamonds are of little benefit to traders. Worse still: they often lose out on it.
HRD Antwerp has been struggling for several years now. Dismissals followed one another. Once upon a time, the lab had a global market share of 10 percent. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of certificates (which include the quality of the cut, the number of carats, the purity and the colour) quadrupled, from around 60,000 to 240,000. Today, only a few tens of thousands of them remain.
In recent years, HRD Antwerp has sought financial relief from ‘parent company’ Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC), the umbrella and mouthpiece of the Belgian diamond sector. At the end of last year, AWDC gave another loan of 4,6 million euros to HRD, which saw its capital decrease from 6 million euros to 1.45 million euros in 2018. Gradually it became clear that AWDC was looking for a buyer. Last summer there was interest from Dubai, but also from the IGI (International Gemological Institute) based in Antwerp. This company, which also issues certificates, is 80% owned by the Chinese investment company Fosun. This company owns, among other things, the English top-class company Wolverhampton and is more or less the Chinese Warren Buffett (the American superinvestor).
Focus on Asia
The Dubai slope turns out to be wrong. That’s what Peter Meeus says, who moved to Dubai after his period as director-general of the Hoge Raad voor Diamant (1999-2005). He returned and became a consultant. But most of all: he is now bidding for HRD Antwerp with a group of partners from the Netherlands and abroad. “With the aim of making it the business again what it was when I left. We have developed a formula with which we can conquer a serious market share. Our focus is on Asia, but not on Dubai. I thought for a long time about whether I would do it or not. Even if it’s ‘late’ for the sector. But the ‘HRD Antwerp’ brand still has great value. I know the company and the industry.”
Meeus expects a growing demand for certificates. “Precisely the rise of synthetic diamonds is the reason to believe in it. Anyone who trades in and buys natural diamonds will want a certificate.”
The question now is whether Meeus has a realistic chance against the Fosun-controlled IGI. Although there might not be a consensus within the task force set up by AWDC, IGI seems to be the favourite. Myriam Dillen, honorary dean for the diamond industry, is worried. “Fosun will say that they will keep the lab in Antwerp, but I don’t read anywhere that this will happen to the current HRD staff. Suppose they just start working with the HRD certificate at IGI, what then? I hope that the choice will be one of common sense. The fact that HRD has been running badly in recent years is not down to the staff.” At the beginning of this year, HRD Antwerp still employed 95 people.
AWDC confirms that there are a ‘number’ of interested parties for HRD Antwerp. “We are working intensively to find a solution.“