We all know that the Jewish people have taken an active and even dominant role in the diamond sector for hundreds of years. Many wonder how it’s possible that this very small group from a persecuted people successfully managed to dominate the profitable field of diamonds.
The answer to this question is not decisive and mostly taken from a range of answers that, only when combined, can explain the dominance of Jews in the diamond sector. These will be presented in this article.
The first explanation is the most obvious. Jews were simply in the right place at the right time, and managed to create significant power and standing in the diamond sector that lasted for hundreds of years, until today. In the past, diamonds were mined in India only and no diamond mines had yet been discovered anywhere else. Until the 15th century diamonds came into Europe by overland trade routes that passed through central Asia. In this period, Jews were a prominent force in these trade routes and basically controlled them through a complicated network of family ties.
Diamonds would make their way over the continental trade routes and arrive in Venice. In those days, Venice was a major point of entry to Europe and home to a strong, unified, long-standing and prosperous Jewish community that controlled diamond polishing and the diamond trade.
The 15th century also saw one revolutionary year that changed the diamond sector forever. Until that time the knowledge of diamond polishing was minimal, virtually nonexistent, but in that year diamond polishing techniques made enormous advancements. New and relatively advanced techniques were developed and allowed comparatively fine diamond cutting.
At the same time, the end of the 15th century saw the discovery of sea trade routes to India, which were controlled by Portugal. These new maritime routes significantly cut down the time it took for goods to reach Europe from India. The city that profited from this was, of course, Lisbon, Portugal’s largest port city. As a result of this change, diamonds and Jews arrived in Lisbon and Jews continued to develop diamond polishing techniques.
Life in Lisbon, however, didn’t last long. After expulsion from Portugal, Jews settled in Antwerp and once again developed a prosperous diamond polishing industry. In Antwerp, diamond polishing reached its highest level yet and became an art form.
As the art of diamond cutting advanced, so did the diamond trade. Diamonds’ true qualities of sparkle and fire and clarity were revealed and became particularly attractive and appropriate for setting in jewelry. In this period, diamonds were the purview of only the wealthiest people and the nobility, who set them not only in jewelry but also in their clothes, crowns, swords, and more.
Naturally, the Jews’ dominance in the diamond sector expanded and the unchallenged control of diamond polishing led to their prominence in the polished diamond trade. But besides the profitability of the diamond trade, there was another reason why Jews were drawn to the diamond sector.
Jews, who had known persecution and wandering throughout the world, knew well that they were never secure and that any day they could be forced to pack everything and flee. The diamond trade was a good fit for these circumstances since diamonds are very small, easily carried and hidden, and when needed a great deal of property could be sold for a few diamonds before escaping. This was a major motivation for Jews to stay in this field.
The hatred of Jews was expressed in the many limitations placed upon them. In those days, Jews were allowed certain occupations only, mostly related to trade and financing, because at the time, anything related to trade and money was considered contemptible by the people and the church. Nevertheless, they were essential sectors and were given to the hated Jews to run.
With time, the status of Jews in many countries improved and the limitations on the professional fields open to them melted away. At the same time, trade began to be seen as possible and even desirable for Christians, many of whom began trading. This raises an interesting question – why didn’t the Jews’ lose their prominence in the various aspects of the diamond sector and why didn’t other nationalities manage to gain control of these fields?
One of the interesting answers to this question was supplied by Barak Richman, who has researched this subject. Richman attributes Jews’ continued prominence in the diamond sector to the fact that this field is unique and based on trust. Over the years, the purchase of diamonds – an undoubtedly precious commodity – came to be conducted by credit since diamonds change hands a number of times before they reach the final consumer who pays for them. Taking out a bank loan isn’t an accepted practice because it costs too much and the bank doesn’t know whether the applicant is trustworthy or not, as colleagues in the diamond trade know, and is more wary of granting the loan.
Trustworthiness is the key word. The diamond sector is one in which precious diamonds and a great deal of money change many hands with no few opportunities for theft. This is where the importance of community is critical. Respected diamond traders make good money from the diamond sector and hope to pass the reins to their children, so they have a vested interest in protecting their good name.
Likewise, professional diamond polishers belong to the closed Ultra-Orthodox world, which does not easily excuse theft, and the possibility of exclusion from the community is a real and serious threat that keeps many people on the straight path. For these reasons, despite the many opportunities to steal diamonds and money, the incidences of stealing or swindling are minor.
Barak Richman uses members of India’s Jain sect to prove his point. In the past decade, the Indian presence in the global diamond sector has grown. The strongest players in India’s diamond sector are the Jains, a sect that comprises some 5 million people who live in small tight-knit communities based on family ties and under strong spiritual leadership. Just as in the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox community, family and trust are the most important things to that community and being shunned is a tragedy, which is why the necessary trust-based system of the diamond sector works well there, too.
To sum it, we can say that a combination of geographical, religious, historical, political and other factors was and remains the reason for Jews’ prominence in the diamond industry. The Indians’ significant entrance into the field could change this, but only time will tell.