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Despite manufacturing decline, Antwerp keeps polishing alive

07 october 2010

An inevitable and well-known shift has taken place in the last decade or so as diamond production has shifted from West to East, according to Antwerp Facets. That has been the case for the Antwerp diamond industry, as well as those of other diamond centres such as Israel and the United States. With competition intensifying and margins becoming slimmer, manufacturers have had to seek lower labour costs by moving production to other parts of the globe.

Polishing diamonds in western centres has clearly become financially untenable for most manufacturers. However, whereas smaller diamonds cannot be profitably polished, larger stones can still be manufactured in Antwerp since the cost of the salary element of a firm's costs is less dramatic when manufacturing bigger gems.

Not only does a manufacturing base still exist in Antwerp, it is valued and nurtured for the skills and knowledge it brings to the production of high-quality diamonds. And the reasons are very clear: Belgian polishers have huge experience, understanding and expertise in the cutting and polishing of diamonds. Although automation can produce a wide range of gems, the human touch is still valued for the extra yield it can extract from a diamond or an improved make.

According to some diamantaires, there are around 1,000 diamond polishers working in Antwerp today, although others regard that figure as too high and place the number in the several hundreds. Whatever the figure, it is far less than the number of polishing plant employees of 40 years ago when the figure is estimated to have been around 30,000.

S. Muller is one Antwerp diamond company still manufacturing in Belgium. The company polishes diamonds of two carats in the rough in Antwerp, while stones of 20-50 points are sent to China. All the firm's production is Triple X hearts and arrows diamonds.

S. Muller's Sales Manager Serge Zaidman said that when he started out in the industry, many polishers also had a polishing wheel at home and taught their sons how to polish, which was the way the situation had been for many years . However, when the school leaving age was raised to 18, and with university entrance free, young people preferred to study for a degree and secure an office-based job rather than work in a factory.

Potential polishers may also have been deterred by the lack of a career path. "You started your life as a polisher and you ended it as one," said Zaidman. "Unless you worked for a very large company, the chances of receiving promotion were very limited."

Up to five years ago, the firm had two factories on the outskirts of Antwerp employing 60 polishers. "We used to be sightholders, but when we lost that sight we found that sometimes we had too much rough and sometimes not enough so we could not allow ourselves to employ so many polishers," said Michael Perlberger, one of the three sons-in-law of Jean-Claude Muller, the CEO of the firm. "Many of the employees were at or near pension age so they retired, and we kept the younger workers and they have remained with us.

"The advantage of Belgium is its huge experience and knowledge," Perlberger said. "You can buy technology, but you cannot buy experience and knowledge. Mr Muller and the foreman of the factory meet every day to discuss every single stone, how it should be cut and what its final shape and size will be. Although it is cheaper to send the diamond abroad for polishing, that makes it far more difficult to control the process."

"Because rough is so expensive, we have to be able to take everything possible out of the stone. We know that it is financially more worthwhile to pay a higher salary to polishers in Antwerp who are able to squeeze a better yield out of the diamond or see a better potential rather than a polisher abroad who we can pay less. The business has been running in this way for 50 years and Mr Muller does not want to change it."

As for the future of polishing in Antwerp, Perlberger believes it is limited to the end of the working life of the people currently employed in polishing. "We see companies wanting to polish diamonds in Antwerp, but it is very difficult to find polishers. The youngest polishers today are 40-45-years-old. That means that in around 20 years there will not be any trained polishers left in the city."

Zaidman also believes the city's diamond polishing heritage will have largely disappeared in another two decades, however he does not believe this should be a reason for sadness or nostalgia. "Globalisation has clearly changed everything. It is inevitable. Look at any luxury product, and you will see that they cannot find the skilled workers they need in Europe or in the United States. People are not interested in this kind of work anymore and it is moving abroad. That is the way things have developed and you have to move ahead to accommodate such changes.”

Alex Shishlo, Editor of the Rough&Polished European Bureau in Brussels