Friday, April 4, 2014

D is for Diamonds

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental but
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Square-cut or pear-shaped.
These rocks don’t lose their shape.
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Tiffany’s Cartier! Black Starr


It sounds ludicrous but this small country of two parts, three languages and beaucoup rain is the place to go for diamonds. That’s right. If a girl likes diamonds—and what girl in her right mind doesn’t?—you have to hightail it to Antwerp, Belgium. 

I did… Sort of. 

I was sent to Antwerp on a scholarship to study language and literature and while I was there, I became enamored with diamonds. Any girl in my shoes would have—at least any girl in her right mind would have. 

The city of Antwerp is located in the northern part of of Belgium near the border with The Netherlands. Some 2,000 years ago Antwerp was founded by the Romans on the banks of the Schelde River. There’s a popular origin myth story about the city stating that sometime during the 2nd to 4th centuries a giant ogre lived on the banks of the Schelde—as giant ogres are wont to do—and said giant charged a high toll of anyone who wished to ferry across the river. When travelers could not pay his fee, he cut off their hands and tossed them into the river. Frustrated at this ogre’s behavior, Brabo a young Roman man, refused to pay and in turn cut off the ogre’s hand and threw it into the river. (It’s a very big river that accommodates mucho severed hands.) And hence the name of the city: Hand-Twerpen, which translates as “hand thrower”. 

None of this information has anything to do with diamonds… except the Schelde, which is a wide river draining to the North Sea. Its width and depth meant large ships traversing the sea or the Atlantic Ocean could then sail down the river to the port of Antwerp and deposit their goods for sale right in the city. For centuries Antwerp has been one of the world’s busiest ports with the best origin myth about how it got its name. Even today Antwerp is the 15th largest port in the world, the third largest in Europe, and larger than the Port of Los Angeles, California—no joke!

When diamonds were found in India, and later in Africa, the uncut diamonds were brought to Europe to be cut, polished and sold. Since the 15th century Antwerp’s safe, accessible harbor paired with its wealthy population made the city a favored place for diamonds and the girls who loved them. 

I fit right in.

While exploring Antwerp’s Diamond District I discovered it encompasses just one square mile near Antwerp’s Central Train Station. The street leading to the station is sprinkled with jewelry stores whose window displays are full of diamond rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces, broaches, pins, hair clips, tie clips, money clips. Basically if you have it, they can cover it in diamonds. 

While these stores welcomed visitors, what I really longed for was to see the Diamond Quarter’s professionals—known as diamantaires—buying, selling, cutting and polishing the stones. These are the people who determine the 4Cs: Carat, Cut, Color and Clarity. Unfortunately for me most of that work was done in safe buildings, behind closed doors by a small number of diamantaires who were wary of girls who loved diamonds. Most diamantaires entered the diamond trade because their families had been in the industry for generations. In fact, a large number of diamantaires are Hasidic Jews and Indians from the sub-continent.

During my time studying in Antwerp, I never got to see a diamond being cut, polished or prepared for its setting. But I did make a friend. We are very close. She has many facets I like, is sparkly and looks great in my ears. I call her “earrings” and I love her. I’ll never forget where I found her: Antwerp, Belgium.  

Oh, Diamonds! Diamonds! 
I don’t mean rhinestones!
But, Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.