How did Amsterdam become the City of Diamonds?
Amsterdam has been the City of Diamonds for more than 400 years. The story of how Amsterdam became the diamond capital of the world, actually started over 600 years ago in Southern Europe. The Moorish empire was in power; Jewish people were no longer welcome in Portugal and large areas of Spain. In fear of being persecuted, many Jews fled to the North. A lot of them ended up in Antwerp (Belgium). At first this seemed a safe place to settle down and continue their craft of the processing of gems. The joy, however, wasn't for a long time as religious intolerance also reached Antwerp after a few years. Again they had to find a new place to call home. In that period of time, the Netherlands are known as the most tolerant country in Europe. The choice to move to Amsterdam therefore seemed an obvious one. A large part of the Jewish population came to Amsterdam. With them came the knowledge and craftsmanship of diamond cutting and polishing to Amsterdam.
The first diamond worker
The exact date the first diamond workers came to Amsterdam cannot be determined. The maintained date for this is November 15th, 1586. On this date, Mr. Willem Vermaet is registered in the marriage register. On his marriage certificate stated his profession as “diamond worker”. William’s marriage certificate is the first official document on which the profession diamond worker was registered. At that time there were already people who cut and polished diamonds, but there was no official record of them. After the official recognition of the profession of diamond worker, the diamond industry developed at a rapid pace in just a few years. In the 17th century, Amsterdam had become the world center of the diamond industry in both the trade and processing of diamonds.
The tolerant and liberal city of Amsterdam
While Amsterdam was doing fine and people led steady lives, this was not the case in other parts of Europe. Especially after 1618, the infamous Pogroms terrorized entire populations in Eastern Europe. Because of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews, many East European Jews fled to Amsterdam. The liberal and tolerant Amsterdam opened its doors to the flow of refugees. Unlike the rich Sephardic Jews who came to Amsterdam during the Moorish domination, the Eastern European Jews were very poor. Because of the power the Guilds held in Amsterdam, it wasn’t possible for the refugees to pursue a traditional occupation. There was one exception however. On the craft of diamond cutting and polishing, the Guilds had no influence. Even though it would take three to five years to become a master cutter, the poor Jews were able to become diamond cutters and make a living. The Eastern European refugees made the Amsterdam diamond industry flourish. They were the founders of the modern-day diamond grinding and cutting techniques.
The popularity of diamondsAfter the discovery of the Brazilian diamond fields in 1725, Amsterdam managed to obtain the monopoly on the import of rough diamonds from that country. Suddenly there were large quantities of diamonds in the Netherlands. From this moment on, Amsterdam carried the nickname “Amsterdam City of Diamonds”. In the mid-19th century, the fields of Brazil began to dry up. Diamonds became once again scarce and unemployment hit the diamond industry. Many diamond cutting and polishing factories have gone bankrupt and just a few were able to make the cut. Royal Coster Diamonds (est. 1840) was one of the few diamond factories that survived this diamond crisis. During this time Royal Coster worked on some legendary diamonds such as cutting the Koh-I-Noor for the Queen of England. But after a while the crisis started to affect even the largest diamond polishing houses, such as Royal Coster. Just in time though, large diamond mines had been discovered in South Africa. This allowed the substantial influx of diamonds to get back on track and to rescue the profession of diamond worker. The golden years returned again for the City of Diamonds. At the same time the wealth of the middle class increased in both Europe and the United States. Diamonds were now more popular than ever.
Amsterdam faces competition
In the Dutch Cape Time around 1870, diamonds became very popular and the diamond workers received good wages. Thousands of diamond workers earned no less than 130 guilders per week, which is about $63. This was a very high salary at that time. The increasing influence of the trade unions and high customs duties, affected the position of Amsterdam as leader of the diamond industry. At that time, Antwerp seized the opportunity to take over the leading position. Until then there were only low quality stone cutting jobs, which Antwerp was eager to change. Since Amsterdam was under pressure, Antwerp pulled the trade in and processing of some more luxurious diamonds to itself. Thanks to lower wages and more flexible working conditions than in Amsterdam, Antwerp managed to obtain a share of the huge diamond production in South Africa. With the rise of Antwerp, Amsterdam was no longer the only diamond distributor in Europe. It became necessary that the Amsterdam diamond merchants developed a system together to streamline the flow of millions of carats of diamonds. In addition they also needed to create and carry out a well-functioning market mechanism for polished diamonds. The Netherlands needed uniform rules for the cutting and trading of diamonds.
Strict rules for trading and cutting diamonds
In 1881 the Central Diamond Trade Association has been founded. Until this moment, knowledge had been passed within families by word-of-mouth. The Association was the first to put the knowledge and rules about diamonds in writing. Because of disagreements over the policies and proposed policy, on December 11th 1889 the Diamond Exchange has been established, making the CDTA obsolete. Until this day, the Diamond Exchange still is the official representative of the diamond trade and industry in the Netherlands.
The Diamond Exchange
On September 17th, 1890, The Dutch King William III approves the documents for the “Fair Society for Diamond Trade”. This meant that the world’s first Diamond Exchange could open, which is based in Amsterdam. At this moment there are 30 Diamond Exchange Centers worldwide, Amsterdam being the oldest. The organizations check whether the strict rules that apply on diamond trade are respected. Until the Second World War, the Amsterdam Diamond Exchange was the world center for diamond trade. During World War II, the Amsterdam Diamond Exchange was under attack and all present traders had been forced to hand over their stock of diamonds.
The Amsterdam diamond industry after World War II
Because of the war, Amsterdam had lost many diamond cutters, diamond traders and diamonds overall – 95% of the diamond workers was Jewish. After World War II, the diamond industry picked themselves up, just like the rest of the Netherlands. However, the war had ended the leading position of Amsterdam as diamond center of the world. The knowledge and the techniques of diamond cutting were fortunately preserved fortunately. The diamond workers who came back after the war have ensured that to this day Amsterdam can still be called ‘the City of Diamonds’. By surviving the diamond crisis, the war and other difficult times, Royal Coster Diamonds is currently the oldest diamond factory in Europe. Want to learn more about the fascinating history of diamonds? Book a free guided tour in your own language through our diamond factory. Gaze upon some of the world’s best diamonds while our guides explain everything there is to know about diamonds.