It’s an Indian diaspora success story to rival any: they came to Antwerp as a trickle from the 1960s onwards from Palanpur in Gujarat to cut and polish diamonds, soon competed in trade, and today dominate the multi-billion euro diamond industry with a global reach.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a packed schedule during his one-day visit to Brussels on Wednesday, but a key engagement is meeting representatives of Antwerp’s prosperous Indian community – one engagement at which he will most certainly feel at home.
No surprise that gems and jewellery constitute the top sector in India-Belgium trade: between January and September 2015, it topped exports from India to Belgium (worth €1.45 billion), and it also topped imports of India from Belgium (€ 4.76 billion).
The small, tightly-knit community of diamantaires of Antwerp today constitute most of the 2,500 NRIs/OCIs, according to the Indian embassy here. Several people from Antwerp will make the short journey here for Modi’s community event.
Take a walk along Hoveniersstraat, Antwerp, and you will be greeted with names such as Shah, Patel and Mehta in a historical area that has been the base of global diamond trading for centuries, and long dominated by the Jewish community – but no longer.
Starting with trade in smaller, lower-value stones that brought small margins, the Palanpuri Jains and Kathiawadi Patels expanded, using competitive methods to win business from the long established Jewish traders, polishing in rupees and selling in dollars.
You will also be told how the Indian diamantaires retain their close links with India and their culture, including each of the over 400 families flying in personal cooks from Gujarat to meet their strict vegetarian requirements.
The community also used the cheap labour and excellent skill of Surat’s diamond cutters and polishers to produce diamonds that had larger market potential. They sent rough, uncut diamonds to Surat, where labour cost was a fraction of that in Antwerp.
Antwerp had nearly 30,000 people engaged in diamond processing in the 1970s; the strength is now reported to be less than 1,000. Besides, family members of the Indian diamantaires head offices and workshops in various countries, expanding their global trading reach.
Given Modi’s record of celebrating achievements of the diaspora in previous community events in New York, London and elsewhere, the success of the Gujarat-origin diamantaires of Antwerp is likely to figure prominently in the community event on Wednesday evening.