Amsterdam City of Diamonds
For more than 400 years, Amsterdam is the City of Diamonds. 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 persecution, 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. Religious intolerance reached Antwerp a few years later. Again they had to find a new place to call home. In that period of time, the Netherlands is 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 is hard to determine. We maintain the date of November 15th, 1586. On this day, Mr. Willem Vermaet registers in the marriage register. His marriage certificate stated the profession as “diamond worker”. William’s marriage certificate is the first official document with the profession diamond worker on it. Of course, there were already people who cut and polished diamonds. But there was no official record of them.
After official recognition of the profession diamond worker, the diamond industry developed quickly in just a few years. In the 17th century, Amsterdam had become the world center of the diamond industry. For both the trade and processing of diamonds.
The tolerant and liberal city of Amsterdam
Amsterdam was doing fine and people the here led steady lives. But other parts of Europe were kind of rocky. 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 again opened its doors to the flow of refugees. But 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, the new refugees could not pursue a traditional occupation. But was one exception. The Guilds did not have an influence on the craft of diamond cutting and polishing. So 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 are the founders of the modern-day diamond grinding and cutting techniques.
The popularity of diamonds
In 1725, diamond fields are discovered in Brazil. Amsterdam obtained 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 received the nickname “Amsterdam City of Diamonds”.
But in the mid-19th century, the fields of Brazil began to dry up. Diamonds became scarce again and unemployment hit the diamond industry. Many diamond cutting and polishing factories went bankrupt. Just a few were able to stay on their feet. Royal Coster Diamonds (est. 1840) was one of the few that survived this crisis. During this time, we worked on some legendary diamonds such as the Koh-I-Noor for the Queen of England.
But after a while, the crisis started to affect everyone. Even the largest diamond polishing houses feared that the end was near, including Royal Coster. Just in time though, people discovered large diamond mines in South Africa. This allowed the substantial influx of diamonds to get back on track. And it rescued the profession of a diamond worker. The golden years returned 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 because more and more people could afford them.
The City of Diamonds faces competition
Around 1870, diamonds became very popular, and the diamond workers received good wages. The 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. But the increasing influence of the trade unions and high customs duties threatened Amsterdam’s position as leader of the diamond industry. The city of Antwerp seized the opportunity to take over the leading position. Until then, only low-quality stone cutting jobs went to Antwerp. But the city was eager to change that. Since Amsterdam was under pressure, Antwerp pulled the trade. They started to process some more luxurious diamonds as well. Because of lower wages and “flexible working conditions”, 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. The Amsterdam diamond merchants needed to develop a system together to streamline the flow of millions of carats of diamonds. But they also needed to create and carry out a well-functioning market mechanism for polished diamonds. In other words: The Netherlands needed uniform rules for the cutting and trading of diamonds.
Strict rules for trading and cutting diamonds
In 1881, The City of Diamonds founded the Central Diamond Trade Association. Until this moment, knowledge 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, the Diamond Exchange was established on December 11th, 1889. The Diamond Exchange made 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, 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. Today there are 30 Diamond Exchange Centers worldwide. The one in Amsterdam is the oldest. The Centers check if the strict rules that apply to 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. All present traders were forced to hand over their stock of diamonds.
The Amsterdam diamond industry after World War II
Because of the war, Amsterdam lost many diamond cutters, traders and diamonds in general. After all, 95% of the diamond workers was Jewish. After World War II, the diamond industry picked themselves up, just like the rest of the Netherlands. But the war changed everything. It ended the leading position of Amsterdam as the diamond center of the world. Thankfully, the knowledge and the techniques of diamond cutting were preserved. The diamond workers who came back after the war ensured that, to this day, Amsterdam is still ‘the City of Diamonds’. By surviving the crisis, the war and other difficult times, Royal Coster Diamonds is the oldest diamond factory in Europe.
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