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Diamond Darwinism

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On my final morning in Antwerp, I went to see Ari Epstein, the deputy CEO of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. The center is the coordinating body for the local diamond community and its offices are located in a 9-story glass building on Hoveniersstraat, ground zero for the Antwerp diamond trade. 

After surrendering my ID at the entrance, I was escorted to a conference room on the top floor. The room was low-celinged and decorated in shades of cream: white leather chairs arrayed around the perimeter, a conference table in a nearby alcove, and floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views to the west. From the windows, you could see into dozens of diamond offices. 

Epstein is an anomaly among Antwerp’s Jews. Though Orthodox, he is clean-shaven and sharply dressed. But more significantly, he has something that would hardly raise an eyebrow in any other Jewish community, but which only a tiny fraction of Antwerp’s religious community, and virtually none of its diamantaires, has: a law degree. 

Epstein sketched out for me what is by now a well-known story. Jews once dominated the Antwerp diamond business. Then the polishing and cutting jobs migrated to lower-wage countries, mostly China and India. Then Indian businessmen started moving in, eroding the Jews’ position. A turning point came in 1981, Epstein said, when a crisis in the diamond world caused a significant loss in Jewish wealth. That created an opening for others to come in. 

Today, Antwerp remains the diamond capital of the world. The consensus figure is that 80 percent of the world’s rough stones pass by the cobblestones 9 floors below where we sat, a stock worth billions. But the days of easy money are long gone, and the Jewish community faces a stark choice: adapt or starve. 

"These people are business people," Epstein told me. "There is part of this community that is successful in doing business — real estate, textiles, shmattes, whatever. These are not losers. These are people that make a living. But the security is out. The fact that I’m born, I’m five, six years old, I know what I’m going to do 12 years from now. That is out. And that is uncomfortable."

In America, the Jewish success story in indistinguishable from academic achievement. Sure there are titans of business and entertainment, but for most American Jews the path to wealth and comfort wove through the university. The stereotype of the American Jew is not a corporate executive or a Hollywood mogul, it’s a doctor or lawyer. 

In Antwerp, the level of educational attainment among Jews is very low. For one thing, the religious community is roughly half the total here, and spending years in a secular university just isn’t done. For another, they never needed to before. Diamond jobs were plentiful and lucrative, and the trade could be learned in a matter of months. 

Talking to members of the community, a word you hear a lot is "recycle." It’s a poor word choice, but what they mean by it is that people need to find a new use for themselves, a new way to put food on the table. To a certain extent, this is happening, but it’s hard to pin down just how widespread it is. Some say the end is nigh. Others say the community is finding its way and will be fine. Some say the years of plenty have made the community lazy. Others say the younger generation is taking to new ventures, like real estate. 

But if there’s one thing everyone agrees on, it’s that the world of Antwerp has changed, and the community is going to have to change with it. 

"The Jewish community lost its identity with the diamond industry," Epstein said, growing more animated as our conversation progressed. "In the whole world, the Jewish community works in a lot of different sectors. Here, they were all working for one sector. And that sector changed. And that change confronted our people with challenges. But the challenges that people are facing today are the same challenges that these kind of people face all over the world when we talk income."

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