By Sasha Aslanian
Did Your Diamond Live a Life of Crime?
American RadioWorks Producer Sasha Aslanian and Correspondent Stephen Smith traveled to Antwerp, the largest trading center for rough (uncut) diamonds in the world.
For an industry whose products are mainly designed for women, diamonds don't feel like a woman's business in Antwerp. The streets of the diamond business are largely filled with men: Orthodox Jewish men in hats or yarmulkes, East Indian men in western suits and as cosmopolitan a mix of traders as you can imagine. A diamond trader can't do without a loupe (magnifying glass) a calculator and the ubiquitous cell phone. The soundscape of Antwerp is the disorienting beeping of cell phones as everyone jerks to see if they are the ones ringing.
Producer Sasha Aslanian in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo: S. Smith
As with many European cities, English is the common language, but tradesmen glide easily between French, German, Flemish, and a multitude of other languages. Since neither Stephen nor I know more than a few words of polite Flemish, we relied on English and French. In attempting to contact one South African trader with a reputation for being "difficult," Stephen picked up the phone and asked for him in English. The secretary hung up on him. Minutes later, I tried in French. I got through to the man, but after a few minutes of trying to introduce myself and explain the scope of our project, he burst out in frustration, "Quelle est votre langue?" (What is your language?) "English" I cried switching over. "Your English is much better than your French" he spat. I heartily agreed. We got the interview in his office a half an hour later.
Security in Antwerp was not as rigorous as we might have expected. We never once passed through metal detectors although we were conscious of video surveillance and moveable posts in the street to keep unauthorized vehicles out of the two-block long diamond district. One diamond dealer volunteered to pick us up at our hotel one night, having very little information about who we were. He proceeded to drive us through the security gates and into the underground parking of his office in a diamond bourse (stock exchange) after hours. We spent several hours there examining the surprisingly large colored stones in his office. They clearly were his passion and he made repeated sexual analogies to explain his feelings. For example, a rough stone, he said, is like a woman with clothes on sexier than one who is nude since you can imagine the possibilities; the potential is always better than the actual.
The diamonds inspire rapture among those in the business, but they also attract an underworld that sees the easy possibility of using the tiny, untraceable stones for smuggling, arms dealing, money laundering and profiteering. Despite attempts at controlling the flow of illegal diamonds, the diamond trade still feels a bit like the Wild West. It's extremely difficult to catch the crooks if they are part of a well-established diamond business. Police complain that for an industry that's striving toward openness and transparency, there's still plenty of ways to cook the books and camouflage trade in illegal stones by mixing them with the legitimate trade. None of the answers we got from people trying to clean up the system really felt that reassuring. It's impossible to know if your diamond lived a life of crime.
Correspondent Stephen Smith collects background sound. Photo: S. Aslanian