Diamonds are Forever – Article

by Lauren Comiteau

Having survived two world wars, economic downturns and competition from Asia, Amsterdam’s 400-plus year old diamond industry proves that it’s not only the gems that are eternal.

It’s only logical that Sean Connery—aka James Bond—came to Amsterdam as a “diamond smuggler” to film Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. Amsterdam has, after all, been one of the world’s diamond capitals for more than 430 years, ever since the first diamond polisher registered in the city’s Chamber of Commerce in 1586. By the 17the century, virtually all the world’s cut diamonds were manufactured in Amsterdam.

Historically-speaking then, Gassan Diamonds arrived recently on the scene, with current President-Director Benno Leeser’s grandfather Samuel Gassan founding what was initially a diamond polishing company in 1945.

But what it lacked in head start it has more than made up for in reach. Some 70 years later, the company now boasts eight different brands and several subsidiary companies, including its flagship Gassan Diamonds in the former steam-driven diamond-polishing factory in the city’s historic Jewish quarter.

“We are famous for our quality products,” says Leeser in his football paraphernalia-studded office. “People like to buy diamonds in Amsterdam. It’s like buying perfume in Paris, watches in Switzerland and leather in Rome.”

Gassan Diamonds now welcomes 400,000 visitors annually—many who arrive by tourist bus or even boat—to the former Boas brothers factory where Leeser’s grandfather learned his trade at what was the largest company of its kind in the late 19th century. Twenty-six languages are spoken in the factory-showroom that’s open 365 days a year. Visitors can watch diamond cutters at work before purchasing watches and jewels, including the Gassan 121, the company’s newest diamond cut featuring 121 facets and renown for its brilliance. In addition to VIP tours, the company’s Diamonds & Champagne package sends home one lucky visitor with a real diamond excavated from the bottom of a glass of bubbly.

“We educate people so they know more about diamonds,” says Leeser of his company’s successful sales formula. “We begin with a 15-minute talk on polishing and then it’s onto the four C’s: carat, colour, clarity and cut.”

Across town near the Museumplein is another Dutch diamond institution, Royal Coster Diamonds, the world’s oldest diamond polishing factory. Founded in 1840 by diamond cutter Moses Elias Coster, today the company also welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors each year not only to its diamond polishing factory but to the Diamond Museum next door that former Coster Diamonds head Ben Meier opened a decade ago.

In addition to its own Champagne Surprise Tour, Royal Coster Diamonds offers free tours in 25-plus languages. The diamond polishing factory boasts Europe’s largest collection of unset diamonds, which can be purchased tax-free. The company’s Engagement Workshop educates couples about the gems while offering them the chance to polish one for themselves, culminating in a VIP-room presentation and a glass of champagne.

But for a once in a lifetime experience, book an exclusive Diamond Masterclass, where one to two people get hands-on experience polishing a diamond—which they get to keep—under the tutelage of Pauline Willemse, head of the diamond polishing department.

“It’s a real eye-opener for those who learn how to polish in two hours,” says Willemse of the course she developed to help keep her beloved craft alive. Hired by Meier 30 years ago as the first woman polisher in a historically male-dominated profession, Willemse took it upon herself to secure diamond polishing a place on the Dutch list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

“We are very proud of our painters, such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh,” she says. “But those old professions like wooden shoe makers and windmill operators and diamond polishers, you have to protect them, too, for future generations.”

In addition to being the Guinness Book of World Records holder for polishing the world’s smallest brilliant cut diamond—a mere 0.0000743 carats with 57 facets and a diameter of about 0.16 mm—Willemse has become the company’s de facto historian. She is equally enthused talking about the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which two of Royal Coster’s polishers re-cut for Queen Victoria in 1852, as she is on the lasting legacy of Amsterdam’s cutters and polishers.

“The diamond polishers organized their own union and thanks to their strikes, we all now work five days a week, eight hours a day,” she says of the union that has morphed into today’s largest Dutch labour union, the FNV. “Our health care system also started with the diamond polishers, who were very social democratic but not allowed to join traditional guilds.”

Indeed the diamond trade has always been dominated by Jews, who were allowed to work in the non-guilded diamond sector. But some 90 percent of the Jewish work force was killed during the war.

Gassan Diamonds founder Samuel Gassan was one of the few survivors, and when he returned home from Switzerland in 1945, where he had fled with a few diamonds stowed in his pockets and shoes, he went into business for himself. In 1989, Leeser bought the Boas brother’s factory on Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat, completing, the company says, “the missing piece of the puzzle.”

Royal Coster Diamonds survived the war and today sells arguably the world’s most sparkling cut, its patented Royal 201, from its post Jewish-quarter diamond polishing factory on the Museumplein. Just last year Dutch King Willem-Alexander bestowed the Royal title to the former Coster Diamonds in recognition of the company’s excellence. Royal Coster Diamonds created the diamond-studded watch presented to his grandmother, Queen Juliana, in 1959 and often seen today on the arm of his wife, Queen Maxima. Throughout the centuries, regal visitors, including Empress Elisabeth of Austria, Thailand’s King Rama V and various Chinese viceroys, have helped put the “royal” in Royal Coster Diamonds. With celebrities and heads of state, too, counted among both their and Gassan Diamond’s clientele, Amsterdam’s lustrous legacy as a diamond capital is set to continue.

This article is part of the magazine Amsterdam Luxury Selection dd September 2017.

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