In what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood near Antwerp’s central station, young Indians in Armani suits haggle with Hasidic diamond buyers in long black coats, side curls and skullcaps. Hoveniersstraat, a street once celebrated for its kosher restaurants, now offers the best curry in town.
The orthodox European Jews who established the world’s most famous diamond district are being supplanted by Indians — who, among other things, aren’t required by their religion to close their businesses from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
“Many of the Hasidim have failed to keep up with globalization,” says Ramesh Mehta, an avuncular diamond trader and one of the pioneers of Antwerp’s Indian community, who has helped 50 Indian families set up their own diamond businesses here since the early 1990s.
Indians are among the world’s most successful newcomers. They have reinvigorated the jewelry districts in New York and Hong Kong and revived the U.S. motel industry; they are among the programmers of choice in Silicon Valley and Berlin. In the global diamond world, Indians have been so successful that they are challenging Jewish dealers, even in Tel Aviv. About 80% of all polished diamonds sold world-wide pass through Indian hands.
Such a shift seldom takes place without some tension, and in Antwerp, that struggle is happening now. Many Jews who used to trade diamonds in the public hall of Antwerp’s imposing Diamond Beurs are so worried about the new competitive pressure that they now prefer to meet clients in the privacy of their own offices for fear that Indians or other Jewish traders will poach their business. Many have changed their manufacturing practices, moving their cutting and polishing factories from Belgium to lower-cost centers such as Thailand and China. And in the retail-jewelry sector, some secular Jews are breaking ranks with the Hasidim and keeping their businesses open on the Sabbath.
“The secular Jews are not enchanted when the rabbis knock on their doors and tell them to shut down, but they don’t listen,” says Henri Rubens, a Jewish community leader and former diamond trader, who is now in the real-estate business. “Nor are the Hasidim enchanted by other Jews who put business ahead of religion.”
In Antwerp, Indians’ share of the $26 billion-a-year (