Some people's idea of a dream trip is lying supine on a beach for hours and then having a nice dinner. I suppose this sort of thing has its charms, but for me, nothing beats wandering around a drizzly Northern European city staring wide-eyed at glittering shop windows.
I have been obsessed with diamonds for years, searching out rose-cuts at lowly flea markets and marquises in Fifth Avenue palaces. I can spend hours trolling New York's diamond district, 47th Street, chatting up the dealers on slow days, festooning myself with their high-end gewgaws, and, very occasionally, breaking down and buying something.
It was from these notoriously secretive Manhattan merchants that I first learned about Antwerp, considered by those in the business to offer the lowest prices and the vastest selection in the world.
A few hours after my plane lands in Brussels, I find myself, heart pounding with anticipation, at Diamond House in the heart of Antwerp's jewelry district. Buying a diamond in Antwerp, I quickly learn, is very different from shopping in New York. For one thing, no matter how much I've spent in New York, no one has ever offered me a hotel room.
"When you buy a stone from me, I put you up at the Hilton Antwerp for free!" Rob van Beurden, the proprietor of Diamond House, says, laughing as he describes exactly how his business works: first you call him a week or so before you are scheduled to arrive in Antwerp, and explain just what kind of gem you're looking for. Then you fly into town, eat some famous Belgian frites, check out the Rubens at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and go see what van Beurden has lined up for you. Finally, if you buy, you get not just the rock but that bonus hotel room. The next day, you pick up your bauble, now snug in its custom setting, and jet off to a blissful relationship with your new jewelry.
Van Beurden is telling me all this in his unassuming second-floor office on one of the main arteries of Antwerp's diamond district. This nondescript workplace is lifted out of ordinariness, at least in my eyes, by two details: a wall decorated with pictures of Liz Taylor, perhaps the world's most enthusiastic diamond collector, and a piece of tissue paper on the desk on which reposes a virtually colorless 2.3-carat stone that has, van Beurden says reverently, "perfect proportions." He looks intently into its depths and sighs, "There is so much skill involved in valuing a diamond: it requires expertise, wisdom, and experience. It's not easy."
Well, maybe not, but the challenge is quite delightful when you realize you can save between 30 and a whopping 70 percent. And how much to choose from?One Antwerp dealer tells me, by way of illustration, that he received a phone call a few days earlier from a prospective client asking to see a three-carat emerald-cut stone; the dealer was able to round up 16 exquisite examples in one short afternoon. "I don't pretend that I have all the stock in the world," he says, when I looked suitably impressed. "But I have access to the biggest stock." If all that isn't enough, there is also the "Antwerp cut"—a blanket term acknowledging the skill of local cutters, who are world-renowned for their artistry. Still another reason to buy in Antwerp?Every diamond sold here is guaranteed conflict-free, in compliance with UN resolutions (sales have not funded rebel, military, or terrorist groups), and each invoice must state this clearly.
With its trams, cobblestoned alleys, and constantly tolling church bells, it is a very charming—if rather peculiar—place, whose best known export, besides those diamonds, is frisky avant-garde fashion. This accounts for its lively street scene: Veronique Branquinhoclad hipsters bicycling past black-coated Orthodox Jews, who tote attaché cases one is certain are full of extraordinary gems.
Symbols of love may shout from every vitrine, but the Antwerp diamond exchange is, at bottom, a commodities market. "If you want romance," van Beurden says dryly, "go to Florence."
Well, okay, maybe Appelmansstraat and Vestingstraat aren't the Ponte Vecchio, but once you've summed up what you'll save, the place starts to feel downright sexy. Still, unless you're an expert yourself, you'll need professional help: someone to guide you through the purchase of a lifetime.