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.
That said, even rank amateurs should familiarize themselves—before leaving home—with the famous "four C's" of diamond quality: cut, clarity, carats, and color. There's a debate among dealers about which C is most important. Some swear that cut is paramount; others that Americans think only about carat size. More moderate voices counsel that it's a combination of or, more realistically, a compromise among all four qualities that makes a diamond really special.
And then there are those two other important C's not in the official roster but arguably even more important than the original quartet. First, the "creepy" factor: virtually everyone I talk to in Antwerp emphasizes that even when the price is enticing and the stone seems luscious, if the dealer gives you a weird feeling in the pit of your stomach, walk out immediately. This brings us to the final C: chemistry—when you click with a dealer and know that he (alas, I didn't meet any female dealers) understands what you're looking for, whether that's a nine-carat door knocker or a pristine half-carat solitaire.
Joel Katz is just that kind of dealer. He has been active in the district for decades and helped create the Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association (ADJA), which vets dealers and has strict membership criteria—to be eligible, you have to have been in the market for at least 10 years. I talk to Katz in his Appelmansstraat digs, a chic showroom with a massive marble fireplace and an imposing chandelier. "You must consider your jeweler as you would your doctor," he says, stressing the importance of trust between buyer and seller. "He is the expert!"
In the interest of improving my own expertise, I decide to visit Diamondland, an exhibition space and salesroom where the public can observe cutters and setters through windowed booths (though this reminds me a little of watching the animals at the famous Art Nouveau zoo a few blocks away). You can also buy here (it's an ADJA-approved venue), but the breathtaking floral brooch I fall for, with stones arrayed in the "invisible setting" popularized by the Parisian jeweler JAR, is a correspondingly stunning $39,500.
My next stop is the Diamond Museum, where at least I won't be tempted to spend a small fortune on a flower. Here, an exhaustive history of the trade is offered, and it's interesting, but I am more taken with the dark corridors that hold brightly lit cases filled with 19th-century regal diamond diadems, bravura tiaras, and other staggering works of art.
All this eye candy makes me want some actual sweets, so I stop in at the Del Rey tearoom, a haven of peace amid these bustling environs that has for more than a half-century served cognac-filled chocolates and pistachio marzipan to exhausted shoppers. My fellow patrons include three Middle Eastern women at the next table who are nearly silent, lost in thought (I'm pretty sure I know what they're thinking about), and a couple who are adding up a column of numbers and looking worried. Diamond-buying is a nerve-racking, if delicious, business.
With the museum's timeless ornaments living in my imagination, I decide to visit Salomon Wijnberg, whose antique-jewelry shop, Adelin, is just down the street from Dries Van Noten's fashion flagship. When it comes to vintage diamonds, it's not about mere size or glitter or color; it's the pure poetry of the setting, the history behind each facet, that makes a piece sing. Still, some things remain the same, whether a gem is burnished with age or brand-new.
"The only important thing is how you feel about it," Wijnberg says with disarming simplicity, showing me a mid-Victorian ring, marked $10,776, with a dazzling 1.7-carat center stone surrounded by two circles of smaller diamonds. I slip it on my finger and, as in a fairy tale, it's a perfect fit.
And it's every bit as beautiful, in its own way, as that impeccably proportioned dazzler on van Beurden's desk. As Wijnberg explains in detail about the period during which it was made and what arcane cutting techniques were employed, I can't help thinking back to something else Joel Katz told me: "Some people spend $20,000 or $30,000 on a diamond in 10 minutes, completely nonchalantly, while others sob uncontrollably over a $2,000 ring. It's not just about the jewelry, really—it's the whole experience. In the end, it's about falling in love."
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel de Witte Lelie
A row of 17th-century town houses with 10 spacious guest rooms.
1618 Keizerstraat; 32-3/226-1966; doubles from $250.
Groenplaats; 32-3/204-1212; doubles from $242.
WHERE TO EAT
Del Rey Tearoom
5 Appelmansstraat; 32-3/470-2861; tea for two $10.
Vincent van Duysendesigned restaurant adjoining the Museum of Fashion.
32 Nationalestraat; 32-3/227-5656; dinner for two $90.
Steenhouwervest 6-8; 32-3/234-9552.
59 Vestingstraat; 32-3/226-9393.
33A Appelmansstraat; 32-3/229-2990.
19 Appelmansstraat; 32-3/231-9780.
MORE DIAMOND SOURCES
Antwerp Diamond Jewellers Association
22 Hoveniersstraat; 32-3/222-0545; www.adja.be.
1923 Koningin Astridplein; 32-3/ 202-4898; www.diamantmuseum.be.