Book Excerpt | How visiting Antwerp and keeping my word transformed my life

Before it was known for its diamonds, Antwerp was the most important trading and financial centre in Western Europe

From the days I worked as a daily wage labourer, I considered the diamond as a god. I realised that harnessing a diamond’s true potential was not only an art, but it was also a very precise and exact science. The skills needed to be a proficient diamond-cutter and polisher would take years of training to acquire but the science part remained an enigma to most workers. When I went to Belgium — more precisely, Antwerp, the global centre of diamond trade — I learnt a lot of this science. Diamond cutting in Antwerp began in the sixteenth century, when many Jewish people who were expelled from Spain and Portugal settled there.

The diamond business works on references. I had to go to Antwerp with a sound reference. I spoke to Rameshbhai “Raj Kapoor”. He readily agreed to accompany me to Antwerp but demanded a three per cent commission in the business. I saw no problem in that. Later, I discussed the matter with Shantibhai and Navinbhai in Bombay, and they not only endorsed my idea of starting a business in Antwerp but also offered a 50 per cent partnership. Navinbhai deputed his younger brother Dilipbhai to accompany me to Antwerp.

A hundred people came from Surat in two buses to see me off at Bombay. In the wee hours of 16 January 1977, Dilipbhai and I flew on Sabena, the Belgian national airline, from Bombay to Brussels. We would spend 22 days in Belgium.

Without intending to or even realising it, I became the first person in my native district Amreli to go abroad. It was a thrill to experience the time lag. We were flying for eight hours and yet landed in Brussels at 6 am. “We added many hours to our life”, I told Dilipbhai. He smiled and said: “Enjoy, Govindbhai, till you lose them when we fly in the opposite direction.”

Antwerp is a riverside city like Surat. The Scheldt River drains into the North Sea like the Tapi into the Bay of Khambhat. I lodged myself close to the Diamond Quarter, called Diamantkwartier locally. It’s an area of about one square mile consisting of several square blocks where 1,500 companies operate from their small offices doing a turnover of $25 billion every year. It is the undisputed capital of the diamond trade and celebrated in the industry worldwide.

Before it was known for its diamonds, Antwerp was the most important trading and financial centre in Western Europe. The world’s first stock exchange was developed in Antwerp, and traded valuable materials such as diamonds, gold, silver and copper. The Antwerp diamond exchange was established around 1456. In the same year, Belgian Lodewyk van Berken invented the Scaif, a polishing wheel infused with a mixture of olive oil and diamond dust. For the first time, it was possible to polish all the facets of the diamond symmetrically at angles that reflected the light in ways never seen before. The Scaif revolutionised diamond polishing. This invention increased orders among the European aristocracy and attracted many diamond artisans. The discovery of diamonds in South Africa’s Kimberley in 1871 also significantly increased the number of diamonds and established Antwerp as the diamond capital of the world.

Back in the 14th and 15th centuries, India was mining diamonds; rough diamonds arriving from India were brought first to the city of Bruges and then to Antwerp in Belgium, where they were polished and set in jewellery for the rich and famous of the colonisers in Europe.

There were many Indians in the Diamond Quarter. Most of them young Jains — the Mehtas and Shahs from Palanpur in Gujarat — arrived there looking for better fortunes. They were working at the bottom of the business with low quality roughs, which offered very small margins of profit. They sent these stones to family members back in India for cutting and polishing, where labour costs were a fraction of those in Antwerp. Cheap labour, large families, and a willingness to work harder than the competition earned the Indians respect in the Antwerp business community and created a new business area for small stones. I found myself at perfect ease in this faraway land. We must invest our profits and begin to move up the value chain, I thought. I started sending rough diamonds to India for processing.

On a weekend, we travelled from Antwerp to London. India was still a British Commonwealth country and Indians could enter Britain with a visa on arrival. My surname on the passport was mentioned as “Patel”, a generic surname of all Patidars then, and the immigration officer took his time to allow me in. Later, I officially changed my surname from Patel to Dholakia. London looked familiar. It was like Bombay. I was surprised to know London’s largest industry was finance.

I sat for a while in a public square in the City of London, an area of about one square mile. It was here that the finances of the British Empire, “on which the sun had never set”, were handled. Before returning to Antwerp, we visited the northwestern boroughs of Harrow and Brent where many Hindu communities had settled. We also went to see the “Kohinoor” at the Tower of London.

We bought rough diamonds of Rs 26 lakhs in that trip. After making gems out of them, we made a profit of Rs 9 lakhs, getting Rs 4.5 lakhs for ourselves and rest for D. Navinchandra & Co. Since we started our firm in 1970, we had never seen a profit of more than Rs 5 lakhs. Seeing it doubling suddenly was indeed thrilling. We made another trip after a few months and bought Rs 39 lakhs worth of roughs, and then made another trip, and so on. We had finally become rich!

Excerpted with permission from the publishers, Penguin Enterprise

Diamonds are Forever, So are Morals

By Govind Dholakia

As told to Arun Tiwari and Kamlesh Yagnik

Penguin Enterprise

pp. 338, Rs.699

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