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Valentine's Day brings sparkle to Belgian diamond hub

AFP  |  Antwerp 

Sparkling new rings will grace many fingers around the world on -- and most of those gems will have passed through a drab district in the Belgian port city of

A hub for nearly 600 years, is holding its own as the global trade capital for the precious stones despite new rivals in the and Asia, traders there say.

Not that it looks anything special. This district near the main railway station is the dingy opposite of the ostentatious stones it produces for one good reason -- security.

"It's a mini Fort Knox," Indian-born Shashin says after sending off a shipment of $300,000 of polished diamonds to Hong Kong.

Huge riches lie in safes and vaults behind weather-worn facades on the three main streets that make up the Diamantkwartier, or Quarter, in the city in the Dutch-speaking northern part of

Around 2,000 security cameras watch people, cars and armoured trucks pass through, while drivers wave passes at electronic gates to reach trading, grading and other offices.

Thieves stole an estimated $100 million in diamonds and other jewellery from the district's safes in 2003. A poster plastered inside diamond district buildings says police "are watching over you".

Choksi's shipment is among hundreds containing gems worth $220 million that pass each day through the one-square-mile district to and from all points on the globe.

"If you are buying a diamond or considering buying a diamond for Valentine's Day, the chances are high that the diamonds you are looking at once travelled through Antwerp," said.

"If not all, almost every diamond travelled through Antwerp," added Donckier, who represents the World Diamond Centre syndicate.

Antwerp accounts for 84 percent of trade in the world's rough diamond production and 50 percent in polished diamonds, usually the biggest and most costly, the syndicate says.

The 1,700 diamond trading firms in Antwerp imported or exported $48 billion worth of diamonds in 2016, the last year for which figures are available, says the AWDC.

loves Antwerp's cosmopolitan mix that includes traders from his native but also those from Israel, Lebanon, Russia, China, and

The sales period is the most important for his firm, said, while other traders do well around Valentine's Day, Chinese New Year, the Indian wedding season and festival Diwali.

It was European trade with that got Antwerp started in diamonds around 570 years ago as the Flemish port, along with fellow Dutch-speaking Bruges, and Amsterdam, became emporia for rising global trade.

Dating from antiquity, diamond mines in produce little today compared to those in Russia, Africa, and Canada, but is a fast-growing trade hub and is a major centre for cutting and polishing.

Antwerp also faces growing rivals in the port of Dubai, Israel's and China's Hong Kong and

"We're facing competition for at least ten years now, but we're still the in the world," Donckier said. "We're not only holding on to the heritage, we're also investing in the future to keep Antwerp as a world leader."

Antwerp remains the go-to place for global mining giants, including Russia's and South Africa's De Beers, that put their raw gems up for bid there.

"I have on my table the whole world. Why would I go elsewhere?" Choksi said in his offices protected by numerous locks and decorated with family photos and an Indian tapestry.

Choksi, who works with his wife Vinita, does about $6.5 million a year in trade, a small fraction of the $800 million he said a big player might do.

Besides new rival hubs, the AWDC said business was also affected by synthetic gems and competition for people's wallets from hi-tech gadgets and holidays.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Wed, February 14 2018. 19:40 IST