💎 Diamonds are a Jew's Best Friend
The history of Jews in the diamond trade and my take on Rough Diamonds.
If this week’s subject line sounds like an antisemitic trope, it’s not! I was merely trying to get you to open this email and it worked.
However, there is indeed a Jewish connection to diamonds which I shed light on below. And with the recent release of the Israeli-Belgian TV show Rough Diamonds on Netflix, about an ex-orthodox man who returns to his family in Antwerp to help with their diamond business, it only felt relevant and timely to talk about it. Which brings me to my newest Shabbat Drop segment:
Each month, I will seek answers to questions I have been asked, either through research or bringing in a Jewish expert on the subject. If you have a question, don’t be shy! Email me or comment below with your burning Jewish q.
Someone recently asked me, “Why are there so many Jews in the diamond industry?” I didn’t have an answer. I only knew of the Diamond District here in New York City, so I did some research.
The relationship between Jews and diamonds goes back to the Torah, in Exodus 28:18: “and the second row shall be an emerald, a sapphire and a diamond,” referring to the breastplate worn by the Jewish high priests.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages, where Jews scattered throughout Europe were prohibited from buying land and farming, so they were forced to work jobs that didn’t have a lot of restrictions. One of these jobs was polishing and trading gemstones, which didn’t require much space or equipment.
This led to many Jews working in the finance and trade industry. One advantage they had was having close-knit communities spread all throughout Europe to ensure traded diamonds remained safe through communication and client trust. Plus, diamonds were small and expensive and easy to bring on the go, perfect for a persecuted minority often forced to flee.
In fact, my great grandmother was once robbed at her home in the Bronx during a card game. The robbers made everyone undress and place their valuables - jewelry, watches, money - on the card table, and Grandma Ceil swiftly and smartly popped a diamond heart pendant she wore around her neck into her mouth to save it! The necklace survived, as did all the players, and the robbers took off with all the other loot. She always delighted in telling that story.
Back to our European history… The Netherlands and Belgium tolerated Jews (how nice of them), so the diamond industry flourished in these communities. WWII hit the diamond industry hard, and survivors continued to run their businesses in Antwerp after the war.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish immigrants in NYC established the Diamond District, located on 47th Street between Fifth Avenue and Sixth Avenue. 90% of diamonds that enter the U.S. each year are dealt in the DD, with an estimated annual turnover of over $24 billion.
Fun fact: as part of my NYC tour guide license test, I had to know how Jewish dealers in the Diamond District seal a deal without a contract. With a handshake!
The industry made its way to Israel in the 1930s, with the Israel Diamond Exchange (IDE), which moved to Ramat Gan in the ‘60s and has grown into a major global center. Diamond trading still accounts for about 16% of Israel’s GNP. This includes dealing in rough stones, cutting, polishing, ready stone appraisal, setting in jewelry, buying and selling loose stones, etc.
Speaking of Israel, here’s a joke I just made up: who owns the most diamonds in Israel? Etgar Karat.
Now one of the latest Jewish shows on Netflix gives a fictional look into the religious community of Antwerp and its diamond business. If you haven’t seen Rough Diamonds, I recommend it. It’s suspenseful and dramatic and has religious representation. It’s the Belgian crime-filled Shtisel!
But proceed with caution - its plot involves that off-the-derech fetishizing Netflix loves so much. Some scenes were so Hollywood they were almost offensive. And a lot of the diamond business was highly dramatized, but who am I to say? All I know is, without giving away any spoilers, the scenes where the young son was exploring his Judaism were adorable! However, no boy would be THAT excited to pray in shul on Yom Kippur… just sayin’.
Have you seen Rough Diamonds? What did you think?
What are your Shabbos plans? I am very excited to observe Shabbos in its entirety in Monsey tonight at the home of a Shabbat Drop reader!
Shine bright like a diamond,