Diamond manufacturing is a dwindling trade in Israel. The country has one of the world’s hottest diamond exchanges, but polishers and cutters of the precious stones have been replaced by cheaper workers in newer hubs like India and China.
Israel wants to bring them back. To do so, it plans on recruiting a legion of Orthodox Jews who, because of their dedication to prayer and study, have been unable or unwilling to join the work force, putting a heavy weight on the economy.
However, the job of a diamond polisher is unique, said Bumi Traub, president of the Israel Diamond Manufacturers Association. It need not disrupt their pious lifestyle.
“The profession is fitting. You deal with the rock and if you need to go pray, no one will bother you,” he said.
The door to Traub’s office requires a fingerprint scan. Security is tight in the four-building exchange, where annual turnover of trade reaches US$25 billion.
About one-third of rough diamonds produced in the world each year pass through the Jewish state and diamonds account for more than one-fifth of the country’s industrial exports.
It was a natural sector to develop when Israel was founded 64 years ago, since the small stones have been choice merchandise for generations of Jews who had to quickly flee from riots and persecution.
The plan to revitalize manufacturing will cost millions of US dollars and the diamond sector is turning to the Israeli government for help — for the first time. The government, eager to get the ultra-Orthodox working, is on board.
The global financial crisis has taken a toll on the diamond trade, and Israel was not spared. Turnover was nearly halved in 2009, though it returned to pre-crisis levels in 2011. A smaller drop is expected again for last year.
The damage has been moderate compared with other hubs like India, Israel Diamond Exchange president Yair Sahar said.
“In other centers, the leverage was tremendous, as opposed to here, where we were much more conservative,” he said, referring to Israeli firms’ low levels of debt.
However, there have been other problems.
The price for raw materials has risen faster than that of the final product, eating away at profits. In addition, a money laundering and tax evasion scandal last year scared away some customers.
The diamond trading floor in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, is the biggest in the world. Diamonds change hands freely across the rows of long dark tables that line the hall. On one side a seller could be local, while a buyer across the way could represent a client on a different continent.
They scrutinize the stones under a magnifying glass, weigh them on sensitive scales and when a deal is reached they say mazal ubracha, a Hebrew phrase recognized in centers around the world which means “luck and blessings.”
In 2011, rough diamond imports to Israel topped US$4.4 billion and US$7.2 billion in polished diamonds were exported. Every second diamond sold in the US, according to value, was Israeli.
Yet only US$1.5 billion of the stones were cut and polished locally, a much lower percentage than a decade ago. The rest were sent abroad to foreign firms or Israeli-owned factories.
“Once, everyone who sat in this room was a manufacturer,” billionaire dealer Lev Leviev said at the opening of a Gemological Institute of America (GIA) laboratory in September. “There was not a diamantaire who was not a manufacturer, and over the years we lost it.”