Amsterdam, City of Diamonds
Heyday and decline: 300 years of Amsterdam’s diamond industry
From 27 September 2019 to 1 March 2020, to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of the General Diamond Workers' Union of the Netherlands (ANDB), the Jewish Historical Museum presented Amsterdam, City of Diamonds. The exhibition recounted how from the early seventeenth century Amsterdam grew to become the international centre of the diamond industry, largely thanks to the city’s Jewish population. The dynamic period of Amsterdam’s diamond sector lasted for more than 300 years and was characterised by highs and lows.
The history of Amsterdam’s diamond industry is largely a Jewish story. From their arrival in Amsterdam around 1600, Jews played an important role in the diamond industry. Cutting and polishing diamonds was a craft for which there was no guild. Because Jews were excluded from the guilds, the diamond sector represented one of their few employment options. At the industry’s height, most Jewish families in Amsterdam were involved with diamonds in one capacity or another, and Jews referred to the industry simply as ‘the trade’.
Emancipation and community art
Working conditions for diamond workers were initially poor and it was hard for them to make ends meet, especially in times of crisis. The first modern trade union, the General Diamond Workers' Union of the Netherlands, was established in 1894 under the inspiring leadership of diamond cutter Henri Polak. This well-organised labour movement was the first in the world to enforce an eight-hour working day and a forty-hour working week. It was the most important precursor of the current Federation of Dutch Trade Unions.
For Polak, the workers’ cultural development was of paramount importance and he made art and culture an important part of the union’s philosophy. This conviction was reflected in community art: art for and by everyone. The union soon freed many of Amsterdam’s Jewish diamond workers from poverty and gave them the prospect of a better future. The exhibition features posters, pamphlets and other items designed for the ANDB by artists such as Richard Roland Holst and Elie Smalhout.
Alongside the focus on the diamond workers and the establishment of the ANDB, the exhibition also explores the growth of the diamond trade in the city from the nineteenth century. Many of the world’s most famous diamonds were cut in Amsterdam, including the Koh-i-Noor by Coster Diamonds and the Cullinan by the Royal Asscher Diamond Company, both of which are now part of the British crown jewels. The exhibition follows the story of the Cullinan from raw diamond to crown jewel. A replica of the British sceptre, containing the Cullinan 1, also known as the Great Star of Africa, is displayed in the exhibition.
The end of the heyday
The heyday of Amsterdam’s diamond industry was over by the end of the First World War. The real blow came during the Second World War with the murder of the city’s Jewish diamond workers and jewellers. Amsterdam lost its leading position on the world market to cities such as Antwerp, New York, Tel Aviv and Mumbai, but its reputation as a city of diamonds lives on.
Parallel to Amsterdam, City of Diamonds, from 29 November to 29 December, the International Institute of Social History organized an exhibition at the Burcht van Berlage to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of the General Diamond Workers' Union of the Netherlands.
Credit cover photo: Unknown, Diamond workers posing in the workshop, c. 1913, Collection Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam
This exhibition was on view at the Jewish Historical Museum (JHM), Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1, 1011PL, Amsterdam. The JHM is established in the century-old former complex of synagogues of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of the city.
With special thanks to: