Arriving at Antwerp’s splendid 19th century Central Station, with its marble staircases, iron and glass vaulted ceiling and gilded details, shoppers visiting Antwerp are filled with high expectations about the jewelry boutiques awaiting them in the world’s diamond capital. For years these expectations were quickly dashed, as consumers were confronted with myriad uninviting and less-than-reputable jewelry shops once they left the station. Where to turn?
The City of Antwerp and the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC) recognized the problem and decided to do something about it. Enter Antwerp’s Most Brilliant (AMB): a quality label for jewelers focusing on the “5th C” of compliance and confidence, intended to direct customers to trusted jewelers where they may shop and purchase with peace of mind, and to give deserving jewelers a way to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of businesses located in the diamond capital.
“It’s unique”, says Sandy Ceulemans, Manager of Business Development for the Diamond Trade at the City of Antwerp. “I know of no other city-wide quality label that combines promotion and legislative compliance as rigorously as AMB. And it was actually inspired by consumers. Visitors would arrive at the various tourist desks in the city and literally ask where to reliably buy diamonds or jewelry in Antwerp. As a tourist office, we provide information to our clients, but in this instance it was becoming increasingly difficult. We were telling them what to avoid rather than where to go, which quite frankly is not very good for our reputation, so we needed an instrument to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
“Of course,” she notes, “as far as quality labels are concerned, the Responsible Jewellery Council is doing incredible work on a global scale, but their emphasis is different than ours, and does not provide immediate answers on our local level, which is what we need. And when it comes to your garden-variety quality label, usually it is one or the other: either it is all about regulations and does not reach out to consumers, or it is mere promotion with little if any enforcement of standards. We recognized the dilemma and came up with a unique approach that inspires confidence for residents and visitors to Antwerp. The results have been tremendous.”
The City of Antwerp launched the initiative in 2013, and quickly teamed up the AWDC, which had devised its Master Plan 2020 to focus on confidence and compliance throughout the Antwerp diamond industry. The two organizations decided to work together on the positive aspects of the diamond and jewelry sector and actively promote it, but realized that doing so properly would require an authorized system of criteria, certificates, independent auditing and partners to enforce it. Also, the professional jewelers’ federation Ars Nobilis quickly joined the initiative.
This collaboration led to the establishment of a program where jewelers must meet 30 strict requirements in terms of sustainability, ethics, security, transparency and service, as well as adhere to Belgian economic, social and tax legislation. And perhaps most importantly, compliance with the established criteria is enforced by an independent control body, the Federal Public Service Economy. Having the full backing and resources of a federal public service at the front end of the program (while onboarding participants, and not just when something goes wrong) is unique for a quality label, providing it with an unparalleled level of credibility. Furthermore, an Antwerp jeweler can only obtain certification after an independent audit by Kiwa, an accredited audit and inspection organization, which visits every jeweler every other year to check for compliance with the criteria. Kiwa draws up a binding report after its audit. So the process is rigorous, but the results, in terms of consumer confidence, are worth the effort.
AMB currently consists of 24 independent jewelers spread out 50/50 across the city’s historical center and the diamond district, and anticipates welcoming a selection of outstanding Antwerp jewelers in the near future. It features a mix of traditional and upscale diamond jewelers as well as jewelers where design takes priority over the stone, antique jewelers and a tourist-group oriented business. The strength of the label is that it unifies a wide variety of options, so there is something for everyone: whether a Baby Boomer with greater disposable income or a Millennial making his or her first diamond purchase, the AMB’s folders, map and app tell consumers where to go to find what they are looking for. We spoke with a few jewelers from across the AMB spectrum.
The traditional jeweler: “I sell emotions”
Patrick De Landtsheer, founder and operator of Diamani Jewels located in the Antwerp Diamond Club, the world’s oldest diamond exchange, has been a diamond merchant for over 30 years and is the spokesman for the 24 AMB jewelers. At his ‘Joaillerie du Club’ he sells diamonds and exclusive jewelry made in his own workshop. “I have spent 30 years waiting for something that recognizes people who find ethics important, people for whom doing it the right way matters. We have always been here in Antwerp, but it was harder to find us without asking around or knowing someone with experience of the sector. We have seen a real positive effect from the introduction of the AMB label. There is no question that it is driving traffic.”
De Landtsheer says the AMB is all the more critical in today’s world, where consumers crave information, have the tools to find it and demand ethical retailers. “Fair trade and honest products are particularly important for the younger generation.” Furthermore, younger consumers are as drawn to diamonds now as much as they ever have been, and need to know diamonds are affordable. “This is where it becomes important to get connected with a trustworthy jeweler. If you are making a purchase larger than $1,500, you should know whom you are buying from. As I like to say, ‘If you don’t know jewelry, know your jeweler.’ A colleague recently wrote to me, ‘It is dumb to pay too much, but it’s even dumber to pay too little’, because you will lose more in the long run.”
Value and ethics aside, De Landtsheer exudes a passion for diamond jewelry and the pride he takes in creating elegant jewelry in Antwerp is palpable. As he says, “I sell emotions. I want to make people happy. And there is a certain charm in buying close to the source – in Antwerp, from an Antwerp merchant who knows the trade. People are spending hard-earned money and want to feel good about it. I want to make them feel good about it, because there is no more emotional gift than a diamond. It is the physical reminder of the love from where it came.” As for the future of the diamond trade, he says with warmth and confidence, “As long as there are women in the world, diamonds will be sold.”
The designer: “Jewelry is an emotional investment”
Nico Taeymans was born in Antwerp and is a lifelong jeweler and artist with two shops in Belgium, 30 partner shops and 150 points of sale in the Benelux region. His pieces, which he describes as “organic”, are handmade and bear the traces of being handmade, with natural forms and rough surfaces. He regards his jewelry as a “second skin”, interacting with the body. While he produces striking creations, the aim is not for the jewel, but for the wearer to be in the spotlight. Every Nico Taeymans piece is a living, dynamic thing, one of a kind like the individual who wears it. It is meant to be an integral part of peoples’ ever evolving lives, so he is, “less interested in the material itself than what it can do for people. Jewelry is an emotional investment.”
In this sense, while he has a wealth of dedicated customers, he is also a perfect fit for the new generation of consumers that value experiences and personalization, that wish to participate in the process of creating what they wear. And indeed, many of his customers are now Millennials. “I was expecting to grow old with my customers. To my great surprise, they now live and work wherever their laptop is. They’re not going to invest in a big car … well, maybe a 4x4 in Namibia. But they still fall in love and want something special.”
Taeymans has adapted and reaches his customers in a different way – using a media network, Instagram (“that’s where the world is now”) and participating in innovative workshops and initiatives such as This is Antwerp’s D.A.T.E. (Discover Antwerp Through Experience), which invites creative individuals, bloggers, artists, etc. from all over Europe to discover Antwerp, off the beaten path. He has also designed a piece specifically for the youngest potential consumers. In line with Taeymans’ efforts to continually reach out, he sees AMB as a great vehicle to connect with diamond industry jewelers as well. “It may not be possible to continue without it in the long run. People want to know what they are buying, not the ‘4 C’s’. It has to be real.” He joined AMB to improve the identity of the articles he creates. “It is a very good initiative for Antwerp jewelers to have a public face and to open it up. Eliminate the mystery. Customers can feel confident that we have checked things out, that we ourselves have been checked out, and they can feel free to trust and enjoy the product.”
Antwerp’s Most Brilliant is now embedded in the Antwerp jewelry landscape, enabling consumers to purchase with confidence from jewelers that provide good service at a correct price. And as Ms. Ceulemans points out, “It has not only had a positive influence for consumers, but also for the travel industry. It has totally reversed the situation. To be totally honest, agencies had stopped sending groups to Antwerp because people were having bad experiences, but now tour operators are using the AMB label to demonstrate that Antwerp takes compliance and transparency seriously, and that people can shop with confidence.” Indeed, a crucial component of the quality label is a multilingual complaints desk, in conjunction with the Federal Public Service Economy, where people are put in contact with the responsible authority if they feel they have been wronged. “This gives confidence to customers that the criteria are really being observed. It is reassuring for them to know they have somewhere to turn to.” The initiative has further been used to demonstrate to diplomatic contacts that a larger dynamic of transparency and compliance pervades Antwerp’s diamond industry from top to bottom. “Perhaps the most telling criteria,” she concludes, “is the impact on jewelers themselves. They will agree unanimously that it has increased their sales.”
Jewelers interested in obtaining the label can consult www.ondernemeninantwerpen.be/diamant
Photo courtesy of: Noortje Palmers