ANTWERP, BELGIUM (AFP) - Sparkling new diamond rings will grace many fingers around the world on Valentine's Day today (Feb 14), and most of those gems will have passed through a drab district in the Belgian port city of Antwerp.
A diamond hub for nearly 600 years, Antwerp is holding its own as the global trade capital for the precious stones despite new rivals in the Middle East 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 trader Shashin Choksi said after sending off a shipment of US$300,000 (S$396,030) 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 Diamond Quarter, in the city in the Dutch-speaking northern part of Belgium.
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 US$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".
ALMOST EVERY DIAMOND
Mr Choksi's shipment is among hundreds containing gems worth US$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," industry spokesman Margaux Donckier said.
"If not all, almost every diamond travelled through Antwerp," added Ms Donckier, who represents the Antwerp World Diamond Centre syndicate.
Antwerp accounts for 84 per cent of trade in the world's rough diamond production and 50 per cent in polished diamonds, usually the biggest and most costly, the syndicate said.
The 1,700 diamond trading firms in Antwerp imported or exported US$48 billion worth of diamonds in 2016, the last year for which figures are available, says the AWDC.
Mr Choksi loves Antwerp's cosmopolitan mix that includes traders from his native India but also those from Israel, Lebanon, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.
The Christmas sales period is the most important for his firm, he said, while other traders do well around Valentine's Day, Chinese New Year, the Indian wedding season and the Hindu festival Diwali.
It was European trade with India that got Antwerp started in diamonds around 570 years ago as the Flemish port, along with fellow Dutch-speaking Bruges, Ghent and Amsterdam, became emporia for rising global trade.
Dating from antiquity, diamond mines in India produce little today compared to those in Russia, Africa, Australia and Canada, but Mumbai is a fast-growing trade hub and Surat is a major centre for cutting and polishing.
Antwerp also faces growing rivals in the United Arab Emirates port of Dubai, Israel's Ramat Gan and China's Hong Kong and Shanghai.
"We're facing competition for at least 10 years now, but we're still the leading player in the world," Ms 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 Alrosa 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?" Mr Choksi said in his offices protected by numerous locks and decorated with family photos and an Indian tapestry.
Mr Choksi, who works with his wife Vinita, does about US$6.5 million a year in trade, a small fraction of the US$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.
The Leonardo DiCaprio film "Blood Diamond" - set in Sierra Leone about illegally mined gems sold to finance wars - had also made people think twice about buying diamonds.
"I think the image probably hurts somewhat, but I think not as much as it could have been," AWDC president Stephane Fischler told AFP.
A year after the Sierra Leone conflict ended in 2002, the Kimberley Process international certification scheme was created to keep conflict diamonds out of the market and lay down export conditions.