News / Middle East

Wanted: Israeli Diamond Polishers, Piety Not a Problem

Ultra-Orthodox Jews work in the trading room of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews work in the trading room of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
Reuters
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 The country has one of the world's hottest diamond exchanges, but polishers and cutters of the precious stones have been replaced by cheaper workers in newer hubs like India and China.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 ultra-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.

The job of a diamond polisher, however, 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 $25 billion.

Diamond dealers work on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.Diamond dealers work on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
x
Diamond dealers work on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
Diamond dealers work on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
About a third of rough diamonds produced in the world each year pass through the Jewish state and diamonds account for more than a 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 dollars and the diamond sector, for the first time, is turning to the government for help. The government, eager to get as many ultra-Orthodox working as possible, is on board.

Industry Troubles

The global financial crisis has taken a toll on the diamond trade, and Israel was not spared. Turnover was nearly halved at the outset in 2009, though in 2011 it returned to pre-crisis levels. A smaller drop is again expected for 2012.

The damage has been moderate compared to other major hubs such as India, according to Yair Sahar, president of the Israel Diamond Exchange.

"In other centers the leverage was tremendous, as opposed to here where we were much more conservative,'' he said, referring to the low level of debt among Israeli firms. "We entered the crisis more prepared, so to speak.''

There have, however, been other problems.

The price for raw material has risen faster than that of the final product, eating away at profits. And a money-laundering and tax-evasion scandal at the start of 2012 scared away some customers. The investigations have ended and, so far, no one has been charged.

The diamond trading floor in Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv, is the biggest in the world. Armed guards escort non-members and on one wall are mug shots of problematic dealers whom customers are urged to avoid.

Diamonds change hands freely across the rows of long dark tables that line the hall. On one side a seller could be local. A buyer across the way could represent some anonymous client on a different continent.

A British diamond dealer inspects a raw diamond on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.A British diamond dealer inspects a raw diamond on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
x
A British diamond dealer inspects a raw diamond on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
A British diamond dealer inspects a raw diamond on the trading floor of Israel's diamond exchange in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, October 30, 2012.
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 meaning "luck and blessings''.

In 2011, rough diamond imports to Israel topped $4.4 billion and $7.2 billion in polished diamonds were exported. Every second diamond sold in the United States, according to value, came from Israel.

But only $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.''

Salaries were just too cheap to compete with, he said, first in India, the world's biggest importer of rough diamonds, and later in China.

Israel has subsisted on larger, high-end stones whose owners pay more to have them manufactured close to home. But industry leaders hope to change that, in part because polishers in developing countries are demanding more money.

"I think we are there, more or less. With rocks of one carat plus, I think we are in a place where the [wage] gap doesn't justify running to manufacture abroad,'' said Sahar.

The GIA decision to open its lab in Israel was a first step.

Manufacturers can now have their diamonds graded and evaluated in Israel rather than sending them to the United States.

"It's critical for the growth, for the international branding of the export business, and we think that we're a good partner to help the manufacturing grow,'' GIA President and CEO Donna Baker told Reuters when the lab opened.

By cutting costs and allowing increased turnover, it will add between $30 million and $50 million a year to the industry.

New Blood    

At the peak of manufacturing in the 1980s, there were 20,000 people cutting and polishing diamonds in Israel. That has dropped to about 2,000.

"There is no new manpower. Most polishers are 50 years old and up,'' said Roy Fuchs, who owns a factory a few minutes walk from the exchange. "If they don't invest and bring in new blood, there simply won't be manufacturing.''

To make it happen, the industry realizes it needs help, and for the first time, it is looking for assistance.

"It's not easy. You need cooperation with the government,'' said Udi Sheintal, the Israel Diamond Institute's managing director. "Here in the middle of Ramat Gan, you don't get incentives. There are only incentives for certain populations, like the haredi.''

The term haredi, which in Hebrew means "those who tremble before God," refers to people who strictly observe Jewish law. They dress in traditional black outfits, the men do not shave their beards and they spend their days in study and prayer.

Some 8-10 percent of Israelis are haredi. For the most part they live in insular communities, are exempt from mandatory military service and, according to the Bank of Israel, less than half of ultra-Orthodox men work.

The issue has created a rift in the mostly secular Israeli society and put a strain on an otherwise robust economy. The government has already earmarked $200 million over the next five years to encourage haredi integration in the work force.

Many in the new generation of ultra-Orthodox are open to the idea of getting jobs. The key is finding one that fits, said Bezalel Cohen, 38, who has worked for years to promote employment among his fellow haredis.

"The diamond industry's initiative [to hire ultra-Orthodox] has potential to really succeed,'' he said. "As long as the pay and training is proper, it should take off.''

Aside from helping to pay the salaries for newly hired haredis, the government will offer grants to small exporters and marketing support.

Employment Plan

The Trade Ministry's diamond controller, Shmuel Mordechai, said the government backs the idea and has funded similar programs in other financial sectors. It would have helped even earlier, he said, but the diamond industry was never interested.

"They lived in their bubble, they said, 'Don't bother us, don't help us'. In recent years, because of difficulties in the industry and because we opened up our tools to them, they understand,'' he said.

One of the more advanced plans Mordechai described is that of an independent service plant where dealers bring their rough diamonds. Such a plant would cost $1-$2 million and employ 30-40 workers. The government will help recruit the ultra-Orthodox.

"In any plant they set up here and bring employment, we will give help with salaries and other incentives,'' he said. "If two or three are set up, it will catch on. If the first one succeeds, others will follow.''

Traub, from the manufacturer's association, intends to create dozens of new private factories. He has already spoken to leading rabbis in the community to win their support.

"I'm speaking of starting with hundreds and going to thousands of haredi workers,'' he said. "Manufacturing attracts clients. Barring a global crisis, I think we will grow at least 10 percent a year in export.''

You May Like

Obama: I Will Do 'Everything I Can' to Close Guantanamo

US president says prison continues 'to inspire jihadists and extremists around the world' More

Sierra Leone Educates on Safe Ebola Burials

Also, country is improving at rapid response to isolated outbreaks, but health workers need to be even faster, officials say More

Religion Aside, Christmas Gains Popularity in Communist Vietnam

Increasingly wealthy Vietnamese embrace holiday due to its non-religious glamor, commercial appeal More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Gary Long from: Paducah Kentucky
January 04, 2013 6:54 AM
My son is a dental technician in Western Kentucky.
He makes crowns and bridges.
The dentists have started sending their work to China.
They return the crowns cheaper than my son can purchase the raw materials. It's hard to compete with Chinese prison labor.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubansi
X
Sharon Behn
December 19, 2014 9:34 PM
For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video US Decision on Cuba Underscores Divisions Among Miami Cubans

For decades, older, more conservative Cubans have been gathering at Café Versailles on the corner of Calle Ocho to eat Cuban food and talk politics. After hearing of President Barack Obama’s decision, a number of them gathered in front of the café with posters to protest. VOA's Sharon Behn reports on the situation.
Video

Video Three Cities Bid for Future Obama Presidential Library

President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term in office, but the effort to establish his post-presidential library is already underway. The bid for the Obama Presidential Library is down to four locations in three states -- New York, Hawaii, and Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, each of them played an important part in the president’s life before he reached the White House.
Video

Video Cuba Deal is Major Victory for Pope’s Diplomatic Initiatives

Pope Francis played a key role in brokering the US-Cuba deal that was made public earlier this week. It is the most stunning success so far in a series of peacemaking efforts by the pontiff. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky has more.
Video

Video Fears of More Political Gridlock in 2015

2014 proved to be a difficult year politically for President Barack Obama and a very good year for the U.S. Republican Party. Republican gains in the November midterm elections gave them control of the Senate and House of Representatives for the next two years -- setting the stage for more confrontation and gridlock in the final two years of the Obama presidency. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has a preview from Washington.
Video

Video Sudan School Becomes Target of Aerial Attacks

The school dropout rate is at an all-time high in Sudan's South Kordofan state because many schools have been destroyed during the three-year civil war between the government and SPLA-N rebel forces. Adam Bailes visited Sudan's Nuba Mountains' region and reports many children are simply too scared to go to school
Video

Video VOA Reporter Tours Devastated Peshawar School

Islamist militants wearing military uniforms and strapped with explosives attacked a military run school Tuesday in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. At least 141 people were killed in the horrific attack, most of them young students. VOA reporter Ayaz Gul visited the devastated school and attended the funeral of the principal who courageously tried to save her students from the deadly attack.
Video

Video Nigerians Fleeing Boko Haram Languish in Camp Near Capital

In its five-year effort to impose Islamic law in northeastern Nigeria, the Boko Haram extremist group has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Some of those who ran for their lives now live in squalor on the edges of the capital, Abuja. Chris Stein reports for VOA.
Video

Video Aceh Rebuilt Decade After Tsunami, But Scars Remain

On December 26, 2004 there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean so powerful it caused the Earth’s axis to wobble a few centimeters. Onshore on the island of Sumatra, the resulting tsunami was devastating. A decade later, VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where although there is little remaining evidence of the physical devastation, the psychological scars among survivors remain.

All About America

AppleAndroid