An increasing number of books has examined how Jews’ entrepreneurship and religious and ethnic ties drew them to various parts of the global economy — including, for example, Andrew Godley’s Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London 1880 – 1914 (2001) and Gideon Reuveni’s and Sarah Wobick-Segev’s The Economy in Jewish History: New Perspectives on the Interrelationship Between Ethnicity and Economic Life (2010). Recent works have chronicled the presence of Jews in peddling, the founding of department stores, the feathers trade, the manufacture of clothing, the film industry, and merchant banking, among others.
A Brilliant Commodity, written by a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, chronicles the role of Jews in another niche of the economy. Interesting, well-written, and replete with illustrations and photographs, it covers the last four decades of the nineteenth century, beginning with the discovery of diamonds in the Transvaal region of South Africa in 1866. Changes in transportation, communication, and skillful advertising resulted in diamonds becoming an important cultural artifact across the West. Consumers were told that “diamonds are forever” and “a girl’s best friend.” They were featured in popular novels and cartoons and became symbols of wealth, refinement, and undying love. Women now expected to receive a diamond ring at the culmination of courtship. There was, however, a darker side to diamond imagery. Snyder notes that the trade relied on racist and xenophobic “exhibition narratives,” where diamonds emerging from a predominantly Black South Africa “turned pure white” by the time they reached the West. And antisemites claimed that the industry exhibited the avarice, corruption, cunning, materialism, and low business ethics supposedly common among Eastern European Jews.
A Brilliant Commodity focuses on four cities in the mining and marketing of diamonds: Kimberley in South Africa, where diamonds were discovered, mined, sorted, and washed; London, where they were sold by the London Diamond Syndicate; Amsterdam, where they were cut, polished, and set into jewelry; and New York City, where they were ultimately finished and sold. Kimberley became a boomtown in a few short years; during the late nineteenth century, the majority of the workers in the diamond industry in Amsterdam were Jews; and by the end of the century, the United States had become the most important consumer of polished diamonds. Jews have remained important in the diamond industry, particularly in Antwerp, Belgium and on 47th Street in New York City (although Snyder’s book says little about the post-1900 history).
The diamond industry, Snyder writes, “influenced urban planning, spawned labor movements, manipulated spending habits, colored stereotypes about Jews, and drove patterns of migration.… Where diamonds were found aplenty, new money and energy flowed.” He concludes that diamonds “brought a Jewish proletariat and ownership class onto the world stage.