A Bril­liant Com­mod­i­ty: Dia­monds and Jews in a Mod­ern Setting

Sask­ia Coenen Snyder

  • Review
By – December 23, 2022

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.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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