A young woman strolled into the small, secured office where 15 government officials and customs officers were seated under notices demanding silence. She carried a brown envelope, which an official sliced open with a Stanley knife. The spilled contents revealed a twinkling pile of polished carbon. The desk sparkled with hundreds of tiny gems, worth a small fortune.
Another man walked into the same office and set down two stones. They were bigger diamonds; one worth $1.5m (£918,00), the other $950,000.
It is a routine scene, repeated dozens of times every day in Antwerp's square mile – three main streets and a warren of alleys behind the Flemish port's central railway station. This is where diamonds for export are officially scrutinised, a considerable feat given that $200m worth of gems leave the city every day.
"This is what puts Belgium on the map," said Freddy Hanard, the chief executive of the city's World Diamond Centre. "Every diamond that enters or leaves passes through this office."
That is a lot of gems – four out of five uncut diamonds produced anywhere in the world and more than half of the polished stones travel from Australia, Russia, Canada, India, Botswana and London to Antwerp for buying and selling.
Outside, a female police officer with an automatic machine gun appeared relaxed as a Brinks armour-plated van disgorged its treasure trove. There were no other vehicles. For what appears as a normal city centre pedestrian zone is, in fact, probably the most heavily protected and closely monitored concentration of wealth in Europe – Antwerp's diamond quarter.
But with Europe and America in recession and much of the rest of the world also feeling the pinch, diamonds are suddenly no one's best friend.
"January, for example, is usually busy, but this January there was no market any more," said Hanard, a former banker. Philip Claes, the diamond centre's corporate affairs officer, said production worldwide has almost totally ceased, down 91% year on year.
You can see the impact in the long, luminous hall of the elegant main diamond exchange, built by the city's Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century. In good times, the place bustles with business, eyeglasses scrutinising the trays and pads of stones by the pure northern light. This week, the exchange was more a place to go to trade gossip.
The recession is clearly affecting the wealthy. The banking crisis has also compounded the problem since diamond dealing in Antwerp is a capital-intensive business, requiring liquidity and lines of credit from the five banks that grease the deals. They are no longer lending like they used to.
"We feel it right across the industry," said Karin de Mulder, spokeswoman for the Antwerp diamond business. "A lot of people are being fired."
Hanard said that rough trade, dealing in uncut diamonds, has collapsed by 60% in Antwerp over the last year, while the buying and selling of polished gems has decreased by up to 40%.
De Beers, the world's biggest diamond producer, halted mining at the beginning of the year. Alrosa of Russia, the second-biggest, followed suit.
All this is taking its toll on the square mile, where turnover in diamonds averages $42bn a year, with 1,800 dealers crammed into an area that takes 10 minutes to explore on foot.
The businessmen are placing their faith in the tilting balance of power and economic clout in the world, reflected in patterns of global consumption. The US is currently the biggest market for diamonds, with gem-studded "tennis bracelets" selling well among the bling generation. But Antwerp is looking to the Middle East, India and China as the key to the revival of a trade that started in the 16th century.
In the car-free square mile, though, the Homburg-hatted Orthodox Jews who have controlled the trade for the last century still dominate the streets, carrying black briefcases chained to their bodies in and out of the bank vaults and office safes. It is probably the only quarter in Europe where the language most commonly heard is Yiddish.
The streets are criss-crossed by surveillance cameras, uniformed and plainclothes police abound. The magnetic, heat, movement, and sundry other sensors installed behind the thick steel doors are as sophisticated and as expensive as they get. But they failed to prevent two daring raids in 2003 and 2007, the first by Italian criminals netting €100m worth of gems, jewellery and cash, the second theft grabbing €20m worth.
Nonetheless, confidence is such that the streets are full of people carrying millions of dollars worth of stones and jewellery around in envelopes, plastic bags, and suitcases.
There are problems in Antwerp with Flemish nationalists, who hate immigrants and distrust foreigners, and in Belgium generally there are problems regarding the hostility between its Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south.
Given that the diamond trade is dominated by minorities such as Orthodox Jews, Indian Jains, Maronite Christians from Lebanon and Armenians, friction with nationalists might be expected. But that is the least of Hanard's troubles.
"There are no tanks on our borders. Our hotels are not being bombed. There's no revolution next door. There's political stability. And people are not upset with diamond traders."Topics
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