At Tolstraat, near the Amsteldijk, you can see the building from 1907 of diamond polishing factory Asscher, designed by architect Gerrit van Arkel (1858-1919), who also designed the former Diamond Exchange at Weesperplein. The street was named after the toll gate which once stood on the Amsteldijk at the border between the former city of Nieuwer-Amstel and Amsterdam. The aptly named Diamond neighborhood to the south of the factory (all streets are named after precious stones) was where the employees of the factory lived, many of their homes preserved.
During the 18th century Amsterdam obtained a monopoly on diamonds from Brazil, which made the city a center of the diamond industry. Jewelers and stonecutters from around the world flocked to Amsterdam to learn the trade, encouraging thriving partnerships between the mines, the newly formed diamond buying syndicates and the talented cutters.
The Asscher Diamond Company was founded in 1854 (the Royal predicate was added in 1980) and had royals, celebrities and politicians as their clients. The castle-shaped factory had high windows for optimum light and even a dedicated police station outside. In 1907 the factory stood alone in the meadows, with only the old City Archive next to it (the former city hall of the annexed town of Nieuwer-Amstel, now the Pestana Hotel at Amsteldijk). Over 500 diamond polishers worked in the building in its heyday.
The old diamond factory on Tolstraat is now a complex with luxury apartments, but the main tower is still Royal Asscher’s headquarters. The company also has regional headquarters in New York City and Tokyo. Technology museum NINT was located here from 1983 to 1997, predecessor of the NEMO Science Museum at Oosterdok 2.
The village-like houses from 1891 for factory workers at Lutmastraat, Diamantstraat and Robijnstraat (on the terrain of a demolished glassworks) are now national monuments. Architect A.L van Gendt (1835-1901) also designed the Hollandse Manege on Overtoom (1882), the Concertgebouw on Van Baerlestraat (1888) and the gallery of the (demolished) Paleis van Volksvlijt (1881-1883). He also played a substantial role in the design of the Central Station (1881-1889) and the Stadsschouwburg on Leidseplein (1892-1894).
Shortly after the factory building opened, the brothers Abraham and Joseph Asscher were asked by English King Edward VII to examine the famous Cullinan diamond, discovered in 1905. In 1908 Joseph Asscher was asked to cleave the huge stone. The resulting 9 polished diamonds are now in the Tower of London, part of the British Crown Jewels. Succesfully splitting and polishing the Cullinan diamond gave the company a solid international fame and reputation.
In 1902 Joseph Asscher designed and patented his Asscher Cut, the world’s first patented diamond cut, which the company held until the Second World War. It was a staple of jewelry of the art deco and art nouveau era. Joseph Asscher’s great-grand nephews revised the design, adding sixteen additional facets, known as the Royal Asscher Cut. Other patented cuts are the Royal Asscher Oval Cut, Royal Asscher Cushion Cut and Royal Asscher Round Brilliant. Each Asscher polished diamond is laser inscribed with the Royal Asscher logo and an identification number.
Jewish Diamond Workers
Around 1900 there were many diamond polishing factories in Amsterdam, the majority of the workers were of Jewish descent. When the first Portuguese Jews arrived in the Netherlands from 1600 on, they brought their knowledge and their many contacts in diamond mining countries like India and Brazil. Amsterdam’s diamond workers were not organized in a guild, so this was one of the few professions available to Jews arriving here (Jews weren’t allowed to join the guilds).
Initially all diamond polishing was done in attics in private homes, the polishing wheel powered by foot. Later this was done by horse power and still later with steam engines in the factories. When diamonds were found in South Africa in 1867, the industry boomed. In 1906 nearly 30% of all Jewish men and 10% of all Jewish women worked in the diamond industry.
In the factories the workers often worked 12 hours a day in poor labor conditions. After a big strike in 1894 the ANDB Union was founded — working conditions and wages improved, with 8 hour working days and 40 hour working weeks, a world first. The actual diamond trade in Amsterdam took place in three diamond exchange buildings, the largest (from 1910) at Weesperplein. By 1910 the Amsterdam diamond industry was past its prime — in Antwerp diamonds were polished against very low wages and they received cheap rough diamonds from Belgian Congo.
Abraham Asscher (1880-1950) had to negotiate working conditions frequently with Henri Polak (1868-1943), chairman of the Dutch Diamond Polishers Union (ANDB, Algemene Nederlandse Diamantbewerkers Bond). Despite their opposing interests, the two men got along just fine. Polak remarked: “When he and I agree on something, we don’t need a contract, those terms are always respected”.
Second World War
The German occupiers needed the diamonds (both the jewels and the industrial diamonds) to finance their war, so they initially exempted the Jewish diamond workers from deportation until June 1942. The Nazis systematically seized all diamonds from the companies and exchanges — the Asscher family and all their Jewish diamond polishers were deported. Only ten family members and 15 of the 500 polishers survived the Holocaust. The whole diamond industry in Amsterdam was virtually wiped out when the war ended.
During the war patent on the Asscher cut expired and could not be renewed, so other companies started to utilize it, though often not according to the original specifications. Abraham Asscher survived concentration camp Bergen-Belsen and Joseph Asscher survived deportation — following the war the family restarted the business.
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