So you've read all the stories about Antwerp being the diamond capital of the world and are wondering whether you won't make a great deal if you just bought a diamond ring from the source rather than pay all the intermediaries until it gets to your local jewellery shop. While your reasoning is correct, diamond shops in Antwerp are aware of this, and there a many tourist trap shops where you will probably end up paying more than you would have at your local jewellery! This doesn't necessarily mean that you'll systematically get ripped off, just that there are a few traps and common practices (in Antwerp and elsewhere around the world for that matter) that you should know about and will help you make a good decision.
Where to go
First of all, there are essentially two different types of diamond buyers: the fortunate few with deep pockets who are looking for high quality and the not-so-fortunate many that don't have that much money to spend but would still like to have a diamond ring for themselves or a special someone. Wealthy buyers should concentrate on big shops with high reputation like the ones part of the Responsible Jewellery Council. These shops are very transparent and professional, however you will be paying a small premium for this reputation and transparency so it may not be the best place to get a good deal. That said, given the amount of money you'll be spending, you probably will be glad to pay that premium and be sure you are walking out of there with the quality you have been looking for. But this guide is for the second category, the kind of people who booked a cheap flight to Belgium and made a day-trip to Antwerp thinking “wouldn’t it be nice if I became part of the I-bought-my-diamond-ring-in-Antwerp club”.
You can look at online reviews about shops in Antwerp; this will give you a very good idea of where you will be getting your diamond ring from. It's not just to get the best deal, you want to have the real diamond and get an aftersales service. This is probably the most important part of buying a jewel, making sure that if there is a problem in the future you can actually rely on the reputation of the actual Jewellers you baught your ring from. Make sure to get an international certification for your diamonds: GIA or HRD are the ones to be recommended.
Don't take 3 days to look for your diamonds: you will only get confused by the overwhelming amount of details and education you will get, and can lose track on what you want. Have your budget and get your jeweller to target the best option that will fit the budget you want to go for. Don't expect miracles: you can only get a very bad surprise afterwards. If something seems to low in price, or too good to be true, don't buy: it's most probably not the real thing.
The “Special Discount”
This is tourist trap number one that you must avoid at all costs! After a walk around the shops you will probably be amazed to see big sign saying “60% off” (or even more) in a window. Get inside the shop and the seller might even tell you that exceptionally and that day only there is an extra 10% off. You cannot believe the incredible luck you're having and jump on the first ring you see, happy to have made what you think is the best deal of your life. You have just been ripped off. The “discounted price” is actually the starting price, there is still plenty of room to haggle from there. Never pay the first price, unless it is clearly a cut-throat price displayed in the window. Some shops will price a few diamond rings as low as €99 euros to get people inside their shops. It is OK to buy those at the asking price but don't hesitate to haggle or walk away once they present you other “higher quality” rings for considerably more money).
One of the main lessons is that a diamond is a diamond. This might sound stupid on first read by if you do some research on the internet you will find heaps of information on the four Cs that make the value of a diamond (Carat Weight, Cut, Colour, Clarity), and a long list of charts allowing you to categorize diamonds. This is very helpful information for people who work with diamonds every day but those who will probably only come across a handful of diamonds in their lifetimes do not have the experience or the proper equipment to tell which is which. So it helps to dumb things down a little and just assume that all diamonds on display are medium rated ones, not the best quality, but not the lowest either and still very acceptable compared to what they sell in most jewelleries around the world. If you pretend to be a connoisseur you will get ripped off because the seller will know how to present you the diamond in a special light and a special angle to make you believe that it's of a higher grade than it is. And after all, your friends at home will be more impressed by the design of the ring itself than by learning that your diamond is a F WS1.
Naturally coloured diamonds are much rarer than normal white ones so they are usually more expensive. However in the 1990s, diamond handlers discovered ways of altering the colour of a white diamond to make it have a certain tint. This is a very easy way of passing off very impure white diamonds that would otherwise be practically unsellable as jewellery. With the added colour those impurities are much harder to spot, especially with black diamonds. These type of rocks are called “colour enhanced” and sell at up to 80% discount compared to high grade white ones. Now this is not necessarily a bad thing, after all, at the end of the day it still is a diamond, but you have to know it and pay the right price. There is a good chance that almost all coloured diamonds sold in small shops are colour enhanced so don't believe the seller when he starts explaining you how extremely rare they are. You might want to slip in a “are you sure these aren't colour enhanced?” in the conversation, the seller will probably swear on his life they are not (even if they are) but at least he'll be aware that you're not a fool and accept a discount more easily. Of course, not all coloured diamonds in their shops are colour enhanced but it is best for your wallet to consider that they are. Today these stones are certified by international labs like GIA or HRD.
Another fact that you should know about diamond rings sold in Antwerp, especially small rocks, is that they are sent far away to India, assembled for a fraction of what it would have cost in the Western world and then shipped back to Antwerp. So when the seller starts telling you how his grandfather made the ring by hand, following a very secret technique taught from father to son for generations since Egyptian times, don't believe a word. Of course, his story might be true (especially for bigger stones) but there is a very high chance that it is not. Some shops actually manufacture their rings in Antwerp and set the diamonds there; this is a real proof of quality. Ask to see how they set your main diamond into the ring you have chosen.
The “Shop Certificate”
Most sellers will tell you that all their jewelleries come with a special certificate to certify that you are getting actual diamonds and gold. In reality, those certificates are pretty worthless. They simply certify that it's a diamond, without any specification on carats or grade, so they could just as well sell you an industrial diamond which would still qualify as a “diamond”. And after all, if you come back, they can say that it's not the ring they sold you. But rest assured, at least you get a real diamond and not a cubic zirconium.
The “Calculator Game”
When you start haggling the seller will start typing some numbers on his calculator and at one point he will have a desperate look, implying that he just realized that he made too much of a discount and is out of a profit or even making a loss. The novice will jump on the “occasion” believing he's making a great deal. Don't get fooled. This is a well tried out technique. Remain calm and explain that you appreciate the discount but still want to pay less.
The overvalued appraisal document
Some jewelers love to show shoppers an appraisal document that states the "value" of the jewelry piece. Usually, this appraisal document will list a value (e.g. $10,000) that is significantly higher than the price that they are asking for (e.g. $6,000). This marketing gimmick is used to portray an impression that the shopper is getting their money's worth for that piece when they really aren't. It's just a feel good factor to pay more for a misrepresented piece of jewelry.
Always take a look around your local jewelleries before making the trip. This will give you a rough idea of what you should be paying and even if you get ripped off in Antwerp you might find out that you still paid less than what you would've paid at your local jeweller shop. It is possible to buy an 18K gold diamond ring in Antwerp for what they charge for a simple 14k gold ring (with no diamonds) at a local shop! On the other hand, if the price in Antwerp seems low in comparison with your local shop, this doesn't mean that you can't get an ever better deal by haggling, so don't just jump in on the deal, try and get an extra discount.
Now, once in the diamond district, always start by making a complete tour of the shops, spotting the designs you prefer. Resist any invitations to go in, and any “special discount” offers (of which you should know by now that they aren't discounts at all). Each shop has dozens of different designs and no two shops have the exact same models so you effectively have a choice of thousands of different models. There is nothing more frustrating than buying a ring and seeing another one you liked more on the way back to the hotel. It is best to establish a list of preference: after a tour of all shops, go in the one with the ring you preferred the most and try it on. If it's the right size (more on that later) and you haggle enough to get it for your budget then get it, if not walk to the shop with your second preference, then third, etc.
Cash is the means that will give you the most leverage when negotiating. Cash means that the seller won't have to deal with longer pay term by credit card companies and intermediates sales percentages, which means he'll have to pay less and you'll get a better discount. But be careful not to carry too much cash, it is easy to get tempted to go over your initial budget. If you really can't get the price within your budget and you just have to have that ring, you can always get more cash out of an ATM (there are many inside the Central Station). Walking away to get more cash will also allow you to cool down a bit and think if it's really worth the extra money of if you shouldn't try your luck elsewhere. You'd be surprised to see what a difference it makes to take a few steps out of the shop.
Always choose the ring that fits
This is the step many people ignore. When you go in the shop, try the ring and if they don't have it in your size and won't resize it in front of you, walk away! Of course they can make the ring in any size you want in about a week and even secure mail and send it to wherever you are in case you're not staying in Belgium for that long. But the chances are very high that they will skim off a few tenths of grams of gold by making the ring thinner and use slightly smaller and/or lower grade diamonds compared to the one you saw in the shop. And the more discount you initially got, the more they will try to compensate by lowering the quality. If you ever notice a difference they will argue that it's just an optical illusion because the ring is not the same size as the model in the shop window and that you have made a downpayment already so now you have no choice but to buy it. This will lead to very frustrating situations so it's best to avoid them in the first place.
Message to women: "Stand by your man"
For many heterosexual couples, it's still customary for the man to buy the ring for the woman. The seller knows this very well and will try to play you against each other. He will make the woman try out the ring and give her many compliments on how it is prefect for her, with the goal of having the woman insist on having the ring and teaming up with the seller against the man (or better said, against the couple's finances). That is the worst negotiating position you could be in. Be 100% sure that this situation won't happen before you go in the shop! Agree beforehand on some parameters for negotiation. You may want to agree for the woman to tell the seller that the man has the wallet and that he decides. Be certain that whatever arguments you have happen after you leave the shop. If you then decide to go over your budget, you can always come back. This might also add extra leverage to your position since the seller has probably had a few second thoughts since you've left and is wondering whether he shouldn't have accepted a bigger discount. You shouldn't just get back in the shop and shout "I'll take it!", still keep your cool and insist on paying less.
Be firm but not rude
Adopting the right negotiating position is the hardest thing to do, especially on the first few tries. You want to show right away that you're not some sucker that can be fooled easily. But at the same time if you just throw your newly-acquired knowledge to the seller's face (ie. “These diamonds are colour enhanced, they are worthless!”), he will take it as an insult and “shut off” from the deal (although what you said is not necessarily false). Saying that it is indeed a very beautiful ring, that you recognize the craftsmanship quality but that you just don't have more money in your budget, and that if you get a good deal you will recommend his shop to all your friends are the best arguments to get him to lower the price. But be firm. Cut down with the chit-chat, most of the times when a seller asks you where are you from, what you do for a living, etc. he is simply calculating in the back of his mind how much of a premium he'll charge you for that ring (he will ask a lot more if you say you're a doctor from the US than if you're shoe salesman from Ukraine). If you're a good comedian you could play this to your advantage (e.g. "I just lost my job and my girlfriend needs an urgent operation") but usually it's better to get down to business and talk about prices.
Most of the time you will eventually get to a point where the seller will swear that if he sold it for less he'd be making a loss, and another seller (the “shop owner”) will come from behind and make a final “take it or leave it” offer. Even then, if you're a good haggler, tell your last offer and pretend to leave, there's a good chance that they will skimp off a bit more.
Price of commodities
In case you don't know this already, the price of gold and diamonds has been skyrocketing lately. This means that whatever you do, the rings you buy today will be more expensive than what they were a few years ago. So if your friend starts laughing and tells you that he paid his ring half the price 5 years ago it doesn't necessarily mean that you have been ripped off.
- See also: Responsible travel
More and more people, especially since a certain Hollywood movie, are wondering whether the diamonds sold in these shops are not blood diamonds. Of course, if you ask the question straightforwardly, the seller will swear that they are not (even if they are). The sad truth is that these diamonds change so many hands between the moment when they come out of the mine and into the shop that it is simply impossible to know if it's a blood diamond or not, even by the shopkeeper himself. This is also true for big jewellers with a good reputation. Nothing can stop an intermediary somewhere along the line to pass a blood diamond for an ethical one, there are many ways of getting fake ethical certificates or passing them through a front company who will claim they come from a different mine. Also, like noted before, bear in mind that most small diamonds are assembled today in Asia for ridiculously small wages so somewhere along the line you are still encouraging unethical behaviour. This is a sad truth that you will just have to live with when buying your ring, and again, buying it from a bigger shop with a high reputation and all the proper certificates (and premium price) won't necessarily guarantee that you aren't being part of the "system".