Beyond Masada A Multi-faceted Visit to a Gem of a Museum

Ramat Gan’s Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum offers a glimpse into an industry in which Jews have been involved for centuries.

Jacob Solomon
Jacob Solomon

Just beyond where Tel Aviv merges into the suburb of Ramat Gan are four tall modern structures that house the heart of Israel’s diamond industry. Among them is the 235-meter-high residential Moshe Aviv Tower, currently the tallest building in Israel. It is appropriately topped with an exquisite jewel-like setting that from a distance virtually begs you to slip a mammoth diamond inside.

Alas, diamonds were never mined in Israel. But Jewish involvement in this lucrative industry goes back at least 500 years, ever since those precious stones were brought overland to Venice and by ship to Lisbon from their only known source at the time, India. With medieval statues barring Jews from making a living at many trades, they became leaders in most aspects of the diamond business, including acquiring rough diamonds and sorting, cutting, polishing, setting, and marketing them. Upon expulsion from Portugal in the early 16th century, Jews settled in Antwerp. There they developed much-improved methods for polishing diamonds, giving the gems their characteristic ability to play with the soft light. Commanding extremely high prices, they were the preserve of the nobility and the wealthiest who displayed them not just on their fingers, but within their clothes, crowns, and even on swords.

Diamonds also suited the sometimes precarious nature of Jewish life in Europe, marked by waves of persecution. These jewels were easy to carry when on the run. In addition, the trade stayed in the hands of a few families; an older generation retired, a younger one took over. Between them an absolute code of trust and integrity developed. This was and remains a vital element in dealing with such high-value, small-bulk articles. Each one is separately registered and carries a detailed record of its status and stages of processing in terms of color, clarity, cut, and carat. Indeed deals throughout the diamond trade are sealed with the handshake and the Yiddish “mazel und broche” (good luck with blessings), even where the traders are not Jewish.

Among the refugees from the darkening skies of Nazi Europe were a small group of experts from Antwerp’s neighboring Netherlands, who opened the Jewish yishuv’s first diamond polishing factory in Petah Tikva. Following a particularly rocky beginning in the early years of statehood, this industry expanded moving eventually to its present location in Ramat Gan. The all-inclusive complex is a one-stop trading center involved in rough-diamond dealing, processing, and marketing of finished jewels.

A world leader in the industry, the Israel Diamond Exchange -- or “boursa” as it is known in Hebrew -- processes about 10 percent of the world’s diamonds. The Israeli industry guarantees that its products are genuine and of natural origin and have not been used to finance wars.

Sorry, but none of these activities are on view to the public. Only certified and registered diamond personnel are allowed to roam the premises, part of the boursa’s elaborate and ultra-effective security procedures. Your visit to the complex will take you to the Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum, located one floor beneath the exchange. Harry Oppenheimer (1908-2000) by the way was a leading force in South African diamond production and served as chairman of the De Beers diamond cartel for many years. “We at De Beers feel a great affection for Israel, both in business and in our heart,” said Oppenheimer during a visit to Israel that helped boost confidence the local diamond operation during a crisis in the 1980s. The museum is named in honor of Oppenheimer, who was born to a Jewish family, converted to Christianity when he married, but remained a lifelong supporter of Israel and Jewish causes.

Allow a comfortable hour for your visit. The museum takes you on a virtual tour with short, but highly effective audiovisual shows and yes, English is spoken. Each one describes the different stages of the life of the jewel. You will see how the diamonds form under extreme natural plutonic and volcanic forces deep inside the earth, as well as the processes of mining huge masses of ore which may or may not contain a tiny gemstone. Separate audiovisual stations walk the visitor through the stages of processing, including cutting, bruting, and polishing the surface to set off dazzling interplays of light rays. (Today much of this is accomplished by lasers). After the last station, which presents clips of diamond trading – including the de rigueur “mazel und broche” greeting -- you are treated to a dazzling display of genuine diamonds, as well as some replicas, including the rock Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor.

All in all, the museum and its friendly staff present an educational glimpse into the diamond industry, past and present. Those who are dazzled by diamonds and can afford to indulge this infatuation can head to the adjacent supermarket-like retail diamond complex.

The Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum is best accessed by taking the bus or train to the Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station, entering the train station, and taking a (free) pass from the ticket dispenser to cross the covered bridge to the heart of the diamond quarter. Turn left at the exit for a two-minute walk to the museum.

The museum is located in the Maccabi building, 1 Jabotinsky Street, Ramat Gan. It is open Sundays to Thursdays from 10:00 to 16:00; till 18:00 on Tuesdays, and Fridays from 09:00 to 12:00. Entry fees: NIS 30 adults, NIS 15 children. Telephone: 03 612 7581. Fax: 03 751 8515.

Polished diamonds at the Israel Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan. Credit: Bloomberg
Razzle-dazzle display at the Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum.Credit: Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum
One of the displays at the Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum.Credit: Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum

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