You can’t talk about diamonds in Bangladesh and not find your way to pioneer Onu Jaigirdar, Chairman at Jaigirdar Diamonds Ltd., whose subsidiary concern Brilliant Hera remains the only diamond-cutting firm based in Bangladesh.
Supplying diamonds to the likes of Cartier and Rolex, it’s safe to say that the rough diamonds sold by Jaigirdar Diamonds Ltd, or the polished gems produced by Brilliant Hera, all of which come with lifetime guarantees and Kimberley Process Certification (KPC), are the real deal.
It’s no surprise then, that the story of how Jaigirdar got into the business, is a fairly well-documented, oft-repeated anecdote. The trip to Antwerp, the vault of diamonds, the instant love affair, all of it is a fairly familiar tale for anyone who has asked the question over the past decade.
Sitting in his airy Banani office, sipping fresh coconut water off the trees on the compound, we decided to start with the story behind the story, and that too, like everything in the man’s sparkling career since that Antwerp moment, sounds like something right out of a movie.
It is the year 1987, and a younger Jaigirdar is frustrated with his business ventures being thwarted by vested interests protected by the ruling party at the time. On a business trip, he finds himself seated next to an irate, well-lubricated “big white guy” who is extremely vocal about his distaste for business in Bangladesh. Incidentally, the foreigner had butted heads with the same people that had been thwarting Jaigirdar’s own ventures, and the mutual discovery of common adversaries made for instant camaraderie. This man, who happened to be a diamond entrepreneur, invited Jaigirdar to visit his facility in Antwerp.
At this point in the story, Jaigirdar hadn’t really given much further thought to the gem business at all. “I knew nothing about diamonds, and then the funny thing is I’d forgotten about him. I went from London to Brussels, and on the plane, they have the in-flight magazine. So I’m flipping through it seeing Antwerp…diamonds, and then I suddenly remember this guy. So when I landed I called him. He’s like “Don’t move! I’m coming” He came, picked me up and took me to his office.”
The trip to the World Diamond Centre in Hoveniersstraat, Antwerp would prove to be a life-changing experience.
“It’s like a drug, you know. Something about diamonds, when you see lots of them. Even if you just see one. They’re so beautiful you know, they’re so unique. And I don’t know if it’s just the branding, the sale, the diamond that makes it so special in your head, but, I mean, but the fact is, no two diamonds are the same. You see diamonds in the polished state. Much, much rarer to see diamonds in the rough state. Rough diamonds are even more beautiful, straight out of the ground, created billions of years ago, and every single one different. Every single one is like a fingerprint. It’s like your face, No one else has your face. No one else has your fingerprint. For the last 10-15 years, the industry has been attacked by artificial diamonds, lab diamonds, non-diamonds etc. Every time the industry has felt like it’s really threatened and people start saying “okay, this will replace diamonds, but somehow there’s still something special about diamonds.”
From that pivotal moment came the decision to enter the industry. Setting up in Bangladesh, getting the KPC, training the cutters, it was a lengthy process, combined with some unorthodox personnel decisions.
“Obviously diamond manufacturing is about economies of scale. Number two, it’s labour intensive. The manufacturing industry of diamonds still has not been able to automatise the production process. There still needs to be a human being at every step of the diamond polishing process. And yet the machinery is so simple, basically, you need a disk that turns at 3000 rpm, a very hard disk. You need a diamond cutter because nothing cuts diamond except another diamond, and you need very good eyesight. And a good understanding of symmetry. So a computer is not able to do this. We chose women, although traditionally women don’t polish diamonds. It was a first in Bangladesh. And women are more reliable, they’re more trustworthy, and they tend to be more loyal to the company. These are artisans, we don’t consider them as labour. They are pretty skilled in what they do, and it takes three years to become a diamond cutter. But you can only practice on diamonds”.
At present, Jaigirdar Diamonds has an exclusive contract with Aarong, although they do take private orders from select clients, preferring not to put their gems out on the market. This, as well as the lack of government support, and the fact that the local market is saturated with Indian diamonds, and rife with lower-grade offerings, means that while diamonds cut and polished in Bangladesh have a great reputation internationally, not many people know of them in Bangladesh, something that saddens Jaigirdar. These days, he’s more frequently in the news as the Honorary Consul General of Sierra Leone. This too, came his way because of the diamonds.
“A retired major who served in Sierra Leone and was probably working for one of these mobile companies suddenly called me up. So he comes and says why don’t you go to Sierra Leone? There are diamonds in Sierra Leone. I’m taking you. Next week.
I started going to Sierra Leone. I started buying diamonds there for my factory. I switched to buying in Africa. Office, staff everything over there. Gradually people go to know, and it went from there.”
He talks about his first experience of setting foot in Sierra Leone, standing in line, holding the dreaded green passport of Bangladesh that has caused many a traveller so much grief across the world. When the immigration officer spotted the passport, Jaigirdar remembers a moment of panic. To his surprise, he was given a warm welcome and breezed through all the formalities. “We have to give thanks to the Bangladeshi troops [for their peacekeeping efforts]. They did a job like no other.”
As the Honorary Consul General, Onu Jaigirdar naturally has a special relationship with Sierra Leone. He talks warmly about the high esteem with which the people there view Bangladesh, referring to a recent video shot for Ekushay, showing how Bangla was spoken in the country. “Sierra Leone is probably my second home. They’ve honoured me by giving me a passport. It’s like a second Bangladesh, you know - they have amra, they have pineapple, they have the same rainy seasons as us, they have a tiny population, the country is half the size of Bangladesh. But they are so like Bangladeshis, they eat with their hands. So many similarities, it’s so easy to live there. They have a Muslim culture as well.”
From life-changing chance encounters to world travel and regional diplomacy, diamonds have provided Onu Jaigirdar with many an unforgettable adventure. If you want some of these brilliant, transformative pieces for yourself, book an appointment with the Jaigirdar Diamonds sales rep Mr Mullick at +880 17 7776 6876