On May 4th 2018, I officially became a hacker. Yet no laws were broken and no secure data leaked. Even Antwerp’s government officials colluded in the act.
For 36 hours, I hunkered down in a nondescript exhibition hall within the Antwerp Expo to participate in Hack4Diamonds, an event co-sponsored by the Antwerp World Diamond Council (AWDC) and the City of Antwerp (among other sponsors).
Despite a short trip back to my apartment for a much needed shower, I stayed on premises for the entirety of the event. A cot with a sleeping bag improvised for a bed. The bathroom improvised for a changing space. On the upside, free meals, drinks, and an endless supply of caffeine were provided. Even a travelling “massagemobile” showed up to provide massages for hackathon participants and coaches, free of charge.
Participants flew from cities across the globe—Berlin, Moscow, and Tel Aviv—to compete in the hackathon. As anticipated, the gendered ratio was disproportionately imbalanced. Although divided between seasoned and newbie hackers (like myself), men with coding and engineering backgrounds filled the majority of the seats.
The organizers tasked us with nothing short of revolutionizing the diamond industry. Teams organized around a particular “challenge” or a combination of particular challenges. Each challenge centered around a different facet of the diamond. Most participants gravitated to the BlockChain challenge. The very technological infrastructure that permits the trading of the nonfiat currency, BitCoins, has been proposed as a solution to the perennial crisis of (non-)transparency that plagues the global diamond supply-chain. But without a programming background or a sufficient grasp of blockchain technology, I gravitated to the last challenge: to re-envision “the trade of tomorrow.” Experts from inside and outside the industry popped in to consult as we developed our platform. We first had to identify if we wanted to develop a virtual platform or a physical space for collaboration across actors involved in the diamond supply-chain (or some combination thereof). We landed on the latter proposal. After all, it was the rise of virtual platforms & e-commerce websites like BlueNile.com, which was weakening the social ties and face-to-face intimacy of the diamond industry. The space of diamond commerce has undergone social enclosure over the last century. Trade that once took place in the public café relocated to the secure halls of the diamond bourse and then to the individual offices of diamond traders.
To revive the thick sociality of the diamond industry, we proposed a radical transformation: to convert one of Antwerp’s diamond bourses into a co-working space. This space would provide amenities to its members, including: a 3D printing machine for jewelry, web development, legal services, and planning machines for rough diamonds. But to effectively revitalize the space and cross-pollinate ideas, actors from creative and luxury industries would be invited to become members of the co-working space. This would be recuperative to the image of the diamond industry itself, broadly perceived by outsiders as inaccessible, insular, and corrupt.
As required by the hackathon, we had to develop a team name. To evoke the collaborative working space we envisioned, we named ourselves GemHive. In front of a jury at the diamond industry’s annual Carat+ event, I represented my team and pitched our proposal. We earned accolades from one of the jury members, Leannne Kemp, the founder and CEO of Everledger (a blockchain company).
At the end, we won 2nd prize. We have yet to divvy the prizes amongst ourselves: a .25 ct diamond, €750, and a free “Free Mine to Finger” course at the University of Antwerp’s “Summer University.”
Samuel Shuman is a 2017-2018 Fulbright Student Researcher to Belgium. A doctoral student at the University of Michigan, Sam is conducting research on the the reconfiguration of Antwerp’s Hasidic labor force, following recent developments in the international diamond trade. Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.