By Michelle Graff
A close-up of the Fenix, the automated diamond polishing machine created by the Scientific and Technological Research Center for Diamonds, or WTOCD, in Antwerp. The WTOCD has been working on the development of the Fenix for more than a decade.
Antwerp--Diamond companies in Antwerp are testing a machine that will automate a process done largely by hand since the 15th century. 

The Scientific and Technological Research Center for Diamonds (WTOCD), the research arm of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre (AWDC), recently announced the development of the Fenix, which fully automates the diamond polishing process and has created what industry leaders in Antwerp are calling a “game-changer” for the city.

Antwerp, once a hub for diamond manufacturing, has seen the majority of those jobs gravitate to markets where labor is cheaper, like India.

But the development of the Fenix “fundamentally changes the diamond polishing process,” AWDC CEO Ari Epstein said.

“Today’s wages simply make it too expensive to conduct this labor-intensive job in our country. Fenix puts an end to this and can therefore be a real game-changer for the Antwerp diamond industry.”

The AWDC said the machine can polish a diamond 10 to 20 times faster than a human can by hand, meaning a stone that would take a diamond polisher all day can be completed in about an hour and a half. It cuts according to the map provided to it by the person (or machine) that has examined the stone and decided the best way to polish it. 

What the machine can’t do, however, is cut multiple diamonds from a single piece of rough.

Michael Geelhand de Merxem, project manager at AWDC, said there is no cap on the carat size of diamonds the Fenix can polish; if a large piece of rough is going to be cut into a single stone, then the Fenix can be used.

But it can only cut one polished diamond per rough stone so users would not, for example, put a 400-carat diamond in there and expect the machine to cut multiple polished diamonds from that rough.

The Fenix is currently being tested by a number of diamond companies in Antwerp (the AWDC declined to provide specific names) but is expected to be fully functional and ready for market by the end of the year.

Geelhand de Merxem said the AWDC is still in the process of determining the machine’s market price.

“While the technology itself is definitive—our tests having confirmed the exceptional performance of the Fenix in the lab—we still need to conduct extensive testing as to how the machine will perform in an actual production environment before starting commercial sales. That is where we are at now.”

He added that the AWDC is “exercising additional caution,” as the slightest of errors proves very costly in the diamond polishing trade.

WATCH: The Fenix at Work

Fenix, Diamond Manufacturing Reinvented. from DiamondsLoveAntwerp on Vimeo.

As with any type of automation—driverless cars, cashierless grocery stores—the introduction of the Fenix brings with it the question of: What will happen to the people who are replaced by machines?

Shortly after the Fenix was announced, the Times of India published a story quoting a diamond industry analyst as saying the new machine developed in Antwerp will pose a “big challenge” to those who work as diamond polishers in India, which is world’s largest diamond manufacturing center.

20180628 Fenix and pressA shot of the entire Fenix machine as it is presented to the press in Antwerp. The AWDC said the machine will be available in the fall.
When asked about the Times story, Geelhand de Merxem said it is not known at this point exactly how the Fenix will be used, including if it is “economically viable” to use on very small stones, which are the type of goods worked on by many Indian polishers.

“It could be that it does not impact the jobs of people working on very small stones whatsoever, but no one is able to determine that just now,” he said.

He added that while the Fenix was not created to eliminate jobs or replace people, but rather to make diamond polishing more efficient and affordable in Antwerp, “every major technological development or revolution puts traditional jobs under duress because the new technology is typically more efficient, more accurate and works faster, and eliminates much of the ‘human’ element, of course. The Fenix is no different.”

Get the Daily News >
National Jeweler

Fine Jewelry Industry News

Since 1906, National Jeweler has been the must-read news source for smart jewelry professionals--jewelry retailers, designers, buyers, manufacturers, and suppliers. From market analysis to emerging jewelry trends, we cover the important industry topics vital to the everyday success of jewelry professionals worldwide. National Jeweler delivers the most urgent jewelry news necessary for running your day-to-day jewelry business here, and via our daily e-newsletter, website and other specialty publications, such as "The State of the Majors." National Jeweler is published by Jewelers of America, the leading nonprofit jewelry association in the United States.