NEW YORK — The diamond industry is in the midst of tremendous change as manufacturers of all stripes look to brand themselves and the De Beers Group loses its firm grip on the world’s diamond supply.

This was the focus of two recent conferences: the first Rapaport International Diamond Conference, which took place in October in New York, and the Antwerp Diamond Conference, which was held last month in Belgium and featured former President Bill Clinton as the keynote speaker.

“De Beers used to be the major player and control 85 percent of the diamond market, and now it controls 55 percent,” said Dilip Mehta, president and chief executive officer of Rosy Blue Group, the diamond concern that makes jewelry for Vera Wang, at Rapaport. “We have also seen the consolidation of wholesalers and the erosion of margins due to increased rough prices.”

Others outlined what they see as some of the industry’s challenges in the near future.

“Consumers are demanding greater value from what they buy and how they spend their money,” said Terry Burman, ceo of Signet Group, which owns Kay Jewelers. “And we live in a world of shrinking gross margins.”

Ed Bridge, president and joint ceo of Ben Bridge Jewelers, said he is looking for growth of between 3 and 4 percent in 2004. Nonetheless, he noted that there is more competition today than there has ever been. “Wal-Mart has discovered jewelry,” he said. “They want more of this business.”

Meanwhile, at the Antwerp conference, local government officials and the Antwerp High Diamond Council made their case for expanding this hub for the uncut diamond trade into a center for diamond jewelry. Some 80 percent of the world’s rough diamonds and half its polished diamonds pass through Antwerp.

HRD wants to promote Antwerp as a one-stop shop for clients to buy and ship.

“Big or small, expensive or cheap, it is a new world for branded and marketed diamond jewelry and it needs its own supermarket,” said Peter Meeus, HRD’s managing director.

Faced with slumping consumer demand, a high level of debt and high inventories of polished stones, many diamond firms are seeking ways to reinvent themselves.Martin Coeroli, managing director of nonprofit organization Perles de Tahiti, discussed how his group has branded Tahitian pearls. He attributed the group’s success in large part to an aggressive public relations campaign and endorsements by such Hollywood stars as Julia Roberts, Sharon Stone and Halle Berry.

Stephen Lussier, executive director of marketing for the Diamond Trading Co., said his company expects all its business partners and the companies it supplies to contribute financially and otherwise to marketing diamonds, a move the DTC has been pushing heavily in the last year as it seeks to encourage the introduction of more diamond brands.

Speaking at a gala dinner, Clinton underscored the importance of stemming the world’s trade in illegal rough diamonds — often used to fund terrorist activities — and commended the industry for its efforts to do so through the Kimberley Process. “We have to make a world with more partners and fewer terrorists and fewer enemies,” he said.

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