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How One Diamantaire Is Picking Up the Pieces

Israel-based Atzmon Breitbart comes clean on why he’s riding out the Covid-19 crisis behind the wheel of a garbage truck.

Jun 24, 2020 10:56 AM   By Joshua Freedman
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An Israeli diamond cutter with 45 years of experience in the trade turned to a surprising source of income when his business floundered due to Covid-19: driving a garbage truck.

The story of Atzmon Breitbart might sound more worrying than inspiring. But the 66-year-old says he made the move mainly to avoid sitting idle — and prays he’ll be able to return to diamonds when the pandemic is over.

Polished orders dried up when the coronavirus crisis began, so he sought alternative work where he could use his skills in the meantime.

“I have a truck driver’s license,” Breitbart says. “I looked and looked and looked [for a job], and suddenly [I came up with] this idea.”

He caught the attention of a refuse-truck driver outside his home one morning at 5 a.m., asked for the manager’s number, passed the practical test, and got the job.

The other 50%

News of a self-employed diamantaire working in waste removal — with its apparent riches-to-rags story line — spread fast. He soon appeared on Israeli national television and radio, speaking enthusiastically about his active working day.

“What do you mean you’re not rich? Aren’t diamond dealers rich by definition?” one television presenter asked, half provocatively, as Breitbart stood on camera in front of his massive green vehicle. Breitbart explained that diamond dealers were the first to suffer in a downturn, as consumers tended to focus on essential purchases. Furthermore, he retorted, only about 50% of diamantaires were wealthy — and he was part of the 50% who weren’t.

Business was already tough before the coronavirus, Breitbart tells Rapaport Magazine. But it used to be much better.

He started in the industry in the mid-1970s in Netanya, which at the time was the heart of the Israeli diamond trade.

“Anyone in diamonds made money,” Breitbart recalls, referring to his early years. “I had 40 workers. I would walk around in Netanya with my head held high. I would go around like I was a Knesset [Israeli parliament] member or government minister.”

Thinning margins

His business wobbled when the 1982 Lebanon War disrupted the country’s economy, forcing him to leave the profession for a year or two. He returned to set up a factory in Ramat Gan, which replaced Netanya as Israel’s diamond city.

Manufacturing continued to provide him with a living for several years, but it became tougher. India and China emerged as Israel’s competitors, offering larger production volumes at lower costs.

Meanwhile, new rough-mapping technology reduced manufacturing profits. Since rough suppliers could now know the exact value of polished their clients could derive from a stone, they were able to determine the highest possible rough price, he explains. In the past, even an expert could only guess the rough’s value, so the cutter’s potential to profit on the polished was greater. “It was gambling — you could make a 100% profit or a 50% loss,” Breitbart says. “But you had a chance of making a profit.”

After the coronavirus

Thin margins turned into zero revenues almost overnight during the Covid-19 shutdown, as people stopped buying luxury items and cargo flights ceased. Breitbart thinks it will be hard for Israel’s diamond sector to recover; the rise of India and China has left Ramat Gan with a dwindling industry. Even so, he hopes to be back at the cutting wheel soon. “It’s what I know how to do,” he says. “I’m praying this crisis will end, flights will return, and I’ll get a phone call [with orders]. I love making diamonds, polishing. You think I should continue being a truck driver all my life?”

This article was first published in the June issue of Rapaport Magazine.

Image: Atzmon Breitbart beside his garbage truck. (Atzmon Breitbart)
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Tags: Atzmon Breitbart, Coronavirus, COVID-19, garbage truck, Israel, Joshua Freedman, Rapaport Magazine
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