Remembering Alexander Hasenfeld

Alexander Hasenfeld, one of the most respected men in the diamond business and founder of the similarly respected New York City diamond company Hasenfeld-Stein, has died at age 88.

JCK profiled Hasenfeld in the June 2008 issue. The article included a recounting of his Holocaust experiences, which I later found out he only rarely talked about. 

Alexander Hasenfeld

Here are some excerpts:

Hasenfeld was born in Satmar, Hungary, to a religious family. In World War II, he was sent to two of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps: Auschwitz and Dachau. Hasenfeld doesn’t like to speak much about his concentration camp experience, except when recounting how he was one of a handful of internees who participated in the camp’s underground economy. He worked outside in a munitions factory—where he lost a finger—and sold the suits taken away from other inmates to his fellow factory workers. He was paid in cigarettes, the camp currency, hiding the proceeds in his prisoner’s uniform. (He remembers the price: 150 cigarettes a suit.) “There were only three or so people involved in the business,” he says. “Just like in the diamond business, your word was your bond. It was very dangerous, but we had nothing to lose. We were brought there not to leave alive.”

In a company newsletter, he recalled participating in the infamous “death march” from Auschwitz to Dachau: 

[Prisoners] walked night and day, with no food, in sub-freezing temperatures. Fewer than half survived. Most froze to death. Others starved. Those who collapsed from exhaustion were  shot on the spot and left on the road. His memories of all this are vivid to this  day…. “This isn’t memory. I see the pictures in my mind, every single minute of every day.” 

Post-war, Hasenfeld emigrated to the U.S., and like many Jewish newcomers became a diamond cutter:

He soon saw that cutters were a dime a dozen. “Everyone came and sold the same thing,” he says. “I wanted to separate myself from the herd.” 

That he did. In an effort to get what he calls “every last drop of juice from the stone,” he realized that, if the stones were recut, he could make extra money. Today, this is standard procedure, but at the time it was almost revolutionary. “If I saw a stone with an imperfection, to leave it there would be a crime,” he says. “If it was an SI stone and I turned it to VVS, I could triple the profit.” 

As more imperfect diamonds began coming Hasenfeld’s way, other cutters looked on in wonder as the stones he worked on got bigger and bigger. Eventually they figured out what he was doing. “I had about five or six years’ peace,” he says today. “Then they all emulated me.” 

Hasenfeld’s story is inspiring in that while he suffered numerous health setbacks—mostly related to his time as a prisoner—he always bounced back. And this part was illuminating:

Hasenfeld runs his business in a way they don’t teach in business school, but probably should: with a minimum of debt. “I never borrowed money in order to buy goods,” he says. “I still hold that philosophy today. We always stretched as far as capital allowed, but never beyond. My banker tells me I’m the only company that he never had to finance his sight.”

That turned out to be the company’s salvation during the great market crash in the early 1980s. “In those days people went bankrupt because the interest rate was 18 percent,” he notes. “We didn’t grab every last dollar. That’s why my customers stuck with us.”

… Hasenfeld says his own father taught him to “never be satisfied with what you have. Always try further.” That has formed what might be called his business philosophy: “You shouldn’t imitate. If you have an idea, try it. If you don’t try, you never know.”

Aside from that interview, I didn’t know Alexander Hasenfeld all that well, but all those who do describe him as a man of the highest ethics and intellect. He was a credit to his industry, and I am saddened to hear of his passing. My condolences to his friends and family.

JCK News Director