When I first met Jacques Roisen two decades ago, he was already a legend. As the old commercial said, when he spoke, people listened, and it was obvious the affection and respect so many people in the business had for him.
Roisen, a fixture of the New York industry and former president of the International Diamond Manufacturers Association (IDMA), died May 26 at age 91. The industry is greatly diminished by his passing. As DMIA vice president Ron Vanderlinden told me: “He was one of the last of the real diamantaires, the true leaders of the industry, people you really looked up to. He was one of those people you just can’t replace.”
I have two memories that illustrate how much Jacques Roisen loved this business. The first was at a JA show tour of the New York Diamond District. One stop was Roisen’s office, and he gave the visitors a quick talk on the diamond manufacturing process. He was the perfect choice. The grandfatherly charm he projected, the enthusiasm he had for diamond cutting, and the way he made that joy contagious for everyone on the tour, was obvious. The factory stop was a smash hit.
The other was at a 1999 IDMA meeting in Russia. What was the one thing Roisen was most interested in seeing, of all the sights of Moscow? The jewelry collection in the Kremlin—specifically, the diamonds. “I might want to pinch one,” he kept joking. Here was a man who dealt with diamonds every day, yet his love for gems was so strong that he couldn’t wait to see the Kremlin’s collection.
Jacques Roisen cared deeply about this industry, he worked hard to improve it, and exemplified what is best about it. He will be missed. Below are some excerpts of a bio I wrote about Roisen when he was being honored at a DMIA dinner in 2006:
Jacques Roisen was born into an Antwerp diamond family, but his original plan was always to be a pediatrician. Then real life intervened.
When the Germans invaded Belgium, Roisen and his family fled for their lives. Since his mother had an English passport, the family was able to escape to France, Portugal and later, America.
In America, Roisen reconnected with another family of Antwerp refugees, the Furmans— particularly their daughter Alice. Roisen had known her as a child and attended school with her brother Simon. Roisen and Alice began seeing each other. But the war was still going on, and Roisen was drafted into the U.S. Army—which means he ended up, ironically enough, back in Europe, the continent he had just fled. When Roisen’s army duty transferred him back to the United States in 1944, he and Alice were married. They are still married today—60 years later.
After the army, Roisen realized he had to give up his dream of medicine. “They wanted me to start my studies all over,” he recalls now, “and I wasn’t ready to do that.”
So he went into the diamond business, which in retrospect seems a natural fit. Roisen’s father had by this point passed away, but his new father-in-law, Michal Furman, was also in the diamond industry, and a CSO sightholder (as was Roisen’s father) …
Roisen soon became a major player in the local Diamond Manufacturers and Importers Association. He was one of the forces behind the now-famous trip in the late 1980s to convince Congress not to ban diamonds as part of sanctions on South Africa. “He didn’t wait to be invited by the people in Washington,” remembers Roberta Miller, his bookkeeper for 23 years. “He said: Why is everyone just sitting around waiting? And so he went. He wanted to show the people in Washington that this is a business of honest people, and all they were doing would hurt the little guy.”
Later, he was elected president of the world body, the International Diamond Manufacturers Association. He led the group with a gentlemanly style that always sought consensus, but he was unyielding in his commitment to industry ethics. At the 1993 World Diamond Congress, Roisen pushed hard for mandatory disclosure of fracture-filling.
“I was always very proud of our industry,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that everything in our trade was done in a 100 percent honest and ethical manner.” …
Today, two of Roisen’s grandchildren now work alongside him at Kwiat [run by his son-in-law Sheldon]. If you consider that Roisen’s grandfather was a jeweler, that makes five generations of his family in the trade.
And so Jacques Roisen never became a pediatrician. But medicine’s loss has been the diamond business’ inestimable gain.