Leon Finker remembers the moment he named the diamond that he’ll always be associated with. He had just discovered a way to cut triangular diamonds with more brilliance. One duly impressed friend told him, “This will make you a billionaire.” Finker responded, “No. It will make me a trillionaire.”
From that point on, the Trillion diamond had a name.
It’s just one of many fascinating and surprising stories Finker has. That he’s accumulated a wealth of tales is to be expected; in December, the inventor of the Trillion diamond turned 100. As one of the eldest and most accomplished members of the diamond industry, he is now being honored by the trade he’s long been devoted to. He just received a special award from the Diamond Manufacturers and Importers Association to commemorate his lifetime of distinguished service to the industry.
Finker has had an eventful life, one touched by war and economic hardship, which spans several continents and countries. He was born Dec. 25, 1909, in Krakow, Poland. His father was a jeweler, and at age 16, he went to Antwerp, Belgium, to work for an associate of his father’s. Without enough money for a decent place to live, he slept every night on the factory floor.
Eventually a cousin, also in the industry, noticed that Finker was looking thin, and told him he would “fatten him up” with a job at his factory. It was there he learned the diamond business.
He learned it so well that one night at a local nightclub he overheard fellow workers talking about how they planned to steal from the company. He turned them in and became a trusted employee in the process.
But the economy was on the verge of the Great Depression. In 1929, Finker struck out on his own and became a broker. Luckily, he had a cousin who was a big name in the industry. Finker called him and made an offer even this well-established diamantaire found difficult to refuse. He recalls the scene: “I said, ‘How would you like to be my partner?’ He asked me, ‘How much money do you need?’ I said, ‘Not a penny. All you have to do is say yes.’”
The cousin did, and the arrangement proved lucrative for both parties.
“Simply by saying I was his partner I got business,” Finker remembers with a smile. “People couldn’t believe a little guy would have a millionaire for a partner. Every week I bought and sold and gave him half the money. He didn’t have to do anything.”
But history intervened once more. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, Finker escaped to France. “When we came to the French border, they were confiscating everything,” he says. “I switched the diamonds from my pants to my raincoat and they never found them.”
But the border officials did take his car. So one night he sneaked in, hot-wired it, and reclaimed what was his.
Next came Portugal, then Cuba. In both places, he put his diamond contacts to good use. “I stayed in the nicest hotel in Havana and met the Romanian king,” he says. “When they found out I was a diamond man, they all had diamonds to sell me, including a 10.00 ct. yellow stone. I contacted a cousin in the United States, and he said, ‘Pay them $100 a carat.’ Today that would be worth far more.”
Finker’s eventual goal was the United States. But because of restrictions, he was placed on a waiting list and told he couldn’t emigrate for another 12 years. That changed when he stopped by the American consulate to arrange a diamond shipment.
“The ambassador looked at where I’d been and asked me why I didn’t just go straight from Portugal to America,” he recalls. “I said: ‘Because I am an honest man.’ And because of that, he moved up my application to America.”
Thus he became one of the few Jewish refugees to arrive in the United States during World War II. But on his arrival he heard from an unexpected source: the U.S. Army. At the time, Americans up to 32 years of age were eligible for the draft. Finker had just been in the heat of the war in Europe. Now Uncle Sam wanted to send him back.
“They took me to Governors Island and made me a soldier,” he recalls. “But then they found out I had an ulcer, so they gave me a 4F.”
Free to focus on the diamond business, Finker set up a factory with 35 workers. He was already familiar with the American market, having serviced U.S. retailers in Belgium. In 1955, the Trillion was born, leading to legal fights over who originated it. It wasn’t until 1974, when son Marvin joined the business, that the cut was patented.
Through the years in New York, Finker was not only part of the diamond industry but also active in its organizations. He was a member of the original Diamond Dealers Club on Nassau Street and is its sole surviving member. He was a board member of the now-defunct Diamond Trade and Precious Stone Association and for over 30 years was an arbitrator for the Diamond Dealers Club, where he had the sometimes dicey job of refereeing disputes between members. Reflecting on being an arbitrator during an interview with JCK a few years back, he admitted to sometimes losing sleep over difficult cases, but added, “Being an arbitrator is about service. We don’t get anything for it. One time someone sent me a TV. I sent it back.”
Today, Finker is happy that the Trillion Diamond Co. continues with son Marvin, daughter-in-law Sas, and granddaughter Michelle. Although semi-retired, he still comes in four days a week, often lunching at the Diamond Dealers Club to keep up with old friends.
Like many people who reach an advanced age, he doesn’t have any particular recipe for achieving longevity—just that he never expected it and is grateful.
“God has granted me the privilege of a long life,” he says. “My whole family was killed during the war. So maybe I live for them.”