Trade Lives: By George!

Lazare Kaplan may be the diamond industry’s version of Zelig. Name an industry trend, and the company—which turns 100 this year—was there, generally from the beginning.

It was the first company to tout “Ideal Cuts,” the first to start a brand, the first to get a patent for girdle inscriptions, the first to open a factory in Puerto Rico, and more recently, the first to market heat-and-pressure treatments. It was also an early supporter of AGS and GIA.

Enjoying a front-row seat for all this is George Kaplan, 85. The second son of the company’s namesake, George ran the company with brother Leo until 1984, when Lazare Kaplan fell victim to the problems then consuming the diamond industry and declared Chapter 11. The firm later was acquired by the Tempelsman family.

Telling tales. George Kaplan has fascinating stories to tell about industry legends like Harry Winston and Marcel Tolkowsky, but some of his best stories are about himself.

Take the small but significant role he played in World War II. Because the United States was cut off from Switzerland, it lacked chronometers for its planes and ships. Hamilton Watch eventually made one but needed a diamond surface to make the balance wheel frictionless. The government approached Lazare Kaplan— then the biggest name in diamonds—for help. George devised the technology that was used in all U.S. ships and warplanes. His contribution was so important that the U.S. government would not let him enlist in the Navy, preferring to keep him on the job and overseeing the project.

His family history is equally fascinating. George’s father, Lazare Kaplan, was born in Russia. When an epidemic struck his village, he lost 10 brothers and sisters in a month. His parents and three surviving siblings journeyed to Belgium, but along the way, 7-year-old Lazare was separated from his family. “Amazingly, this child, not knowing the language and without his passport, managed to find his way to Belgium,” says George.

Lazare Kaplan had no formal schooling, but he had an understanding of geometry and crystallography that allowed him to predict exactly how a stone would finish. George and Leo literally grew up with diamonds. At dinner, Lazare would teach his children about diamond cutting by demonstrating on dinner rolls.

Lazare’s most celebrated moment came when he cut the 726-ct. Jonker, then the largest uncut diamond in the world. Harry Winston, the stone’s owner, asked three cutters for advice. Lazare Kaplan noticed a flaw in the stone and his advice contradicted that of the others. It’s a testament to Lazare’s reputation that Winston threw in his lot with him.

Cutting the Jonker was no easy job. Before cleaving the stone, Lazare spent a full year studying it. The weekend before it was cut, he spent two days fly-fishing upstate—”the equivalent of a deep breath,” George says. When the stone finally was cleaved, it came apart exactly the way Lazare had said it would. The moment of truth made it to The New York Times and Movietone News—although contrary to popular legend, Lazare did not faint immediately after cutting the stone.

Lazare’s gut instinct proved right again when he opened his first diamond factory in Puerto Rico. “My father knew that people in Puerto Rico made wonderful lace,” George says. “He figured that if they made nice lace they could also polish diamonds.” Today, the company’s facility there has been in operation longer than any other factory in Puerto Rico.

George also worked with second cousin Marcel Tolkowsky, the engineering student who in 1919 conceived the “Ideal Cut” for round brilliants, later the foundation of Kaplan’s business. “Marcel was the innovative mathematical thinker, but all the Tolkowsky brothers were remarkably bright,” George says. “Lucien Tolkowsky, Marcel’s brother, had a photographic memory. He had this huge library of books. If you opened a book and read a sentence, he could tell you what book it was from, who wrote it, what page it was on, and where it was on the page.”

Awards and rewards. Like his father, George had several moments in the sun, appearing on game shows such as I’ve Got a Secret and What’s My Line? “I was one of the few cleavers who could speak English,” he says. On one Today show appearance, he took his glasses off during a commercial break. When the show returned, he realized he had put on the wrong pair. “Everything went black and I couldn’t see a thing,” he says, but he managed to improvise until the situation was corrected. Another time, he appeared on The Joan Rivers Show, displaying diamonds. Rivers’ husband was in the audience, and the next day he bought a diamond ring from George.

Long active at GIA, George received the American Gem Society’s prestigious Robert Shipley Award in 1997. The same award had been won 20 years earlier by Leo, but George nearly missed the surprise ceremony because he was watching Driving Miss Daisy on TV.

Today, George is still a regular presence at the office, though most of his current work involves medical applications for diamonds. (It was through this research that he learned about HPHT.) He’s particularly proud that his great-granddaughter now works at LKI—the fifth generation of the family to work there. And who knows? Maybe someday she’ll be the one telling stories.