Trade Lives: The Man Who Made Squares Hip

Henry Grossbard had been cutting diamonds for thirty years when he made the discovery that turned him into a legend.

And he did it, primarily, to stand out from the crowd.

“I always wanted to have my own special edge or niche,” he said. “I never wanted to do what everyone else did. I wanted to do something different.”

It was 1976. Emerald cuts had fallen out of favor. “I always liked them and said, ‘Let me see what I can do to play around and put some life in it,'” he recalled. Grossbard wanted a stone that fused the elegance of emeralds (which use step cuts) with the brilliance one sees in rounds and other rounded shapes (which use brilliant cuts). His solution: a combination of the two, a kind of “brilliantized” step.

Creating this was no small task. For two months Grossbard experimented, using actual diamonds as expensive guinea pigs. “I never used a drafting paper or pencil,” he said. “I didn’t use math. I used diamonds.”

Once he created his new shape, his second achievement was to tweak it so that color could either be emphasized or de-emphasized. “Cutters usually cut the stone to reduce the color, to make a J-color stone look white so it can face up better than its body color,” he said. But for fancy-color stones you want to increase the color—and with radiants, you can. As a result, most fancy yellows, in particular, are cut as radiants.

Grossbard knew he had something. But he was missing a name. That came from an uncle in the business. “I was in Los Angeles, and I got a phone call, waking me up at six in the morning,” he said. “My uncle said, ‘I have the perfect name for you: the radiant cut.’ And I knew that was it.”

The cut really gained traction when Van Cleef & Arpels began featuring it in its ads. “That put me on the map,” Grossbard said. “Every jeweler said that if Van Cleef did it, there might be something to it.”

The radiant received one of the first patents ever issued for a diamond cut. But with success came the inevitable knockoffs. For a while a simple cease-and-desist letter was enough to stop the infringing. Soon even that stopped working. “You knew the market had really taken off when the other side decided it was worth litigating,” said Grossbard’s son, Stan, a lawyer who worked with his father and is now heading the business.

Eventually, the company entered into an epic legal battle with Israeli companies that dragged on until the mid-1980s. “At the end of the day, we won,” said Stan Grossbard. “But the litigation took three years and cost a half-million dollars, and in the end we just got back our half million. We decided to take it off patent voluntarily.”

Years later, Henry Grossbard said going “generic” was probably inevitable. “I had created a demand that I couldn’t fulfill,” he said. “I couldn’t keep control of something that was successful. It had to become more or less public property.”

But Grossbard told JCK he was saddened by some of the modern radiant cuts. “I didn’t create the radiant for weight retention,” he said. “I did it to create a beautiful diamond.”

The radiant yielded one happier byproduct: the princess, essentially a modification of Grossbard’s modification, a fiery emerald without the cut corners. Today, princesses are, by most estimates, the most popular fancy cut.

Princesses could have been Grossbard’s creation, too, as he admitted somewhat ruefully: “At one point, I was playing around with the radiant, and I thought: What happens if I make rectangle and square shapes without cut corners? I half-heartedly played around but I didn’t pursue it. I have no doubt I could have solved the problem. But I thought: I am happy with what I have—why do I need a rectangle with sharp corners? But apparently the market needed it.”

War Refugee. Henry Grossbard was born in Vienna prior to World War II. When the Nazis invaded Austria, his family, using a combination of bribes and pluck, escaped across the border to Paris, and eventually to non-occupied (Vichy) France. Since his father had a German passport, he was sent to a work camp.

Grossbard, who spoke French, helped internees with translations when they went to the American Embassy. “There was a girl who worked there,” he recalled. “I was only 16 and I flirted with her. And one day, we were talking and she said, ‘You help so many people you should have a priority.’ So she moved my file from the bottom to the top.” He didn’t know it at the time, but that gesture may have saved his life: Most people in the work camp were sent to Auschwitz. “Because of the file, my visa came through,” he said. “In those days, a difference of weeks or days meant life or death.”

In 1941, he and his sister arrived in America without their parents. Grossbard was only 16, had few relatives in the United States, and didn’t speak much English. He stayed for several months with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—to which he contributed to the end of his life. Eventually he was able to get his parents visas. “We had lost all contact,” he said, “until I got a phone call from my relatives here that they had both made it and were at Ellis Island. It was a miracle.” In the meantime, relatives set him up with jobs, including one in diamonds. “They said, ‘This is a trade you can learn.'”

Which he did. And he was devoted to it through the end, still coming into work six days a week as he approached his 80s.

“I love diamonds,” he told JCK. “I like the material. To me, it’s like marble to a sculptor. I know what it can do, and I know what I can do with it. That’s why I’m here, and not in Florida.”

After over half a century of diamond cutting, Grossbard was genuinely awed at the leaps in cutting technology he had seen. Still, he was a little wary of the idea of computers telling people how and where to cut.

“There are things you learn by your own experience, that you are not taught and that you can’t teach anybody,” he said. “Computers can learn the science of diamond cutting … but the art, I don’t know.”

It’s unlikely a computer could have created the radiant. For that you needed Henry Grossbard.

Henry Grossbard was 79. He is survived by his wife, Gertrude; son, Stanley, and daughter-in-law, Dawn; daughter, Rebecca; and grandchildren Jacob and Alexander. Donations may be made in honor of Henry Grossbard to: The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, 333 Seventh Ave., 17th Fl., New York, NY 10001-5004, www.hias.org