Lazare Kaplan was born to a financially-struggling Jewish family. One of 13 children, Kaplan was born on July 17, 1883 in Zabludova, Russia to Simon and Rachel Kaplan. His father was very religious and spent his nights studying Jewish texts. However as a third generation descendant of a jewelry-making family, during the day he was a watchmaker and jeweler, giving his son his first taste of jewelry.
Like many giants of the diamond industry, Lazare Kaplan was born to a financially-struggling Jewish family. One of 13 children, Kaplan was born on July 17, 1883 in Zabludova, Russia to Simon and Rachel Kaplan. His father was very religious and spent his nights studying Jewish texts. However as a third generation descendant of a jewelry-making family, during the day he was a watchmaker and jeweler, giving his son his first taste of jewelry.
At age 13, his family moved to Belgium, joining Simon Kaplan's brother and settling in the Jewish community in Antwerp. Like many other members of this community, Lazar's uncle worked in the diamond industry, owning a diamond polishing workshop. Although still a child, Kaplan joined the effort to support his family and began working an apprentice at his uncle's workshop.
Seven years later, 20 year-old Kaplan started his own diamond business. A diamond cleaver splits rough diamonds, usually to remove imperfections, such as internal spots and flaws. A key part of his work is to take advantage of dents and cracks in a rough diamond and decide which parts to separate from the rough diamond in order to improve its clarity.
The skills needed at the time to become a successful cleaver cannot be underestimated. Unlike today, where diamond polishers rely heavily on advanced technology for imaging and laser cutting, at the time the cleaver was often the person who first shaped the diamond, by striking a carefully placed blade on a rough diamond. Any misstep could lead to a great loss of value. A cleaver, therefore, requires the greatest amount of skill and know-how in the diamond profession. To acquire the skill, cleavers first had to become unparalleled experts in the structure and attributes of diamonds and understand the potential of each diamond in its rough state. Thanks to that great skill, it is frequently the cleaver who determines what shape and size polished diamonds can be manufactured from the rough diamond.
Therefore, the cleaver carried a heavy responsibility to obtain the maximum value from diamonds, particularly when a large diamond was being polished. Once a rough diamond is cleaved, there is no going back. In 1903, with seven years of experience in polishing diamonds, Lazare Kaplan was such an expert, and far beyond. Because of his age, he struggled to get rough stones from wholesalers, who preferred to deal with established firms. He was forced to buy more undesirable, irregular, and complicated diamonds. This turned out to be a huge blessing, as he learned how to profit from these difficult diamonds, and became a major buyer of stones that dealers would otherwise struggle to sell. Diamond polishers from around Antwerp started entrusting their diamonds with the young cleaver, and he quickly became renowned as a master in his field, one of a few elite.
In 1914, Kaplan decided to take an extended vacation and traveled to New York City with his wife and son to visit his mother. Not long after their departure for the US, World War I broke out. On August 4, after Belgium declared neutrality and refused to allow the German army passage to France, Germany invaded Belgium. Although conquering Belgium was not Germany's main goal, a series of attacks by the remaining Belgian forces that retreated to Antwerp led to a change in plans, and German forces held a siege on Antwerp. On October 9, after two weeks of a series of super-heavy artillery bombardments, Antwerp fell. The city was in ruins, and Antwerp's diamond industry was badly hurt. Away from his workshop and employees, and unable to return to Belgium to retrieve his assets, Kaplan's business in Antwerp was gone.
Armed with a unique skill set, he decided to start over. With a small loan from a friend, he opened a small workshop in lower Manhattan, which at the time was an area of small diamond businesses. Kaplan was not satisfied with the diamond-cutting skills demonstrated by local workers and started to look for people he could train as diamond polishers. Following a recommendation from a relative who was an engineer in Puerto Rico, Kaplan traveled to Ponce, Puerto Rico. He was impressed by people's eagerness to learn and decided to establish an apprenticeship program there in 1917. Basing the program on his own experience, the apprentices were first trained to become cutters and polishers, and then were employed in the Lazare Kaplan polishing factory. With that, Kaplan brought a new industry to Puerto Rico.
The diamond polishing facility in Puerto Rico proved to be a wise move, and Kaplan moved all his polishing activities there, while maintaining an office in New York where he bought rough diamonds and sold polished diamonds.
In 1919, two years after gaining his foothold in Puerto Rico, Kaplan's cousin Marcel Tolkowsky, a diamond cutter, engineer and mathematician, published a landmark essay titled, Diamond Design for his dissertation in mathematics at the University of London. In it, he described a mathematical formula for cutting diamonds to precise angles and proportions to gain maximum reflection and refraction of light. The resulting diamond measurements described in this work are known today as the Ideal Cut. This groundbreaking work considered the three factors that determine light in diamonds: fire, brilliance, and sparkle. Kaplan immediately adopted the theory and started to polish diamonds in his factory according to Tolkowsky's formula.
Although he did very well, external circumstances once again brought his business to its knees. October 29, 1929, marked the beginning of the worst stock market crash in US history. Happening as the global economy was heading into a collapse, its outcome was devastating. This period became known as the Great Depression. It started in the US and spread across the world. For the diamond industry, this meant that demand fell to near-nothing, leading to a collapse in diamond prices and the closure of many diamond firms around the world. Kaplan was one of them. However, the business was rescued by an unexpected source. Kaplan's son Leo, who was working at the New York shop during the day and going to school during the evenings, had saved $300. He withdrew his savings and gave them to his father to help him get started again.
Kaplan was able to rebuild his business and survived the decade-long depression. He moved to mid-Manhattan, where he was slowly joined by thousands of Jewish diamond workers who fled Amsterdam and Antwerp as the Nazis swept into Holland and Belgium in the early days of World War II.
Although his company, Lazare Kaplan & Sons, was already a well-established diamond polishing and trading company, his greatest leap into diamond industry fame came in 1936 when he cleaved the 726-carat Jonker diamond. The diamond was found by Johannes Jacobus Jonker at the Elandsfontein mine in South Africa in 1934, and purchased by Harry Winston in 1935 for $350,000 from De Beers. To generate publicity, Winston put the rough diamond on display at the American Museum of Natural History and took it on a tour, having it photographed with a number of Hollywood stars, including Claudette Colbert and Shirley Temple. When he decided to polish the diamond, Winston commissioned Kaplan to cleave it. The fee, enormous for depression era times, was reported to be $30,000.
In an interview in 1979, Kaplan recalled that the main reason he had agreed to accept the task for Harry Winston, who was a competitor, was not so much the money, but the fact that he wanted his older son, Leo, to gain the experience of participating in the cleaving of a huge diamond. "I did not think it would be a very difficult job,'' he said, ''because when it came to this country it had already been studied for Mr. Winston by foreign diamond experts, and they had told him how it should be cleaved." But as he studied the diamond, he became convinced that those experts were wrong and that if he followed their suggestions, the stone would shatter. He shared his concerns with Winston and suggested a different way of cleaving the diamond. Winston trusted Kaplan and instructed him to proceed as he saw fit. It was a very brave call. Although the diamond was insured for $1 million, the policy did not cover the cleaving operation. A mistake would mean that the initial investment in the rough diamond would be lost.
Kaplan spent the following year studying the diamond together with his son. They built models of the diamond, and considered various ways to cut the diamond. Not only did he want to get the biggest and cleanest polished diamond possible out of the rough diamond, he also wanted to ensure that in the process, he could maximize the results by getting as many additional smaller stones from it – also with the aim of achieving the largest sizes with the fewest possible inclusions. On April 27, 1936, Kaplan made the first cut, cleaving off a 35-carat section. At the end of the process, the rough diamond was polished into 13 diamonds. The largest was named Jonker I, a 142.90-carat, emerald-shaped, D color, and flawless clarity diamond. The other diamonds polished from the original rough ranged in weight from 40.6 to 3.53-carats.
Under his guidance, and together with his two sons, Leo and George, the company continued to grow and introduced many firsts. In 1946, they became a De Beers Sightholder, and in 1957 improved the design of oval-shaped diamonds to create the cut known as Oval Elegance. In 1972, the firm renamed itself as Lazare Kaplan International, and that year became the first diamond company to go public.
Among his many honors and accolades, in 1964 Kaplan was named Honorary Vice President of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in recognition of his contributions to the jewelry industry. In 1977, Kaplan was cited by the Puerto Rican government for establishing the local diamond polishing industry, and in 1979, he was the first person inducted into the Retail Jewelers of America Hall of Fame.
Although his sons took over the day-to-day management of the company, Kaplan continued to come to work until well into his 90s. Lazare Kaplan died on February 12, 1986 at the age of 102, leaving behind a legacy of innovation, boldness, perseverance through devastating circumstances, and remembered as one of the greatest diamond-cutting artisans in history.
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