Industry Legend George Kaplan Dies at 97

George Kaplan, the former vice chairman of Lazare Kaplan and chairman of the Gemological Institute of America, died on July 12 following a short illness. He was 97. 

The second son of the company’s namesake, Kaplan ran Lazare Kaplan alongside brother Leo until 1985 and remained with the business for years afterwards, becoming an authority on the technical side. In 1997, he won the American Gem Society’s prestigious Robert M. Shipley Award—its highest honor—and as the story goes, nearly missed the luncheon, because he was watching a movie on TV. Brother Leo had won the same award 20 years prior. 

He was also active in GIA, serving as chairman from 1981 to 1983 and on its board from 1958 to 1992. 

George Kaplan was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1918 and graduated from Cornell University at 19 years old with a degree in psychology. 

In a 2003 JCK profile, Kaplan recalled how his father, unschooled but fluent in geometry, would teach his children about diamond cutting by demonstrating on dinner rolls.

“The real interesting thing,” he told TWA Ambassador magazine, “is that every diamond is an individual. It’s a little like dealing with people. You have to treat each one as an individual.”

Kaplan and his company also played a small but significant role in World War II.

As the United States had been cut off from Switzerland, its planes and ships lacked chronometers. Hamilton Watch developed one but needed a diamond surface to make the balance wheel frictionless. The government appealed to Lazare Kaplan, then the biggest name in the industry, for help. 

Eventually all U.S. ships and warplanes used the chronometer technology Kaplan developed. The technology became so important that the U.S. government would not let Kaplan enlist in the Navy, preferring he remain on that project.

Kaplan is also credited with helping to grow the diamond manufacturing sector in Puerto Rico (where he lived in the 1940s), coinventing the now-standard method for laser inscribing words and numbers on girdles, and developing the High Pressure High Temperature (HPHT) method for improving the color of brown type II diamonds. He also took the company public in the early 1970s, and it remains the only publicly traded U.S. diamond company.

In a statement, Lazare Kaplan chairman Maurice Tempelsman hailed Kaplan as “an inspiration.” 

“[He was a] skilled professional in the industry, well-known for his inventive creativity, his caring human touch, and his business acumen,” Templesman said. “He was also endowed with a vision that prompted him to devote his multiple skills to the growth and standing of the GIA and AGS and to what these two remarkable professional organizations stood for. George knew that if our industry was to grow and thrive, integrity—and the perception of integrity by the consumer—were essential foundations. And he so conducted himself in all his undertakings.” 

He is survived by his wife of 69 years, Carol Tannenbaum Kaplan, three children, and two grandchildren.--