Rapaport Magazine


Jacob Zupnick: Diamantaire extraordinaire passes away.

By Martin Rapaport

Jacob Zupnick
1948 – 2015
The diamond business isn’t really about diamonds. It’s about people, specifically diamantaires. If you want to know what is really going on in our trade you need to understand not just what we do, but who we are. The personalities, their values and our global community.
   Lots of positive things can and should be said about Jacob Zupnick (Zupi) who passed away on June 30, 2015. He was larger than life, physically and spiritually. He shared his open and caring heart with anyone and everyone.
   This article focuses on the fact that he was among the last generation of true diamantaires who put community and values ahead of personal profits. A diamantaire for whom the diamond trade was a warm community of compassionate friends who took care of each other. Life is about much more than money and Zupi recognized that the same is true about the diamond business.
   I first met Zupi as a broker knocking on doors on 47th Street. He was doing the same. A six-foot-plus, big and broad, larger-than-life Hassid, wearing a big coat stuffed with diamonds. We worked the Street looking for goods and customers. It was tough starting out. If a manufacturer gave you goods to sell, it was because it was hard to find customers; and if you had customers, it was hard to find the right goods.
   This was before computers and the internet. There were no lists of diamonds or prices. Information was by word of mouth and secretive. To do deals you had to know people, build trusting relationships and share information. Sometimes you would help someone do a deal and later they would help you. It was very fair, very informal, yet efficient.
   As brokers we were a vital part of the market providing cutters with liquidity for goods that they did not have customers for. Yet we were looked down upon because we didn’t have the money to own goods. We were at the bottom of the 47th Street food chain. We had to live off the Street, making a market, hustling and bustling to do deals. Sometimes we had the feeling that it was us — the brokers — against them — the cutters. Even though we were competing with each other, we identified with each other and helped each other. That’s what Zupi was all about. Us. The diamond community and the people of 47th Street.
   Zupi was a community builder in our business. Simply put, he truly cared about others. Take Hatzalah, for example. Hatzalah literally translates to “Save.” It’s a volunteer emergency medical service that was started by Zupi and some friends. Zupi got himself and others trained as emergency medical technicians, raised funds, purchased an ambulance and placed it on 47th Street. It didn’t matter if you were Jewish, Italian, black, white or whatever. You called, he came and saved a life. Over the decades, hundreds of people with heart attacks, strokes and other life-threatening conditions had their lives saved by what Zupi did. So ask yourself, why would a Hassidic Jew, with seven kids, over 50 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren, working hard to scratch out a living do that? I think it was because Zupi was about more than just Zupi. Even though he didn’t make money doing much of what he did on the Street, he did it because he cared more about others than himself. Specifically, he cared about the diamond community. That’s what a real diamantaire is all about.
   It’s the 1990s and big stones are booming. Zupi had moved up and you would find him at all the Magnificent Jewelry auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. He’s standing with a crowd at the back of the room. Schmoozing, wheeling and dealing, as the auction in the front of the room sets record prices for huge multimillion dollar diamonds. It was an eclectic crowd of super-rich customers, world-class cutters and big dealers. They were all there: Laurence, Bill, Ahmed, Robert, Ben and Sam presided over by François, with his sharp wit and fast hammer. The diamonds were magnificent and so were the people.
   I look around and there is Zupi and Ahmed Fitaihi, from Saudi Arabia, talking and conspiring. It looked like they were dancing. At that time, Ahmed was the most important big diamond buyer in the world. Zupi had become Ahmed’s broker. So ask yourself, how does a Hassid from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, hook up with a super-rich powerful Arab from Riyadh? What kind of cross-cultural diamantaire personality does it take to do that?
   I’ve spent six long years on the board of the New York Diamond Dealers Club and hit the three-term limit. The board members are all big, important manufacturers and dealers. No brokers, small guys or Hassidim on the board. Who should I get to replace me and what I stand for? I called Zupi. Busy as he was with a growing business and Hatzalah, Zupi agreed to run for the board. It was a tough campaign, the first time a broker and Hassid ran for election. But there he was, a winner — not just for himself — but for all of us on the way up. I’m happy. Zupi is happy.
   Now that Zupi is gone, I am left with only one more question. Where are the Zupis of the next generation? Please stand up and out. Identify yourselves by your actions.
   Zupi was featured in “The Diamond Road” an important documentary film about the diamond industry. It is available online at http://www.diamondroad.tv/. You can also read an article about him at http://www.diamonds.net/News/NewsItem.aspx?ArticleID=1742.

Donations in Zupi’s memory can be sent to Hatzalah at hatzalah.org/donatemidtown.php. Write Jacob Zupnick Fund in the comment box.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - August 2015. To subscribe click here.

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