Story of a Diamond Dealer- The Life and Times of Jack Lunzer

Jack Lunzer’s adventures in the diamond industry thrill like a bestseller.

Jack Lunzer’s larger than life character and shrewd business mind helped him battle with diamond giant De Beers, negotiate with African dictators and lobby the Reagan and Soviet Administrations.

Jack Lunzer, a merchant, adventurer and diamond dealer was an expansive, jovial raconteur. Our friendship grew as he was a brilliant source for stories about the gem and industrial diamond market.

Over the years I would visit him at Fairport, his beautiful home which overlooks Hampstead Heath in north London. Sitting in his study, surrounded by undulating green fields and woods, he would offer me a glass of Chivas Regal and coffee, and we would talk.

Jack – a tall, large man with a shock of thick, white hair – in his 70s and early 80s was still very active in the business. Despite his imposing physical appearance he was quietly unassuming. He modestly glossed over his impact on the global diamond market while regaling how he drank pink champagne with Mobutu Seso Seko, the former President of Zaire (now Congo) in his Gbadolite Palace.

Jack, of course, was uncomfortable with African dictator corruption, but there were amusing moments. Mobutu once told him that the Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish communities were quarrelling over land for a synagogue in Kinshasa, Zaire’s capital. Speaking French with an African accent, he impersonated Mobutu asking: “They’re from the same tribe, why are they fighting?”

Dying Days of the De Beers diamond cartel

I first met Jack, a fiercely independent trader, in the early 1980s. He was then taking on the powerful diamond cartel De Beers and managed to prise away the diamond dealing agency of Zaire, one of Africa’s leading diamond producers. At the time, De Beers controlled more than four-fifths of the global rough diamond market – worth billions of dollars – and supported gem prices with a monopoly of producers.

Jack persuaded Zaire to dump the cartel. He and two other independent dealers then obtained Zaire’s sales agency and sold large quantities of gems and industrial diamonds from Zaire’s Miba mine. The global diamond mining, dealing and jewellery communities were stunned.

A few years later, De Beers persuaded Zaire to re-enter its fold. Despite that, Jack’s pioneering efforts were already taking hold. Jack encouraged miners from Africa, Russia and Australia to value and sell part of their production independently – this would help them receive the best prices for their diamonds.

Meanwhile, cracks in the cartel widened. With a much smaller share of the market, De Beers had to stop supporting prices and compete with other producers in selling gems to dealers around the world. De Beers is still a flourishing business, but it now controls less than 40 percent of the market.

Humour Good for Business

Remarkably, Jack remained on good terms with De Beers’ then chairman Harry Oppenheimer and legal director Tim Capon who would giggle about Jack’s chutzpah and exploits. But that was Jack, even his rivals revered him! His wit and charm won over African leaders and dictators from Siaka Stevens of Sierra Leone to Ahmed Sékou Touré, President of Guinea.

Jack was even appointed French Guinea’s honorary consul general to Britain and sometimes went on diplomatic missions. Diplomats and other visitors seeking information about Guinea were puzzled. Why was the Consulate in the midst of Hatton Garden?

In June 1990, Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, President of Angola, asked him to negotiate with President Ronald Reagan’s administration. At the time, the Angolan government was fighting a bitter civil war against the rebel army of Joseph Savimbi. The Reagan administration had backed Savimbi, because the Soviet Union was supporting Dos Santos’ socialist cause. Jack’s lobbying, however, encouraged the U.S. to eventually resume diplomatic relations with the Angolan government.

Russian Roulette

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Jack introduced me to executives of Alrosa, Russia’s largely state-owned diamond mining monopoly. It was a bit scary. At least one of them was a former KGB agent. Later he asked me to co-author a chapter in a book that commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Russian diamond industry. The reason was that he was one of the very few diamond and other traders, who had dealings with the Soviet Union.

Jack’s relationship with the Russians began in 1946. The Soviet Union needed industrial diamonds for the reconstruction of Stalingrad, Leningrad and other cities and industries. Jack had become a specialist in industrial diamonds and abrasives and visited Russia during the Cold War years.

Stalin had commissioned geologists to assess promising gem deposits. When Jack heard that diamonds were discovered in Yakutia, Siberia, his company IDC Ltd began buying gems and large quantities of industrial diamonds from the Soviet Union.

Jack and IDC co-Director Goeffrey Leggett had several unusual experiences in Russia. In 1990, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they boarded the huge Antonov AN-12 military supply aircraft and visited the Mirny mine in Siberia. They offered to buy the production and negotiated with Vladimir Piskunov, who was head of Yakutalmaz Trust which managed mining and processing operations at Mirny, and Evgeny Bytchkov, head of the Association of Russian Diamond Producers.
During the 90s Jack continued to visit Russia regularly and advised producers to sell their production independently of De Beers. From 2009 onwards, Alrosa carried out this policy. The relationship was so good that Alrosa’s London division, moved into IDC’s Hatton Garden building.

Reputation and Trust

Jack used to hold Friday night services at his home, although he didn’t describe himself as ultra-religious.

“I’m no angel, but a reputation is the be all and end all,” he used to say. “If people know you can be trusted, you are half way there.”

He then added: “My life? It’s gone just like that!”

Jack Lunzer (1924 – 2016)

© copyright Neil Behrmann, who has written numerous features and articles on diamonds for the Wall Street Journal and other leading international publications. Jack of Diamonds, his thriller on global diamond mining and smuggling, has recently been published. It is the sequel to the thriller, Trader Jack, The Story of Jack Miner.
See reviews of both books:

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