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20 july 2021

By Alex Popov

Willie Nagel passed away on July 14th. Friday he was buried in Israel. I was flying from New York with a stopover in London when it happened. Being unable to be there and express my feelings to Adam and Toni, I would like to remember him here.

Our last meeting was a year before COVID cut off the travel schedules. His modest apartment in St John Wood was squeaky clean, and Willie was presiding over the tea in his wheelchair. He was 93 years old then, but his mind was as clear as 20 years before when we first met.

It always amazed me how this small gentleman, and I cannot characterize Willie other than a gentleman, would have the strength and stamina to deal with business leaders and politicians. He made sure they listen to him, take his advice and implement his ideas. But, at the same time, he would always find room for ordinary people like myself who would come to seek his guidance.

I learned a lot from Willie and will always be grateful for that. 

In April 2016 Yaakov Almor published an excellent interview with Willie Nagel in the World Diamond Magazine. With Yaakov’s permission, I would like to repeat it here.

May his memory be blessed.

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          INTERVIEW WITH

                     AN INDUSTRY ICON

                                            WILLIE NAGEL

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By Ya’akov Almor

“Consumer confidence must always remain the first priority in this business. Profitability too, especially today, but there are no profits without consumers!”

(The World Diamond Magazine) - “Where do I find Mr. Nagel,” I asked the concierge at the Tel Aviv Hilton. “Oh, he is waiting for you out on the balcony,” the concierge says, pointing me into the direction.

“And can you give him these envelopes, please,” he adds, handing me a sheaf of envelopes of various sizes.

“I guess he is a regular here?” I ask.

“Sure, we all know Mr. Nagel!” the concierge smiles.

Willie Nagel is seated under a huge parasol, with his back to the sun – and the sweeping, magnificent view of the Mediterranean. On the table, there are two cell phones at his right, the Jerusalem Post at his left and a plate of fresh watermelon in front of him. His walking stick is stuck into the modern, high-tech walker that stands parked beside him. At 90, Nagel isn’t steady on his feet anymore. But his mind - and his tongue - are as sharp as ever.

Willie Nagel comes to Israel often and most often stays at the Hilton. “It’s a second home,” he smiles, and waving at the scene behind him,” And it offers a great view! I never tire of it.” Nagel was last in Israel at the 2015 Presidents’ Meeting of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses (WFDB) and the International Diamond Manufacturers Association (IDMA), during which he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the World Federation of Diamond Bourses in recognition of his contribution to the global diamond industry.

After introducing myself, I tell him that during the past decades we have met several times, but that we never had an opportunity to sit down for an interview or conversation, adding that in those instances, he was always surrounded or accompanied by industry leaders and players, many of whom were, no doubt, also his clients. I also share that, at the time, he seemed difficult to approach and somewhat short tempered when it concerned members of the [trade] press. “Nonsense,” Nagel impatiently waves away the impression, “I have always talked to the press, when appropriate!”

It is however clear this is a rare occurrence. Nagel gave an extensive interview to the Israeli daily HaAretz in 2007. And further research did not render a single interview or article in Rapaport, IDEX or in any of the mainstream print or online diamonds, gem and jewellery trade publications. The formidable long-time editor of the Israeli publication HaYahalom noted she had actually never interviewed Nagel – but said she would gladly publish one. A google search brings a few more sources, but one can count them on the fingers of a hand.

Speaking to Nagel, I feel it necessary to give him a bit more background information about my professional and industry background, ticking off my fingers the various companies, organizations, national and international, that I work or have worked for. We talk a bit more about the industry, he asks me a question or two and then says: “You came to interview me, I do not need to interview you.”

We set the parameters of the interview: I need his perspective on industry landmark events and a rundown of current affairs, such as the lack of balance between rough and polished prices, the lack of profitability in manufacturing; synthetics and disclosure; and last but not least, industry ethics.

“Looking at the industry at large, what worries you most?”

“In my mind the greatest threat to the diamond and diamond jewellery industry is synthetic diamonds. First of all, there is no limit to the quantities that can be manufactured, as it is a man-made product that is getting better all the time. But the most important problem, which is also an ethical issue, is that in too many instances, the rules of disclosure are not followed and there are, as you know, many ‘enterprising’ diamantaires. It seems difficult to stop them. To my mind, a chain or warranties must be strictly enforced to ensure this issue is stamped out and anyone found to be breaching the rules to be ostracized!”

While we talk about the threat of synthetic diamonds, I made mention of his work concerning conflict diamonds and with the Kimberley Process Certification System (KP), and the recent industry award for his founding role in its establishment. “Those were other times. I suggested the Chain of Warranties, which at a later point in time was formalized into the KP,” Nagel recalls. “At that time, as an influential De Beers’ broker and with my political connections, I was invited by the British Foreign office to be the only person from the trade to give my views to a joint meeting with the US State Department to find a solution to this problem.”

“De Beers indeed was the first rough distributor to stop buying rough from outside sources, but it soon became clear that this in itself was not enough. The rough diamond trade needed a monitoring system, one that would have teeth and would be able to recognize, find and then throw the rotten apples out.”

“There were law makers who were pushing the State Department toward banning the imports of diamonds altogether, and swift action was needed.”

To make a long – already widely documented – story short: Nagel convinced the US government to make the trade itself responsible and make sure that governments had an oversight role and the power to impose sanctions. “It was a simple concept: make the producers responsible, let them create a credible paper trail and when fraud is detected, have sanctions put in place. I believe that the system has proven itself to work quite well. Conflict diamonds are nominally a thing of the past.”

Israel objected to it, although it was the first country to implement the KP, and so had Belgium, Nagel recalls. “The Russians were very concerned, as they were waging war in Chechnya at that time. I had lots of meetings with representatives of governments, including the European Community. Many diamond companies complained, but I told them point blank that if we did not get a monitoring system in place, the conflict diamond issue would kill their businesses!”

Nagel admitted that, of course, no system is perfect, and you will never be completely successful. But the system proves that the risk is less than the many rewards it has produced. The proof in the pudding is that its introduction went quite smoothly and moreover similar systems were implemented elsewhere, like in the precious metals industry. “Those also have instituted control over their supply pipelines.”

Nagel said he looks back with enormous satisfaction on his involvement in the KP. “I put my heart and soul in it, and it made a difference!”

Circling back to synthetic diamonds, Nagel suggested that full disclosure be implemented on the producers of synthetic diamonds. “By making them responsible, it would not only create a lot of clarity but also credibility to these producers of synthetic stones. The tools for detection are there, but the rules need to be stronger to save the reputation of our own industry.”

Of course, the natural diamond industry and trade would need to develop its own campaigns to promote natural diamonds and keep their desirability amongst consumers’ hearts and minds.

You were and still are a broker. How have things changed? Do brokers still have a significant role to play?

“Look, I am speaking to you as an interested party. Yes, we still are brokers for the De Beers Group. I am in the office almost each day, but the day-to day business is run by my daughter Toni and son Adam. And yes, for the sightholders, it is still important to have a credible and influential third party represent their interests. At De Beers, especially in difficult times, it is better to solve the problems by means of a broker. And that is still true today,” Nagel contended.

But didn’t Gareth Penny allow sightholders to work without a broker?

Nagel’s eyes flash briefly and his voice strengthens. “Yes he did, and in my eyes that is a mistake for clients, and also for De Beers in the long run. In this unique industry the brokers are not just middle- men, but can play a key role in defending the client’s interests.”

So what is the definition of a broker in a nut shell?

“Any broker who is worth his name can make significant changes with determination and conviction and get his clients results. This is our forte and is still the case today. Of course the system has changed, and continues to change, but the various new services we and other brokers provide do not replace the more traditional role of the broker that is still valuable. I have been the sightholder’s political lobbyist, advisor, confidante and sometimes even psychologist. Of course, the trust that the client has in the broker is essential. I have even found myself, believe it or not, mediating in marital affairs…fortunately not too often!"

Do you believe that the role of broker has diminished during the past years.

“Unfortunately, I think that some of Penney’s policies have had a negative long term effect that was not good neither for De Beers, nor for the sightholders. The brokers’ role, among others, has been to communicate their clients’ problems, grievances, wishes and predicaments to De Beers and to act as a facilitator. Some aspects of Supplier of Choice and the formulaic approach left less room for us to fulfill our roles and it ultimately led to De Beers being less in tune with the needs of the clients and the market. De Beers has seen the consequences and has tried to adapt and reverse some of the earlier rigidity. The current system is a significant improvement – though there is still room for further progress.

As I see it, the discrepancy between rough and polished prices we have seen has been a result in many ways of the earlier Supplier of Choice policies, and it would not have been as severe had the brokers been allowed to fulfill their role, and broker a compromise! In fact, I said this in so many words not long ago in my acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement Award: 'live and let live.' I have been successful in my work as I was always able to reach a compromise. Hopefully this culture is coming back. This is the essence of business.”

What about the future? Diamonds and diamond jewellery are losing market share. Do you support the latest developments, such as the Diamond Producers Association, the work of the World Diamond Mark?

“The emergence of the DPA and WDM are very good developments. Producers must work together to deal with the various issues faced by the industry. The investment and global support that is needed can only be effective when all parties are working together. Also branding is important and many brands are leading the marketing efforts today. All media, including social media, of which I am less adept, will play a part in the marketing of natural diamonds, and strengthening consumer confidence. Consumer confidence must always remain the first priority in this business. Profitability too, especially today, but there are no profits without consumers!”

My chat with Willie Nagel could have continued for many hours. It is clear that Nagel remains as up to date with the industry as he has been over the last 65 years. He recently celebrated his milestone birthday with friends and industry leaders, past and present. Not many figures have such an experience of the industry, or have left such a mark on its history. A passionate diamantaire, an industry icon.