The Eulogizer: Jewelry mogul Salvador Assael and novelist Abraham Rothberg


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Eulogizer is a new column (soon-to-be blog) that highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Learn about their achievements, honor their memories and celebrate Jewish lives well lived with The Eulogizer. Write to the Eulogizer at Read previous columns here.  

Salvador Assael, 88, pearl and jewelry mogul

Salvador Assael, the widely acknowledged “Pearl King,” who created million-dollar jewelry for royalty and celebrities, died April 1 in New York at 88. In recent years, he became a philanthropist of Jewish and particularly Sephardic causes.

Assael was head of Assael International, whose pearls have been sold by the world’s best-known jewelers, including Tiffany, Cartier and Harry Winston. His personal clients included Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret Thatcher, Nancy Reagan and Brooke Astor. Assael was described as “a debonair man” who was “like many power brokers in the international luxury jewelry business, at once larger than life and secretive to the point of opacity.”

Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia, who designed pearl jewelry for Assael, said in 2003 that “Salvador Assael is to pearls what Harry Oppenheimer (DeBeers) was to diamonds.”

In the 2009 book “Tears of Mermaids: The Secret Story of Pearls,” Assael was described as “the pearl trader with the biggest cachet in the world,” as well as a brilliant deal-maker, charming individual and cutthroat businessman. “Everyone had an opinion” of Assael, the book said, “and, at the very least, a vintage Assael story, usually one with bite marks left intact.”

Assael grew up in a wealthy family of Turkish Jews in Italy, the son of a diamond trader. The family fled Italy in 1939 to Havana, where they settled after his father bribed a corrupt Cuban customs official. Two years later the family moved to New York. Assael served in Europe as a U.S. soldier during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war, by trading watches in Japan for pearls, and with an eye for spectacular products, Assael began buying and trading larger and larger pearls in the South Pacific, as well as building the market for black pearls, which had been a second-tier product behind white pearls.

According to a 1999 profile in Fortune, when the first crop of his Tahitian pearls matured in the 1970s, Assael “flew to New York with several magnificent strands” that he sold to Winston, and “created a storm of publicity” with full-page magazine ads promoting the new style of jewels.

Since that time, Assael’s company has dominated the market and accumulated its high-powered clientele. A page on the company’s website features numerous high-fashion magazine covers with models adorned in Assael pearls.

Among his philanthropic projects in recent years are a library in Beersheba, Israel, the only Sephardic exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York, a wing of the Sephardic Home’s Adult Health Care Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and what many reports said was likely the only Sephardic synagogue in the South Pacific, on Papeete, Tahiti.

Novelist Abraham Rothberg, 89

Abraham Rothberg, the author of 22 novels, many of which “tapped into his Jewish roots, Depression-era upbringing and anti-Stalinist leanings,” died March 28 at 89 in Rochester, N.Y. Among the novels was “The Sword of the Golem” from the 1970s.

More on Sidney Lumet

Accolades for filmmaker Sidney Lumet, who died April 9, continue to come in from colleagues and critics. An article delving into his early years in the theater and his great work with actors can be found here. Unlike other pieces that described Hollywood’s antipathy toward the New York-centric Lumet, the article claims that Hollywood studios liked him for his cost-efficient filmmaking.

Another article, in the Miami Herald, details how the liberal Lumet fought the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s.

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