We are sorry to note the death of Harry Oppenheimer, De Beers chairman for 27 years, at the age of 91.
Oppenheimer is the middle link of one of the diamond industry’s most extraordinary dynasties. His father, Ernest, headed De Beers and built the Central Selling Organisation. His son Nicky now runs the company.
In 1938, he commissioned the first major promotional campaign for diamonds and diamond jewelry in America. This led to the first “democratization” of what had always been a luxury product believed to be for the very rich. Today, that advertising is considered some of the most powerful in the 20th century.
He also forged relationships with the governments of Botswana and Namibia. It would be difficult to think of any other South African doing this, but Oppenheimer was famed for his opposition to South Africa’s apartheid system, both as a member of Parliament and a business leader.
A spokesman for the South African government noted that he was one of the first businesspeople in South Africa to initiate contact with the African National Congress (ANC). This was at a time when the government refused to speak with them. “He remained a quintessential South African and decided to stay to the end of his days,” the spokesman said.
Oppenheimer was known for his low-key, sometimes self-effacing demeanor, and many of his business colleagues knew him simply as “Harry.” “Rarely has a tycoon been so informal,” noted Anthony Hockins in his book “Oppenheimer and Son.”
We remember seeing him at the opening of the Harry Oppenheimer Diamond Museum in Israel in the 1980s. This was right after the diamond investment crash. In his usual humble way, we remember him saying, “We at De Beers made mistakes but we will try not to make the same ones twice.”