By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief
Michael Kazanjian, chairman of Kazanjian in Beverly Hills, died of a cardiac arrest on Sept. 6, 2023. He was 86 years old.
Kazanjian was born in Pasadena, Calif., on Oct. 31, 1937, to a family of jewelers who fled the Armenian genocide in 1913. His father, James, and an uncle, Harry, arrived first in Paris, where one of the brothers learned the art of lapidary, laying the foundation for their contributions to the world of gems and fine jewelry.
Kazanjian attended the University of Southern California and then joined the Navy in 1960, serving as an officer on the USS Talladega in the Pacific. He eventually joined the family business, supplying emerald-cut Diamonds to Henry Grossbard in 1977, who reshaped them into the world’s first radiant-cut Diamonds.
In 1976, the Kazanjians commissioned Alfonso de Vivanco to cut the 8,500-carat Liberty Bell Ruby, discovered in East Africa near the legendary King Solomon’s Mines, into the shape of the Liberty Bell, to honor the United States Bicentennial.
In 1992, Kazanjian was asked by the Russian government to set up the world’s first Diamond export company in the Post-Soviet era. Called the Russian American Diamond Corporation, it had access to the second-largest supply of Diamonds in the world. It dissolved a few years later, but not before producing some beautiful gems for the Kazanjian business.
Also during Kazanjian’s tenure, the family purchased the Yogo Gulch mine in Montana, which produced significant American Sapphires—an oddity considering most were mined in Burma and Sri Lanka. More contributions included black Sapphire busts carved to resemble Presidents Jefferson, Eisenhower, Washington, and Lincoln, which were donated to the White House during the Ronald Reagan presidency. A particular point of pride was the “Kazanjian Red Diamond,” a gem that was stolen by the Nazis during World War II, rediscovered by the American military, and purchased by Michael in 2007. In 2011, he commissioned the “Star of Jolie,” an 800-carat black star Sapphire, sourced from Queensland, Australia, in the 1940s and set into a pendant designed in collaboration with actress Angelina Jolie.
Kazanjian’s personal attributes included endless generosity, never allowing anyone to pay for meals, and consistently being “the first in and the last out of work,” says Joseph Barrios, salesman and executive director of the Kazanjian Foundation, the family’s charity.
“He was a mentor to many, symbolizing an era where integrity and dedication were paramount, exemplifying excellence and inspiring countless others in the jewelry industry,” he continues. “Michael supported numerous titans in the jewelry industry, whether helping them launch their careers, get back on their feet, or simply providing a safe and wonderful place they could call their work home. His company’s employees and partners can share countless stories of how their lives were enriched by this remarkable man.”
His father and uncle set up the Foundation in 1957, and Michael converted it into a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a museum status to support scientific, artistic, cultural, and other worthy causes, with an emphasis on programs for disadvantaged children and underprivileged youth.
“He tirelessly worked to ensure the Foundation helped charities around the USA and the world to fight for causes that helped children,” adds Barrios. The Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and countless other groups benefited.”
His longtime friend and business associate Russell Fogarty calls him “the best partner one could ever imagine. We never had a disagreement.”
Kazanjian was predeceased by his wife, Virginia Kazanjian. He is survived by his son, Douglas Kazanjian, who now serves as Chairman and CEO of the Kazanjian Gem Gallery, as well as his daughter, Michelle Kazanjian Sommers; her husband, Kyle Sommers; and their children, Carter, Victoria, and Parker. He is also survived by his younger brother, Stanley Kazanjian, who calls his brother a “visionary” who orchestrated the relocation of the business from downtown Los Angeles to Beverly Hills.
“It was a move that our father, James, would not have undertaken, as he was content with staying in the L.A. jewelry district,” says Stanley. “Michael rarely raised his voice and always referred to me as his kid brother until our 80s. You couldn’t ask for a better brother.”
Barrios worked with Kazanjian, who was like a father to him, for years, noting that on the day he died, he was playing golf with friends—the first time he had done so in six years—at the Los Angeles Country Club. “He was only supposed to play nine holes but felt so good that he played 14,” says Barrios. “He actually passed in the club, surrounded by friends and several top doctor-members from the Los Angeles area. It was the way he would have wanted to go.”
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