In Memoriam: Roland Naftule, NAFCO Gems Colored Gemstone Dealer & Authority, Dies at 85

By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

Roland Naftule died on April 1, 2023, in San Diego, California, at age 85 after a long struggle with cancer. He was surrounded by loved ones and is survived by wife Fabienne, daughters Myriam and Stephanie, son Ashley, stepdaughters Alison and Margaux, and beloved grandchildren Rachel, Ethan, Dylan, and Daisy.

Roland Naftule of NAFCO Gems died on April 1, 2023
Roland Naftule of NAFCO Gems died on April 1, 2023

Naftule was born into a family of gemstone dealers in Switzerland in 1937. He was the grandson of Leon Naftule, who ran a jewelry store and lapidary in Geneva, and the son of Jean and Claire-Lyse. The Naftules were renowned for cutting and polishing gemstones for high-end watch makers, and Leon’s three sons eventually joined him at Naftule Fils, a fixture in the Swiss jewelry business.

In 1952, the eldest of Leon’s sons, Jean, expanded the business to the U.S., opening NAFCO Gems in New York City. His 19-year-old son, Roland, joined him, selling gemstones locally. The family expanded into rough production, becoming involved in mining ventures in Tanzania, and even opened a cutting facility in Shannon, Ireland. By 1976, Naftule had relocated the business to Scottsdale, Arizona, opening a lapidary in Phoenix.

As business flourished and his daughters joined him in running the firm, Naftule applied his savvy and enthusiasm for the industry to public service.

He became a founding organizer of the American Gem Trade Association (AGTA), serving as its president from 1983 through 1985. Naftule served as chairman of AGTA’s Industry Rules Committee for 12 years and then served on the Board of Governors of the AGTA Gemological Testing Center.

Stephanie Naftule (lt.), Roland Naftule, and Myriam Naftule (rt.)
Stephanie Naftule (lt.), Roland Naftule, and Myriam Naftule (rt.)

In 1984, Roland became a founding organizer of the International Colored Stone Association (ICA), first serving as chairman of its organizing committee and then as its founding president from 1985 through 1989. In 1989 he became a founding organizer and first chairman of the Gemstone Industry & Laboratory Conference (GILC), which is devoted to harmonizing terminology provided on reports by leading gemological laboratories. In 2001, Naftule was elected to the Board of Governors of the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and served there for 12 years, including as chairman of GIA’s Colored Gemstone Advisory and Museum committees.

“I have long admired Roland as one of the founders of AGTA, who devoted his time and talent to our group to make it the premier colored gemstone organization in the world,” says John Ford, AGTA CEO.

“Roland was a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work type of guy and an icon in the industry,” adds Kimberly Collins, owner of Kimberly Collins Colored Gems and AGTA board president. “All his peers say he executed every effort with grace and a smile. I’ll never forget how he sought me out during the Tucson GemFair in 2022 to congratulate me on the being elected board president. He will be greatly missed.”

“Roland was a roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-work type of guy and an icon in the industry.” Kimberly Collins, owner of Kimberly Collins Colored Gems and AGTA board president.

Naftule also joined the World Jewellery Confederation, or CIBJO, as a U.S. representative, holding a variety of roles over 25 years. Titles included vice president; Sector A president; member of the board of directors, executive committee, and president’s council; and president and vice president of the Colored Stone Commission.

CIBJO officials praised all his efforts, but his work as Sector A president may have had the most impact. Achievements include expanding the sector’s scope of activity from Diamonds, colored gemstones, and Pearls to include precious Corals and gemological laboratories and overseeing a continuously growing and working enterprise that united gemologists, gem professionals, and academic and other industry leaders. Naftule’s efforts paved the way for the adoption of two jewelry-related standards to the International Organization for Standardization. He also oversaw the preparation, updating, and maintenance of the Blue Book series, which are a widely followed set of standards and terminology from CIBJO that provide a common language and frame of reference for the industry as well as a foundation for consumer confidence.

Roland and wife Fabienne Naftule during Christmas 2020
Roland and wife Fabienne Naftule during Christmas 2020

“The term ‘an industry giant’ is often over-used, but in Roland’s case it is an understatement,” CIBJO president Gaetano Cavalieri told the media this week. “Not only was he the personification of industry professionalism and integrity, but he also represented the joy for life and beauty that is inherent in our community.… I mourn the loss not only of a mentor, advisor, and confidant, but of a close personal friend who was more of a brother.”

In an email this morning, Cavalieri added that “Roland was the most exceptional example that I know of the quintessential jewelry industry public servant, dedicating hundreds of hours, year in and year out, purely for the benefit of the products that fascinated him and the colleagues he loved.”

Appreciating Naftule’s role in the forming of AGTA, more of its leaders weighed in on his contributions and memory.
Judith Bridges, Bridges Tsavorite

“My late husband Campbell Bridges and I met Roland in Tanzania in the late 1960s when the Naftule family became involved in mining ventures. Roland was a friend who never sat still. He was always involved in expanding and moving our jewelry and gem industry forward. I was very honored in 2019 when Roland Naftule introduced me to the ICA Congress held in Bangkok, Thailand, to give me the ICA Lifetime Achievement Award exactly 10 years after the late Campbell Bridges had been given his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 in Guangzhou, China. We send our heartfelt condolences to the Naftule family on their loss. Roland will be sorely missed by all.”

Bruce Bridges, Bridges Tsavorite

“I have known Roland my whole life, and it’s quite sobering to see his passing. Both my father and Roland were born in 1937, and both of our families were generational in the gem industry. In the early days, when he was in Tanzania, he would come to Kenya to visit us, and he graciously showed interest in my sister and me. Roland was a familiar face and mainstay in my life. Just like his friendship, his work with industry associations and his influence on the colored gemstone world has left an everlasting impact that cannot be forgotten.”

Ray Zajicek, Equatorian Imports

“I was fortunate to call Roland a close friend. We worked together for 43 years across six continents and even took a couple of vacations together. When I became AGTA president, I created the Industry Rules Committee and appointed Roland chairman, with our group writing the AGTA Gemstone Information Manual that was adopted by CIBJO. He helped bring integrity to the industry and brought colored gemstones to the forefront—they were no longer an afterthought. He was AGTA’s second president, had so much enthusiasm for the industry, and spent thousands of hours trying to make it better. He was a natural coordinator who pushed people to go and find the truth; he brought people together and always looked for ways of finding resolutions. He was also a wine connoisseur with an infectious smile.”

Susan Eisen, Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry, Watches, Art & Appraiser

“When I was first starting out on my own many years ago, I met Roland at a trade show. He was very patient and generally interested in what I was doing as a young woman starting a jewelry business on my own with no family in the business. I appreciated his advice and will always be thankful that I was fortunate to meet him.”

Hayley Henning, Greenland Ruby

“Roland will be missed. His passion for our industry and its stakeholders was abundant, not to mention his “joie de vivre.” Roland always made you want to get up and dance. Condolences to all of us who knew him, especially to Fabienne and his family. RIP Roland.”

Tom Broadwin, Mirabelle Jewelers

“I have been an AGTA member for a long time. I first met Roland when I was 30 years old. I am now 76. He was traveling around selling colored stones out of a briefcase. He was one of my first suppliers, a total gentleman, extremely honest, and a pleasure to work with. A few years ago, my wife and I spent a day at his home in San Diego. I bought a ton of his closeouts. He will be greatly missed. He had a great sense of humor, and I loved hearing about his time in Africa.”

Steven Stieglitz, NYC Gems

“I’ve been around since 1965 in the New York City gemstone trade, and I vividly remember Roland and Jean. They were the first to bring African gemstones to this market. Rhodolite Garnet and Umba Sapphires weren’t items before. Then they got involved with the fabulous find of Maine Tourmaline, including some remarkable carvings as well as cut stones. Roland will be missed, and his contributions will be remembered forever.”

Gerry Manning, Manning International

“Roland was a perennial contributor, disrupter, reminder, and conscience to our industry and trade as well as a class act. To Roland’s family and the hundreds upon hundreds of friends and associates who’ve had the opportunity to know Roland Naftule, I express my condolences. He was, most assuredly, an iconic presence among us.”

Robert Bentley, Robert Bentley Gemstones

“Roland was perhaps the warmest and most nurturing individual I’ve known in the industry. He was very generous, supplying me with incredibly beautiful things and generous with terms at a very tenuous time in the early days of my career. He was also very generous with his time and experience. He would spend hours with me in my office sharing information about gemstones and mining Sapphires in the Umba River Valley in Africa. After work we would go to great restaurants and enjoy excellent meals. Roland was quite the gourmet and a great conversationalist.

He also embodied the spirit of service as a founding member of AGTA who was influential in establishing the principles that have helped build the consumer confidence and awareness of our products over the last 40 years. He quietly helped build an association that has become the essential networking lifeline that nurtures all our lives and the lives of countless people all over the world. He spoke kindly about everybody, and perhaps most importantly, he was by far the most elegant dancer in the industry, gliding elegantly around dance floors at industry dinner dances with his beautiful wife in his arms.”

Simon Watt, Mayer & Watt

“Roland was instrumental in the birth of AGTA, and his passing is almost the end of a particular era.”

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