New York—In New York, people often describe the jewelry and watch industry as still being “a handshake business,” meaning relationships are founded and maintained on personal integrity and trust.
To the many who knew him, Steven Kaiser personified this concept, befriending and mentoring scores of colleagues and always giving back to the industry he loved dearly.
His impact was evident from the hundreds of people in attendance at his funeral in Manhattan last week.
Several people there counted themselves as Kaiser’s protégés, said John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance.
“He was an amazing networker,” Kennedy explained. “He was filled with suggestions of people to contact and people to talk to who would know about this or could help us with that.”
Kaiser was a “natural connector and problem solver.”
At the time of his death, Kaiser was chair of the JSA board. Kennedy met Kaiser back in the 1990s when he was at Baume & Mercier, working under his late father, Ben Kaiser.
“Ben was an industry leader in his own right,” said Kennedy. “He was very involved in charities and organizations.”
Perhaps that set the tone for his son, whose industry connectedness was due in part to the vast amount of time he devoted to organizations like the 24 Karat Club, Jewelers for Children, Jewelry Information Center (now part of Jewelers of America), and Jewelers Vigilance Committee, in addition to JSA.
“Nobody has had as much involvement with so many organizations as he has that I know of,” said Kennedy.
And he didn’t just show up and participate. Friends and colleagues described him as an “active” member of such clubs and associations, working to help others while also spearheading projects to advance the watch and jewelry industry.
“We always asked [of any venture], does this make the industry better? Does it move it forward?” said Kaiser’s longtime business associate, Diane James.
James joined Kaiser’s post-Baume & Mercier consultancy and executive recruiting agency Kaiser Time right out of college in 2002 and continued working with him until his death. She is now global program director for Australian brand Kennedy.
James said running Kaiser Time was Kaiser’s biggest career achievement, a “passion project” that saw them work on projects like launching Swiss Watch by JCK in 2005 with the help of David Bonaparte, now president and CEO of JA.
She remembered, “Dave Bonaparte came to us and wanted to start a Swiss watch show as part of JCK. I remember after Dave left the office Steve said, ‘We’re doing a watch show and you’re going to do it.’ It was amazing that he believed I could do it and also completely overwhelming.”
James said Kaiser’s favorite saying was: “Find a way to get it done.”
“Steve had an idea a minute; he was filled with ideas,” recalled John Kennedy, but one of the qualities that made Kaiser such an effective force was that he was a man of action, always seeing ideas to fruition.
“He was a doer, not just a talker,” confirmed longtime friend and former Honora CEO Joel Schechter.
For Swiss Watch by JCK, “getting it done” meant utilizing Kaiser’s vast network of watch contacts he had begun amassing his since Baume & Mercier days.
“He knew everybody and could call and pick up the phone and get a hold of anyone,” said James.
“He must have made an unbelievable number of phone calls a day,” said Kennedy, “short calls, but frequent. He was constantly reaching out to talk to people, getting advice from them and giving advice.”
“[Kaiser] had a unique personality to cultivate special relationships and more than just relationships—friendships.”—David Bonaparte
Kaiser was a social creature, with a love for genuine connection.
Bonaparte credits Swiss Watch by JCK’s 10-year run to Kaiser’s involvement and nurturing.
“It really was because of him and his relationships that we were able to be successful,” he said. “He introduced me to all of these brands, and I developed great relationships because of him.”
The two served on many boards together, both heavily involved in “the Js,” as Bonaparte put it, meaning JIS, JVC, JSA, and JFC.
Bonaparte noted Kaiser’s ability to innovate—he was, for example, one of the forces behind the creation of the Gem Awards—while maintaining old-school values.
“It was funny, up until his last days he was a very traditional kind of businessman,” said Bonaparte.
“I think he would have a lunch meeting every day, five days a week. We would have a lunch meeting in Midtown with many of the luxury brands. It was a way to develop relationships. He had a unique personality to cultivate special relationships and more than just relationships—friendships.”
Kaiser didn’t just reserve time for heads of major brands. It didn’t matter if you were the president of Rolex or if you had a tiny company, said Schechter. “He treated everyone the same. He had the same respect for people.”
“He always returned a phone call,” James agreed. “He always spoke to everybody.”
While Kaiser had an impressive network of industry friends he had known for as long as 30 years, Schechter knew him even longer.
The two met when they were about 9 years old in New Rochelle, New York, having industry legend fathers in common. The families became friends.
It was Schechter’s father, Stanley Schechter, the head of pearl company Honora, who got Kaiser to join the industry, enlisting him to work for him for a summer.
“My father, in his gruff style, would say to him, ‘What are you, an idiot? Why aren’t you coming into the industry?’”
Joel Schechter eventually took the reins of the family business from his father, and it was Kaiser who helped him sell Honora to Richline in 2013.
“He was instrumental in helping me sell my business,” he said. So, it was a full-circle moment when Joel presented Kaiser with the award named for his father, JVC’s Stanley Schechter Lifetime Achievement Award, earlier this year.
“I think what is so important [in understanding Steven] is his love of helping people,” Schechter explained.
“I’m pretty social, but he was absolutely in a class by myself; he was fearless socially. He had an amazing gift and people trusted him to an extraordinary degree. His rare social talent can’t be taught.”
Kaiser was the person to go to if one was thinking about leaving their job and needed advice but wanted to keep it confidential, Schechter said, or conversely, if you were actively looking and wanted him to leak it to the right people.
Respected not just in the watch industry but by diamond dealers, colored gemstones dealers, and jewelry manufacturers, Kaiser also was the person to talk to for advice on building and selling companies, bettering one’s career or finding the perfect hire, Schechter said.
“He did so many things out of the goodness of his heart that weren’t business related,” he said.
James echoed this. “He was so genuine in his love for people and bringing people together.”
“People looked to [Kaiser] for advice, for counsel, for connection and I don’t think I can name another person in the industry like that. He’s irreplaceable.”—Joel Schechter
James said Kaiser’s “favorite times of year” were the times the trade got together in big groups, for Baselworld, the Las Vegas trade shows, and the weekend in New York City that includes the Gem Awards and the 24 Karat Club of the City of New York banquet.
Bonaparte recalled often booking the same flight as Kaiser to Basel just so they could get some face time.
Kaiser also would help him secure a room in the notoriously overbooked city during Baselworld. “He had a lot of connections there,” Bonaparte said. “He really was a guy who helped a lot of people—it was his nature.”
Kennedy noted, “The industry was his life and his amusement.”
“It was work, but we had a lot of fun, too,” said James. “He had so much energy, more than I do, and I’m a lot younger than him. He had a great memory and could recall anything.”
The sources interviewed for this story remembered Kaiser as laidback, funny, deeply inquisitive, interested in politics, and passionate about the New York Giants, often taking clients and friends to games.
“He’s the type of person who, all of a sudden, you just start sharing with him. Even if you just met him, you don’t know why but you just trust him,” said Schechter.
“He wasn’t afraid to ask you, ‘What are you looking to do in life and how can I help you?’ People looked to him for advice, for counsel, for connection and I don’t think I can name another person in the industry like that. He’s irreplaceable.”
Kaiser’s values were clear to all who knew him.
“It was the industry and his family that he really cared about,” said Kennedy.
James said his two children joining the industry was a point of pride for Kaiser. His son, Jeff, works for Citizen, and his daughter, Emily, for De Beers Group.
For the man who, in business, always asked if his ventures were moving the industry forward, James sums up Kaiser’s legacy thusly: “He touched a lot of people and affected a lot of careers and brands. He did leave the industry better.”