People - June 2005
Sometimes, Donald Haack says, he wonders who the young man with a crew cut in the yellowed photographs was. The one who nearly suffocated in a South American river when his diving helmet failed. The one who slid down a hotel bedsheet in the middle of the night while under house arrest in a remote Brazilian town and sneaked to his airplane, only to find his escape blocked by a bulldozer. He climbed back up to his makeshift cell and waited for diplomats to sort out the mess.
He was in his 20s then, a diamond hunter. Now Haack is 75, and he negotiates a different jungle. More than a dozen dealers, not counting jewelry stores, sell diamonds in Charlotte. Some consider Haack the king of the jungle.
He grew up in Milwaukee, got an economics degree at the University of Wisconsin in 1951, then served in the Marine Corps at Cherry Point. His brother, a diamond wholesaler, told him tales of Indians in Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana scooping diamonds from river bottoms. In 1954, Haack and his wife, Janet, moved to a hut in Guyana and formed Haack Mining Co., which dredged several carats of high-quality diamonds a day there and in other South American countries. In the early ’60s, he started Guyana Wings, a bush-pilot service for other diamond miners. Political unrest forced the Haacks to flee in 1965. By then, they had three children.
After operating excursion boats in Grenada, the Haacks, urged on by a brother-in-law in Charlotte, moved to the Queen City in 1982, just as Grenada began expelling foreign businesses. He founded Donald Haack Diamonds and Fine Gems in a downtown bank building. At first, he bought diamonds from estate sales and distributors for resale to jewelry stores. Then he decided to sell the stones retail. Early customers included a former Iranian royal who wanted 15-carat teardrop diamond earrings. Haack matched two perfect stones, together worth about $2.5 million.
Now, in a two-story building across from SouthPark mall, Donald Haack Diamonds includes a shop where jewelry is designed and made. His 18 employees include three goldsmiths and three gemologists. Customers have included Ed Crutchfield, former First Union CEO and chairman, who ordered an engagement ring, and model Christie Brinkley, who chose a 6.5-carat sapphire ring set in diamonds and platinum. Haack says his average sale is $6,000 to $10,000.
Haack, former chairman of Charlotte’s Foreign Trade Zone and World Trade Association, recently completed a book, Bush Pilot in Diamond Country, that chronicles his life as a miner, trader and broker. It leaves no doubt who the crew-cut young man was.