Marvin Caplan, 92, jeweler eulogized by Bill Clinton


Marvin Caplan, a retired jeweler whose silversmiths made the Preakness trophy and who once designed a pin for Queen Elizabeth II, died of respiratory failure April 27 at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 92 and lived on Tilghman Island.

Former President Bill Clinton, a close friend of the Caplan family, delivered a eulogy Monday at the graveside services at Druid Ridge Cemetery. He recalled Mr. Caplan as "a man who was intensely interested in what was going on in the world." The former president also recalled the generosity and sense of humor he had known in his 40 years of friendship with Mr. Caplan.

The Baltimore native was a 1932 Forest Park High School graduate and attended the Johns Hopkins University. His son, Thomas Caplan, said that his father won swimming medals as a boy and later taught swimming at camps and to the children of Eastern Shore friends.

After a few years working on his own, Marvin Caplan joined the family business, Oscar Caplan & Sons, founded by his father in 1905.

"At a time when segregation was the norm in Baltimore's finer retail establishments, Marvin Caplan would have none of it," his son said. "From his first day in business, it was his policy, as it had been his father's, that people of all races and religions be treated with equal respect."

During World War II, he invented the "Oscap blade," a diamond-impregnated circular saw. It cut a type of quartz used as a component in American and Allied military radios, his son said.

Mr. Caplan gave the saw to the government and oversaw a Hopkins Place factory where it was used.

He served in the Army during the war, and in the Korean conflict was called back for assignment as a first lieutenant and chief information officer at the Army Chemical Corps at Edgewood.

Between the wars, Mr. Caplan began designing custom jewelry and went on buying trips to London and Paris for precious stones. He sponsored the immigration and naturalization of European refugees whom he subsequently employed.

"He had a very elite clientele," said Fred Brown, owner of J. Brown Jewelers in Pikesville. "He was knowledgeable with precious colored stones."

Mr. Caplan designed a jeweled, terrapin-shaped pin presented to Queen Elizabeth II when she attended a University of Maryland-North Carolina football game in 1957 at College Park. He also made a version of the PT 109 tie bar for President John F. Kennedy to use as gifts, and designed jewelry for opera singer Rosa Ponselle.

"He was known for his keen eye for extraordinary and often costly gems, but he enjoyed designing less elaborate jewelry for everyday wear," his son said.

He said his father was an avid fisherman, owning a boat called Hel-Mar-To, and that pastime inspired what became the Chesapeake Bay Collection, a line of gold and silver jewelry modeled on marine life. The jewelry, including a circle pin with a crab or oyster, sold well after Mr. Caplan opened a shop in Easton's Tidewater Inn.

More than 40 years ago, Mr. Caplan bought the old Schofield Co., a Charles Street silversmith business whose employees made the Woodlawn Vase replica for the Preakness. That business closed in the mid-1960s.

In 1964, Mr. Caplan's son enrolled at Georgetown University and on his first night in a dorm building met the young Bill Clinton. They were assigned adjoining rooms because their names began with the letter C.

They became friends, and soon Mr. Clinton began spending time with the Caplan family on Tilghman Island. At the eulogy, the former president recalled having his first crabs and oysters at the Caplan home.

The elder Mr. Caplan spent a 1999 weekend at Camp David and several nights at the White House in the Lincoln Bedroom.

Mr. Caplan moved his Howard Street store, which once employed 37 people, to the 300 block of N. Charles St. about 20 years ago. He closed it and stores in Easton and Towson in the late 1990s. Though retired, he continued working for a few old customers.

His wife of 62 years, the former Helen Dorothy North, died in 1994.

"The only arguments they ever had were over things such as which turnpike exit to take," said his son, Thomas, his sole survivor.

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