Joel Moskowitz dies at 75; his ceramic body armor protected U.S. troops

Joel Moskowitz's lightweight ceramic inserts for body armor protected U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan

Joel Moskowitz, a manufacturer whose lightweight ceramic inserts for body armor protected tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has died. He was 75.

Moskowitz, who turned a $5,000 nest egg into a company that sold for $860 million in 2012, died March 15 in an Orange County hospital.

His death was caused by complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his wife Ann said in an interview. Moskowitz, a Corona del Mar resident, was treated for the disease in 2004 before it went into remission for eight years.

A ceramic engineer, he formed Ceradyne Inc. with three friends in 1967, investing the savings that he and his wife, who was then pregnant, had stashed away.

"He loved to tell that story about the $5,000," Ann Moskowitz said. "At one meeting, I had to interrupt and remind him that he always left out one word: It was our last $5,000."

Developing ultra-light, ultra-hard materials, Ceradyne landed government contracts to manufacture components of missile nosecones and nuclear warheads. It developed similar materials for diesel engine parts, brackets for translucent orthodontic braces, molds for solar cells, and other products.

When government investigators found that U.S. helicopter pilots in Vietnam had been hit not by rockets but by enemy bullets ripping through their craft, Moskowitz started building helicopter seats and flooring. The new ceramic fixtures were toughened with materials such as boron carbide — a substance that, next to diamonds, is said to be the hardest in the world.

After the 1993 "Black Hawk Down" disaster in Somalia, Moskowitz found another opportunity.

"Our best troops were killed not by sophisticated technology but by guys in tennis shoes carrying machine guns," he told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. "There was a realization that we needed a better class of body armor to defeat those kinds of threats."

Ceradyne's ceramic inserts into body armor vests were about one-quarter the weight of the cumbersome steel plates they replaced. His company started providing them to U.S. Special Operations units in 1998. With military operations in Iraq surging in the years after 9/11, business boomed.

In 2004, Moskowitz acquired a large ceramics company in Germany and doubled his U.S. workforce to about 1,600. At points, his company had plants in Kentucky, Michigan, China, Canada, and Irvine. With an in-house firing range and 20 ballistics engineers studying the effect of ever more destructive bullets, Ceradyne became a major supplier of the protective gear.

Letters of thanks from soldiers and Marines flowed into the company's Costa Mesa headquarters, Moskowitz told interviewers.

In Afghanistan, a Special Forces soldier discovered "a machine gun bullet protruding from his vest" after an all-night firefight, Moskowitz said. "It was two inches from his spine, wedged into our ceramic plate."

Born May 17, 1939, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Joel Philip Moskowitz grew up in Troy, N.Y., a small industrial city where his father repaired and installed appliances.

In 1961, Moskowitz graduated from Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., with a bachelor's degree in ceramic engineering. In the Army, he was assigned to help solve nagging materials problems in missiles and was stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.

After the service, he took a job with a ceramics manufacturing company in Glendale. Upset by cuts to its technology unit, he formed Ceradyne, picked up his MBA at USC and had a few rough years.

"We were going after markets that didn't exist and developing technology that had no products," he told Forbes magazine in 1986.

While Ceradyne grew, it also weathered recessions, defense cuts and failed business alliances. In 2006, Moskowitz's office wall was adorned with an embroidered sampler by his wife: "Happiness is Positive Cash Flow."

He remained active in the company until 3M acquired it in 2012.

He also was a trustee of Alfred University, where he and his wife are remembered in the names of the residence halls they funded: "Joel's House" and "Ann's House."

In addition to Ann, his wife of 50 years, Moskowitz's survivors include his son David Moskowitz and sister Shelley Prince.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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