Delaware Diamond Knives is a family-based business with global appeal
Tucked behind the old Pathmark on Lancaster Avenue is a company that grows diamonds and whips up one-of-a-kind parts for the U.S. government.
Delaware Diamond Knives has been growing sales every year for the last nine and the state has backed it with $200,000 in strategic development funds.
If the name conjures up an “Iron Chef” image in your mind, you’re in for a surprise. The company makes tools for cutting brain tissue and fiber-optic cable. You’ll find their diamond disks at the business end of atom smashers.
While you might not imagine it when you stand in its nondescript brick headquarters, this family business’ biggest competitor is internationally known diamond merchant DeBeers.
Like many Delaware businesses, this one flourished because of a former DuPonter. The late Ray Tabeling saw the writing on the wall when DuPont’s second big wave of early retirements happened in 1986, his son said.
Tabeling was 57 years old and not really ready to retire when he was assigned to sell three DuPont businesses. So, he sold two and bought one.
“He thought he’d run it for 10 years and then retire,” his son Joe said. Instead, his two sons eventually took over.
The Tabelings knew they had to diversify to grow the business, so they looked for other products they could sell to the same customers.
“We pretty much ran into dead ends in terms of finding things we could sell to the same people, so, over the past 25 years, we’ve devoted our efforts to developing things we could sell to other people,” Joe Tabeling said. “We were known for sharp edges on diamond. We started looking at other things we could sell with diamond edges.”
The Tabeling sons’ complementary skill sets allowed them to create custom products for many markets — Joe is a chemical engineer and Bill is a machinist.
They fashioned cutters from tungsten carbide to saw through materials like frozen bone. They developed sapphire blades for cutting delicate fresh brain tissue, scribes for semiconductor wafers and blades so sharp that fiber-optics customers could join two pieces of glass with minimal signal loss.
They sold single-crystal diamond scalpel blades for eye surgeries — until they ran into a problem. “We did OK in that market,” Joe Tabeling said, “but we found that, because of the way we do business, people would use us in developing new products, and we would make all the prototypes, but, when it came time to do the volume work, the customer would take it to our competitors.”
Diamond’s natural strength and thermal conductivity leads scientists who need those properties to seek the Tabelings out because they’re now known for fabricating solutions out of diamond. They even fabricate their own diamonds.
When they couldn’t find vendors who could supply diamonds with the properties they needed, the started growing their own. Now they use manmade diamonds, natural diamonds they buy from dealers in Antwerp and New York, and diamonds they grow themselves, using a chemical vapor deposition process.
Their finished diamonds don’t look ring-ready. They are more likely to be wafer thin and suitable for industrial use. But some of their rejects are shipped to Asia for use in tennis bracelets, Joe Tabeling said.
Before the telecoms bust in 2001, the demand for fiber optic cleaving tools was so strong that companies were searching for manufacturers who could supply them. Delaware Diamond Knives was operating three shifts — until the bust. Then, the market completely evaporated, Joe Tabeling said. They went from 32 employees down to 13.
Fast forward to 2016, and the staff is back up to 20 and they’re looking for a few more staffers. The state has awarded the company $200,000 in strategic development funds. Their in-state sales are zero, but they’ve developed a worldwide reputation and they’re creating jobs.
“The markets that we’re in are very much research-oriented, and research funding worldwide seems to be keeping up pretty well,” Joe Tabeling said. “When they want to put more power through their electronic devices, they need to have materials that can withstand higher radiation levels, higher electric currents and high heat loads.”
Nowadays, clients come to Delaware Diamond Knives with a problem and the staff works with them to create a solution. Those clients include the U.S. Department of Energy and scientific think tanks.
Jen Bohon, a beamline scientist who develops instrumentation to study the structures of biological molecules at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., met the Tabelings at an event in 2006 and has been working with them ever since.
“Working with DDK is really working with a partner,” said Bohon, who is currently collaborating with the Tabelings on a diamond window that will handle the heat from a very high-flux X-ray beam. “It’s not like I just buy things off the shelf from them. They help me develop things. They work with us. They’re always willing to adapt. They’re willing to take a lot of risks, because it’s R&D and, of course, designs don’t always work.”
Bohon said Delaware Diamond Knives is also the only company she could find with very strong expertise in cutting and polishing the single-crystal diamonds she uses in her research.
The Tabelings can keep costs low because, while other companies pay for custom tools, Bill Tabeling designs parts to add to standard tools until they can perform the task at hand.
“He’d buy something everyone had, modify it, and then make more of them. That’s the Tabeling way of doing things,” Joe Tabeling said. “When my father wanted to learn something, he bought a book.”
For Joe Tabeling, now president of the company, heading a small family business with worldwide reach is a good spot. “I really like being able to do it all — the wide variety of things I do every day,” he said. “Small-business people have a heightened level of self-confidence that they can do all these things on their own, and they’re confident in their own decisions because they don’t have to go to someone else to have things approved. They develop good decision-making skills.”
When faced with a tough decision, he looks at it the way his father did: “My father used to say, ‘What is the worst that could happen?’”