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 at a hospital in Southern California.

His death was caused by complications from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his wife, Ann, said in an interview. Moskowitz 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 ultralight, ultrahard materials, Ceradyne landed government contracts to manufacture components of missile nose cones 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.

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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 grew.

Born May 17, 1939, in Brooklyn, Joel Philip Moskowitz grew up in Troy, where his father installed and repaired appliances.

In 1961, Moskowitz graduated from Alfred University with a bachelor's degree in ceramic engineering. He joined the Army and 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 the Los Angeles area. Upset by cuts to its technology unit, he formed Ceradyne.