There’s something Dickensian about the English jeweller Laurence Graff and his eponymous brand. The rags-to-riches, coal-to-diamond story is a tale to relish, and one to remember while admiring his famous jewellery.
In brief, dropping out of school while in his early teens, he became a jeweller’s apprentice in London’s Hatton Garden, circa 1952. While learning about the craft of making jewellery he found his passion, and Graff the brand came into form. He is indubitably one of the greats in the industry, who has met fame and global success with alacrity. While there are other diamantaires who accrued their credentials over several hundred years, Graff did it in relatively short time – within one generation – in a highly competitive field.
His roster of clients includes the late screen legend and famed jewellery lover Elizabeth Taylor, the Sultan of Brunei, talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey and socialites and royals too numerous to list. This is a brand that does not lend itself to celebrity; only the powerhouses themselves own all that glistens from the house of Graff .
The man himself has lavish homes in Gstaad, London, Cap Ferrat, Saint Tropez and New York City. We finally meet him at his ornate and heavily guarded flagship store in Central, Hong Kong. Over tea, we ask …
If we can go back to the beginning, do you remember your first job in the industry and what it was like?
Well I started as a very young man, joining the business as an apprentice joiner – I was 15 years old. In those days it was legal to be working that young – maybe not today! But I started young and I learned about the jewellery business. It’s been a long road for many years. A long road. It was more like schooling because I didn’t know anything about jewellery and I was making jewellery, that was my first job, and to learn, to sit down on the bench for the first time as a young man, all of a sudden you feel like you’re not so young any more. You feel important. When you actually make something for the first time, it’s hugely satisfying.
The journey of the brand from scratch to finish has been like no other.
It has taken us years to get where we are, but we’re now a vertically integrated operation, from the mining to the cutting of diamonds, the making of jewellery to the distribution of diamonds and jewellery to our retail stores, which is over 60 outlets worldwide, at the highest level. And during the period, we’ve sold so many amazing, rare stones…
Are you nostalgic about individual pieces?
If you ask me if I regret selling any stone – I regret every single one! It’s like parting with one’s family. Sometimes you lose an amazing blue diamond or a pink diamond or even a beautifully cut 100-carat diamond, and you know it’s not easy to get them again. Yes, of course we have to sell, it’s our business – if we didn’t sell we wouldn’t have clients or a business!
Do you remember the first time you fell in love with a particular stone?
You know when you ask me about the first time, you’re speaking about many decades ago. I have a career spanning over 50 years. I can’t remember the first time of anything!
Let’s talk a little bit about Graff, the business. How do you define your jewellery line to a modern customer?
I feel I’m just beginning and yet, in the last year, I think I’ve created history. I’ve cut from the rough four diamonds, each one is over 100 carats and each one is the best, most perfect stone you can find: flawless, excellent.
The heart-shaped diamond caused a few ripples in print.
Last month in London, for the first time, to the press we revealed the largest flawless, heart-shaped diamond in the world and it weighed 118.88 carats originally. You’ve got three eights on the end – which is quite lucky but it was internally flawed and I wanted it flawless. I had a new headache in my life after all of these years; do I leave it at 118.88 or do I make it flawless and lose some weight? Now in the heart shape, the flaw was in the cliff, it was just some little rubbing on the stone, it was nothing.
I put it back on the wheel; my people thought I was crazy! I stood there while we polished into the stone. I said, “A little more just to make sure.” I sent it back to the GIA – we lost ten points in that exercise; it’s now 118.78 instead of .88, but I know I have the best diamond in the world. It’s the largest heart shape. Maybe 400 carats. I just got it last night – history! History! This will be known forever and whoever gets it will have a piece of diamond history, a piece of my history.
You’ve been in this industry for so long and you’re still excited about a diamond. What is the innate appeal that you find?
I get excited about a small diamond; it doesn’t have to be big. I get excited about all diamonds, they’re magical. Above all, in that little tiny gem there is so much value, not just the monetary value, it can bring so much happiness. It’s an absolute sign of love. So when we polish it, from the rough, I always tell my people somebody’s going to treasure this forever and generations after.
Tell us about your relationship with Hong Kong.
When I first came out to Hong Kong, very, very early days in my career, it was a different atmosphere, a different feeling. People bought gems from me in those days but there were very few shops. Just a few Chinese shops were here and there. No European brands – and it wasn’t just in this city, it was the same in Singapore, Malaysia, wherever I went in Asia. Very often I felt that I was a wandering salesman who would come out with treasures to show to the few people that could afford it in those days. I made so many friends, so many acquaintances, and I saw so many wonderful things – I was a pioneer for sure, when I came, it was a novelty for everybody.
Do you find a distinction between your customers in Asia versus those in the West?
Well I must say the level of education is equal – now. Tastes can change a little bit; they can be more exotic in the Far East. The appreciation that people have in Asia, for gems, is far above Europe. The Europeans originally were the connoisseurs and the buyers of great gems but somehow they’ve lagged behind. I put it down to maybe taxes on one side, and maybe old money doesn’t get spent like new money. In those days people bought and their families inherited – so the new generation didn’t need to buy. But the rest of the world developed and people made big fortunes and they travelled and they got to know what they wanted.
Within prominent Asian families, showcasing jewellery is key.
Yes, people do love jewels here, they love to wear them, they love to look at them, they like to touch them, and they like to handle them, they like to show them. It’s not always like that in parts of Europe. If you really want to sell a big diamond, I don’t think I’d be going to Scandinavia for instance – it’s a different mentality.
You also have a terrific wine estate with the same moniker.
I can’t tell you the kick that I personally get whenever a sale is made of a diamond on a wine estate, and sales are getting bigger and bigger. People have the confidence on the brand that even on our wine estate sales of our diamonds are great – unless they’re getting terribly drunk on the wine and buying diamonds!
That’s a great strategy!
I wouldn’t dream of that! I want my customers sober, I want them to know what they’re doing and appreciate a great Graff diamond.