Timing is everything, they say, in business as in journalism, and just at the time I turned up at the luxuriously sleek and contemporary Graff offices in Albemarle Street, Mayfair, to interview Laurence Graff, chairman of Graff Diamonds, Sotheby’s representatives arrived to show Mr Graff, his son François and nephew Elliott an exceptional blue diamond coming up for auction (which sold for $48.5m on November 11 to a private collector). The diamond was called Blue Moon, appropriately as it turned out, as I was invited to join a private viewing by the light of the boardroom window while the three examined this treasure. I listened to their sotto voce discussions, and was given a masterclass from Graff, a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity and, he quipped, a chance to kill two birds with one stone.
As he handed me his loupe and pointed out details of the cut, proportions and the play of light and colour, I could barely begin to imagine what he himself sees when he looks into a diamond. It’s widely acknowledged throughout the world’s diamond and jewellery industries that he has an extraordinary affinity with diamonds, a sort of sixth sense that enables him to understand their individual characters, to see the subtlest nuances of light, fire and colour. And to perceive, often in an instant, a diamond’s full potential to be the best, the most brilliant, the most beautiful, the most valuable it can be. This innate ability has always been, and remains today, the authentic core of his business, and the driver of the brand because Graff pairs his profound passion for gems with one of the most astute, single-minded business brains in the luxury industry.
It’s this rare combination of diametrically opposite talents, combined with a dealer’s quick wit, a trader’s super-salesmanship, legendary fearlessness and unshakeable self-belief, that has taken him from the trading bustle of Whitechapel’s Hessel Street market in London’s wartime East End, via an apprenticeship in Hatton Garden, to billionaire status. Talking to Graff, it’s very clear that, despite his softly spoken charm, there’s a diamantine core to this suave and sophisticated captain of industry, transformed, it seems, like a diamond itself, from humble beginnings to refinement and riches. He deals and speaks only in superlatives, and states in a matter-of-fact manner that he simply wants to be the best. Now, in his seventies, he says, “I feel as if I’m 30 and ready to go into business again and again. I chase the best. I have to be the best – and that passion and drive, I never let it off the hook.”
On his way to the top, Graff has both witnessed and generated colossal changes in the diamond industry. He has paid headline-grabbing record prices for diamonds at auction, highlighting their rarity and preciousness and in the process aligning them with prestigious artworks. In his pursuit of perfection he’s raised the science and craft of diamond cutting to the level of an art form, introduced yellow and pink diamonds to a new generation of buyers, and revitalised the romance of the many historic gems that have passed through his hands. Perhaps most significantly, though, he has pioneered the mine-to-market business model, bringing together the disparate sectors of the traditional fragmented diamond supply chain, with its total disconnect between the miners at the source, the cutters and dealers and the artistry of the finished jewels.
Today Graff is completely vertically integrated, from the company’s 15 per cent share in Gem Diamonds (which owns 70 per cent of the Letseng diamond mine in Lesotho) through his state-of-the-art cutting and polishing facilities in Botswana, Johannesburg, Antwerp and New York, the wholesale business selling diamonds to the jewellery trade, to the design, creation and crafting of Graff jewellery, all under one roof, in the London global head office. This extends right the way through to the fast-expanding retail empire, with some 55 boutiques and points of sale around the world, rising to 60 in 2016.
Early next year Graff will open its first store in Paris, on Place Vendôme, the spiritual home of high jewellery. It is a major milestone in the stature of the company, a sign that Laurence Graff may well have established a heritage brand of the future and a dynasty of diamond jewellers. His brother Raymond has been production director for more than 50 years, his son François is CEO, and his nephew Elliott, also a director, oversees sourcing, polished-stone procurement, jewellery design and manufacture. In the still largely – and surprisingly – unbranded fine jewellery business, Graff has become a recognised global high-jewellery brand and a modern creative diamond maison. François Curiel, chairman of Christie’s Asia Pacific, has watched Graff’s rise over the years and sums up his status thus: “Laurence Graff has single-handedly built a leading international jewellery empire in just one generation. We refer to him as the Harry Winston of the 21st century.”
The building of the Graff brand was an unimaginable achievement in 1962 when Laurence Graff was only 24 and opening his first shop in Hatton Garden. Talking to him about his life and work, as I did, both in his boardroom in Albemarle Street and over two days in his art-filled chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, I sense that despite his slight build and reserved demeanour, his vision knows no boundaries. I am in Gstaad to gather material for two chapters of the forthcoming book GRAFF, one on the design of Graff jewels, the other documenting his life. A natural raconteur, he tells the story of his mother taking him as a 15-year-old to his first job, as an apprentice at Schindler’s workshop in Hatton Garden. “How far can my son go?” asked Mrs Graff, hoping that she’d chosen a trade with decent prospects. “The sky’s the limit,” Mr Schindler prophesied – although, three months later, Schindler let the teenager go, saying he’d never make the grade in the jewellery business.
Another job proved more successful and, at age 17, he started his own business, growing it organically, “buying bigger and better” every time, and seizing his opportunities. He has, he says, always somehow felt protected. What’s most deeply ingrained in him is the busy Hessel Street market, off Commercial Road, where, aged just six, he helped his mother run a sweet shop. “It made me street-smart,” he says. “And the war years hardened me I suppose, gave me nerves of steel, but also huge confidence, because I knew I had to rely on myself, look after myself. I’m not afraid of anything. Those early years taught me about survival and security.”
Graff’s fearlessness led him to set the entirety of one of his first parcels of diamonds into a single ring, and risk repolishing some of the world’s most valuable diamonds, notably (amid much controversy) the historic blue Wittelsbach-Graff and Graff Pink, for which he paid a record $46.2m in 2010 and then transformed, upgrading its colour and clarity to the pinnacle of perfection.
Early on, Graff realised that direct access to diamonds was crucial to the growth of his business. At the time, this access was only available to “sightholders”, direct clients of the De Beers Group (the mining, marketing and distribution company) who are regularly allocated a box of rough diamonds straight from the mines. But against the odds, Graff acquired a controlling stake in the South African Diamond Corporation (Safdico) in 1998, becoming one of De Beers’s biggest sightholders. Graff explains, “If you want to be successful with diamonds, you have to get as close to them as possible.”
Now the company is even closer, having secured its stake in Gem Diamonds, owner of Letseng, the highest elevated diamond mine in the world, famed for yielding large white stones of superlative quality. Then, through Safdico, in 2008, Graff bought land in Botswana where he built the Diamond Technology Park, foreseeing the importance of this African country to the diamond industry. Here Graff put his concept of centralisation to work, bringing together every facet of the industry, from mining companies, traders, cutters and polishers to services including consultants, couriers, brokers, banks and a gem laboratory.
Thus Graff has cut out the middlemen, ensuring the supply of the right quantity and quality of diamonds to feed the creation of his finished jewellery and grow his retail business. This has brought benefits to the consumer, not only in pricing, but also in transparency, traceability and consistency of quality, particularly the cut, for this unleashes a diamond’s full potential, enhancing the visual excitement of fire, life and brilliance and adding to its value. “All our diamonds are cut in the Graff way,” he explains. “We’ve taken the most classic, established cuts and refined them with perfect proportions to get the utmost from each stone. We prefer to cut a little more, losing weight if necessary, to attain that perfection.”
By now, it will come as no surprise to learn that Graff has some of the best specialist diamond cutters in the world, not only in Botswana, but also in his South Africa, New York and Antwerp facilities. They work on the most challenging stones, including coloured diamonds, the riskiest and trickiest of all. These are the artisans who, with ingenuity, intuition and nerves of steel, and the help of the latest scanning machines and high technology, are working on three monumental rough diamonds that Graff purchased in the past year: a 269ct diamond from Lucara Karowe, Botswana, and two from the Letseng mine, one 314ct, the other 357ct. Also in the past year, he bought a 299ct yellow rough diamond, which he has fashioned into the 132.55ct fancy-intense-yellow cushion-cut Golden Empress. Graff says, “I hope to bring out from each of them a historic diamond. That’s what we do. A trilogy of historic diamonds.”
The Golden Empress is an exceptional specimen of the vibrant yellow diamonds that have become a Graff speciality, so much so, says François Graff, that for a while in the 1980s and 1990s, clients referred to them as Graff diamonds. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Laurence Graff explains, yellow diamonds were disregarded as “off colour”, pushed to one side, on to the industrial pile. Then, in New York, a diamond cutter experimented on a yellow diamond with a new “radiant” cut and, continues Graff, “brought it to show me in my hotel. I’d never seen a stone like that with such fire. I was fascinated. It was 31 carats, the first ever radiant-cut yellow diamond, and I bought it. That’s how we got into yellow diamonds.” Graff bought as many fine-quality yellows as he could – “at one time, we had the bulk of the world’s supply at our fingertips” – cutting them to his precise specifications, to bring out the colour and life. These yellow diamonds scintillate with distinctive golden warmth, making them youthful, modern, casual. They were first set into streamlined Graff jewels. Now they’re incorporated into softer, draped or fringed necklaces (price on request) of contemporary aristocratic splendour or bestselling figurative jewels, like a dragonfly brooch ( price on request).
As Graff brings the new generation forward, and as the retail empire absorbs more influences as it spreads across the globe, his original, signature, sleek, strong art-deco-inspired jewellery style is evolving into a design-driven aesthetic that is more fluid and feminine, and with more coloured gems to enhance emotion or tell a story. While Graff is proud that a wealthy client can walk into one of his boutiques and buy a multimillion-pound diamond on the spot, there is a new emphasis on entry-level jewels (from £5,000), and the designs that underline and define the brand, such as the aptly named Icon collection, with a motif in the shape of a scallop suggesting the grandeur of the Versailles court. The newest collection, Carissa (price on request) – representing a mid-range for Graff – takes inspiration from an exotic flower in the gardens of Graff’s Delaire estate in the winelands of South Africa. The jewels are sculptural, romantic, luscious, with necklaces of clustered gem-blossoms trailing diamond dewdrops.
Alongside his passion for diamonds, Graff has become one of the world’s leading art collectors, focusing on 20th-century masters, including Picasso, Calder, Fontana, Lichtenstein, Warhol, Basquiat and Bacon, and is on the board of several major museums. He regards the perfectly cut, sublimely proportioned D Flawless diamond (the top grading classification) of significant size (increasingly rare) as a true work of art, totally unique, singular in character, limited by nature, rarer in most cases than works by a particular artist of which there might be several or many, especially, he says, in the case of contemporary artworks. He will continue to chase a precious rarity, scouring the world for the best gems “24 hours a day, seven days a week”. Before I leave the Gstaad chalet, Graff shows me around his stellar art collection, explaining that in this, as in gemology and business, he is self-taught, continually refining his knowledge and eye. As I say goodbye, Laurence Graff, his extraordinary life retraced, his passions picked over, seems to have something on his mind. “Oh and this new book,” he says, without a trace of irony, “I want it to be a bestseller. It has to be the best.”