The King of all that sparkles
With his singular passion for gemstones and a unique genius for business, Laurence Graff has journeyed from London’s East End to a place on the world’s stage alongside kings, presidents and cultural icons.
I believe you get a second chance, that things come around again,” says Laurence Graff, as he shows me Francis Bacon’s portrait of Pope Pius VII, one of Bacon’s famous Pope series, hanging in the comfortable, effortlessly elegant library of his home in Switzerland. He had, he explains, turned down the painting some years earlier, thinking it “too dark”. He realised he’d made a serious error of judgement, but with his uncanny knack of attracting – and seizing – opportunities and treasures, masterpieces of both art and gemstones, the painting came around on to the market again, and after some characteristically shrewd negotiation, he was able to add it to his stellar art collection. “Things, and sometimes people, come back to me,” he muses. “Better to be lucky than unlucky. But maybe I make my luck.”
Laurence Graff, jeweller, diamantaire, billionaire business magnate and world-renowned art collector, makes more luck than errors of judgement, and very few golden opportunities slip through his fingers. His story, as he tells it – totally devoid of introspection or self-importance – is punctuated with anecdotes, some modest and moving, as in the vivid memories of his childhood, others monumental in their significance to the diamond industry. All are revealing, however, of Graff ’s astonishing audacity and tenacity and of his extraordinary, unwavering, single-minded determination, quite simply, to be the best.
His story of metamorphosis is very similar, it seems to me, to that of a diamond, transformed from raw, rough carbon into a precious, ravishingly refined gem. The House of Graff may polish the world’s finest diamonds, but it’s the diamond that has polished Laurence Graff himself, from humble, working-class East End boy into suave and sophisticated captain of industry, a man of exceptional means, honours and achievements, and with refined and exquisite taste.
Laurence Graff seems to possess the diamond’s invincibility, too, a fortitude based on unshakable self-belief. This characteristic, like other remarkable traits, comes, he firmly believes, from his upbringing in the close-knit Jewish community of London’s East End in the Forties. His father was a tailor, but was conscripted into the Army soon after the outbreak of war in 1939, so that Laurence didn’t get to know him properly until he was seven years old. In the meantime, he was passed between his mother and his Russian paternal grandmother, Katie Graff – the business brain of the family, whom everyone in the community went to for advice, and who had given his father a newsagent-cum-sweetshop to start him off in business.
Looking back, and happily immersed in his crystal-clear early memories, Laurence Graff stresses what a powerful influence his grandmother exerted on him, how he absorbed, by osmosis, her shrewd business sense, her drive and determination. Together with Laurence Graff’s grandfather, Samuel Graff, she ran a successful kosher butcher’s shop. They were a deeply pious, observant couple, well known and respected in the community. “They were extraordinarily religious,” he recalls. “When I lived there with them, I could hear the sound of the praying – musical, rhythmic. I can still hear it in my ear today.” Admiringly, Laurence Graff tells how much later, aged 70 and as shrewd and energetic as ever, Katie started up a new business buying and selling chickens. Perhaps, then, she remains a role model today, since Graff’s own extraordinary drive and curiosity about the world remain undimmed.
His maternal grandparents were emigrants from Bucharest in Romania, and to Laurence’s young eyes seemed somehow more “distinguished”. His mother’s father was a bootmaker. “I would go with him to the wholesaler in Shoreditch where he bought his shoes, and take them back to his shop in Brick Lane,” he recalls. Today Brick Lane, like Shoreditch, could not be more fashionable, “but it was really a slum at the time”. Still, Laurence took everything in, and “saw how you dressed the shoes nicely in the shop. It was all ingrained in me.”
He went to school at St-George-in-the-East in nearby Shadwell – where he became head boy – but arguably learned as much from the trading, hurly-burly and bustle on Hessel Street, in Whitechapel, where he helped his mother to run the sweetshop. It’s tempting to imagine that the jars of glistening sweets, with their glints of light and colour, resembled the gemstones he was later to accumulate.
Hessel Street today looks very different from the busy street of Graff’s recollection. Its Jewish community has long-since dispersed to leafier suburbs, and it is now home to a more recent wave of immigrants. But back then, every day except the Sabbath, Hessel Street would burst into life with its famous market, heaving with crowds of shoppers, crammed with stalls selling everything from fish and live poultry to pots and pans, the traders loudly shouting their wares. Graff remembers the larger-than-life personalities, the “big businessmen”, as he thought they were at the time. Everywhere around him he saw buying and selling, money changing hands, money being counted, people putting elastic bands around wads of notes. It all made a deep and lasting impression on the young boy. “I was brought up in this market, where people were just making a living, and it made me street-smart, alert,” he says. “I had ears that listened. Eyes that saw.”
He also saw poverty, hardship and the devastating impact of war. He recalls the bombs that destroyed half the road, the terrifying buzz of a V1 flying rocket – and diving under the sweetshop counter when it exploded. On most evenings at his Romanian grandparents’ house on Brick Lane, while they roasted corn-on-the-cob and chestnuts on the fi re, the young Laurence would listen to the BBC news on the radio, terrified he would hear that his father – still serving overseas – had been either shot or captured.
“So much has gone into me from that East End experience,” says Graff today. He remembers his mother’s continual admonishments to be honest in his dealings with other people, to be correct. She continued to check up on him, he says, until she died aged 98 in 2008, and her values have shaped his own attitude and ethos: “I’ve always paid my bills, always kept my word.
“I came through those war years,” he continues, “and it hardened me I suppose, gave me nerves of steel. But it also gave me 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 survival and security. I didn’t know what rich was, but I had shoes, I had food, and I had comics: The Beano and The Dandy.” It was these comics, he thinks, which first brought out his collector’s instinct. He accumulated them, together with glass marbles and cigarette cards, and traded them in shelters during air raids.
The combination of the terror and the uncertainty of war, the enveloping warmth and security of an extended matriarchal Jewish family with strong values and traditions, and his immersion in market trading forged not only Laurence Graff’s drive and business sense, but also his fearless risk-taking. For the boy who once bought and sold marbles and copies of The Beano would eventually pay headline-grabbing record prices, for both gems and art, in the auction rooms.
The same remarkable boldness enabled him to buy and then re-polish some of the world’s most valuable stones, including the Wittelsbach-Graff, an historic blue diamond acquired in 2008. Cutting a diamond intimately linked with European royalty and a story that reaches back to the 17th century requires total self-belief, but for Graff, it was justified. He likens this transformation to one of those revelatory moments when a woman who has always been pretty, suddenly becomes utterly beautiful.
As a child, Laurence Graff knew very little of jewellery, except that his mother possessed a diamond engagement ring, most probably purchased in the tiny jewellery quarter that filled Whitechapel’s now vanished Black Lion Yard. And it was there where, at the age of 12 or 13, Laurence first noticed the “sparklers” in the windows, thus beginning his lifelong connection with gemstones. His path into the jewellery business was anything but smooth, though. When his mother took him, aged 15, to his first job as an apprentice to a jeweller in Hatton Garden – then, as now, a street of diamond traders – she had asked the owner, a Mr Schindler, “How far can he go?” The answer, prophetic, came back, “The sky’s the limit.” Yet, after three months of scrubbing floors, fetching sandwiches for the staff , whitewashing walls, and occasionally levelling a piece of metal, young Graff was told he’d “never make the grade”, and lost his job.
As he recounts this story today, he revels in its irony, but you can still sense the impact of the rebuff. It spurred his pride and fuelled his determination. Graff got a job at another Hatton Garden jeweller’s, learning his craft both on the job and at the Sir John Cass College of Arts, and later at Central School (now the world-famous style and design hub that is Central St Martins). By the age of 17, Graff considered himself a jeweller, and when once again he lost his job – when the business he worked for was declared bankrupt – he went into partnership with an older, more experienced jeweller. Gaining an understanding of Victorian jewellery from repairing it, Laurence and his partner then began making pieces which fed the vogue for Victoriana. They enjoyed some success, but his partner lost his nerve when the business accumulated debts of some £3,000 with their gold caster and their stone dealer – a substantial sum at the time. Graff, however, remained confident, and a contract was drawn up agreeing that he would take over the entire debt. He persuaded his suppliers to continue trading with him, and repaid the debt in just six months. He was still only 22 years old.
“I felt protected,” he says, trying to explain his chutzpah, adding without vanity that he always knew he was “special” in some way. “I had complete confidence and I felt at home doing whatever I did, wherever I found myself. I adapt easily. And I always seemed to get to the very top of what I did.”
There then began the incremental but sometimes rapid steps which turned the young but ambitious jeweller into the world-renowned diamantaire he is today. He recalls buying 33 diamonds on credit for £60 from a diamond dealer, Mr Rabinowitz, who seemed at the time, he says, “like a god to me”. Rather than do the obvious, and make several pieces using the stones, Graff instead created a single ring with “a big flash of diamonds” – which he sold for £100 to a jeweller in a British seaside town, who promptly ordered another. “I thought it was the most beautiful ring in the world,” he recalls of that first creation, although his definition of “a big flash of diamonds” was set to change over the years.
“Bigger and better” became his watchwords. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, “everything was clicking into a business”, and Graff’s ambitions grew with each passing year. Graff Diamonds was launched in 1960, and his first shops opened in London just two years later. Then in 1966, still aged just 28, the young jeweller won the highly prestigious Diamond International Award with a large and impactful diamond and amethyst bracelet.
An even bigger flash of diamonds was revealed to the world in 1970 with the presentation of the iconic – and jaw-dropping – Hair and Jewel Coiffure, in which a model’s curled hair was embellished and embedded with a panoply of diamond jewels valued at $1m. Inspired by the fantastical, towering assemblages so fashionable in the 18th century, it was a brilliant piece of PR, capturing the attention of newspapers and magazines around the world. When in 2013 the Hair and Jewel was recreated to celebrate Laurence Graff’s 60th anniversary of working in the jewellery industry, this time the extremely rare and unique jewels were worth an extraordinary $500m. In 2014, Graff would unveil perhaps the House’s most colourful flash of diamonds ever, the Hallucination watch, awash with exquisite multi-coloured gems.
But for all the headlines these big “reveals” have generated, often Graff’s moments of showmanship – and salesmanship – have been more intimate.
In the 1980s, for example, he set the entire first Argyle Pink Diamonds Tender from the new Argyle mine in Australia into a luscious flower brooch, and then sold it – out of his pocket and hot off the workbench – to the Sultan of Brunei.
Self-taught both as a gemmologist and as a connoisseur of art – an avid reader and clearly a quick learner – Graff puts a great part of his success down to his ardent curiosity and insatiable appetite for learning. “I didn’t even know that I was hungry for knowledge, but as it came, I wanted to know a little bit more,” he observes. And at each stage of his climb towards spectacular success, Laurence Graff has had his eye on the next opportunity. Or as he puts it, “I have crept up the ladder very slowly, bit by bit, seeking out something that other people didn’t know about.” Making his own luck.
From the mid-Sixties onwards, Laurence Graff’s extensive travels took him back and forth to Asia and the Middle East, to the palaces of Brunei and Kuwait and the jungles of Borneo, to the Philippines and the South Pacific. He cultivated relationships with kings and sultans, princes and potentates, “And with each trip I learned something new.”
It all began one grey London day when, frustrated at the narrowness of the British jewellery market, he’d bought a ticket to Australia on impulse. Again on a whim, he decided to stop over in Singapore, where his father had been during the war. Having wandered into Robinson’s, a luxury department store, he ran into an acquaintance from the UK who, it transpired, was in the process of opening up a jewellery department for the emporium. Graff collaborated with him to organise regular exhibitions, which ultimately led to his first shop abroad, and the foundation of much of Graff’s global success. There is a thread of superstition, you sense, as he recalls this initial piece of good fortune, woven through Graff’s drive and ambition.
The jeweller continued travelling back and forth to Asia, always with his bag of samples, exploring new markets, learning local customs and cultures, building relationships. One of these was with Imelda Marcos, then First Lady of the Philippines, and an extravagantly enthusiastic client who bought, among other treasures, the Idol’s Eye diamond, Graff’s first important historic stone. After accepting an invitation to meet her on her yacht one evening, Graff found himself setting sail – “kidnapped”, in his words – for her private Bamboo Island, where he was temporarily marooned, but provided with a full wardrobe of clothes, for a week.
With each trip, with each visit to a palace or to a private yacht, he was aware of how far he’d come. “For an East End boy, to dine with kings and princes was quite something,” he reflects. As ever though, he adapted with ease. “Nothing was beyond me. Sitting on the floor on velvet cushions in luxurious palaces eating with sheikhs – I took it all in my stride. I remember an occasion when I had my very first aircraft, a Learjet, around 1985, and I flew to meet a client, who was a sheikh. My pilot spoke to his pilot, and we landed somewhere. I got down on to the runway and handed over a diamond necklace. It was very exciting.”
And then Hollywood royalty came calling: Frank Sinatra, who shared his interest in art; and Elizabeth Taylor, whose passion for jewels bordered on obsession. She became a friend, and when she dined at his home in the South of France, he seated her directly beneath an Andy Warhol painting of her, Red Liz.
But at the heart of his ability to nurture bonds with people who esteem extraordinary jewellery is his own remarkable natural affinity with diamonds. Laurence Graff has an innate ability to see into the heart of a stone and to connect with its possibilities – a rapport that enables him to understand the individual character of a diamond, to see the subtlest nuances of light, fi re and colour. Perhaps he taps into the energy of a gemstone; or perhaps it is some sixth sense of his. Laurence Graff doesn’t analyse this, for his is a visceral, instinctive response, almost childlike in its simple joy.
“I’m drawn to stones. I just want to touch the gems all the time and feel them and look at them. I get a thrill every morning when I open a package and look at a diamond, or at a piece of rough that gleams, that has life, that we’re going to cut to give birth to a stone. I clean them, I treasure them, I cherish them. From the start, I always respected the fact that they were valuable, that they sparkled and that they lived. I loved it. You can enjoy them, make them more brilliant and combine them. It’s fun – a lot of our designs come from playing with diamonds and laying them out in special ways until you see a shape coming, until you see an idea. When I’ve got a stone in my hand, I’ve already got things going through my mind: how it’s going to be set and the stones that are going to go with it, and what we should be doing with it. It opens up the imagination immediately.”
Early on Laurence realised that the supply of diamonds of the right quality – Graff quality – was crucial to growth, and that he needed to be in control of that supply as much as he possibly could. As he sees it, “If you want diamonds, you have to get as close to them as you can.” Today, Graff Diamonds is totally independent. The company’s assets range from a share in a mine in Lesotho through to Safdico, the state-of-the-art cutting and polishing facility, to Graff ’s London-based headquarters, with its design studio and workshops, and the stores around the world in which Graff ’s fabulous wares are displayed. The House, therefore, is vertically integrated, meaning that to a remarkable degree it can control quality and production throughout the many stages required to produce outstanding jewellery. In other words, Graff controls its own destiny.
In a sense, Laurence Graff has simply applied the same determined approach to buying the building blocks of his business as he has to buying the best stones. In 1998, he acquired a controlling stake in the South African Diamond Corporation (Safdico), a powerful player in the industry with privileged access to De Beers’ rough diamonds. Laurence Graff sometimes refers to himself as a “Lone Ranger” (a throwback to his boyhood collection of comics, perhaps), when he talks of the pioneering steps he’s taken to reach this point of self-sufficiency. For in initiating the mine-to-market model; in paying world-record prices; in demonstrating the value and rarity of fi ne diamonds; in building a world-leading diamond house; and in modernising diamond-cutting, he has changed and reshaped the world’s deeply convention-bound diamond industry and taken it on to a new, 21st-century model. Perhaps this is down to his rare combination of skills and qualities: an artistic sensibility mixed with a dealer’s talent for tough negotiating and a retailer’s entrepreneurial instincts. This, he admits, sets him apart, makes him “a special animal”. Singlehandedly, he has, as it were, joined the dots, tracing a line from the source of the stones, the mines, all the way through the supply chain to the marketing and advertising of jewels, retail and connecting with clients.
He explains that he had this concept of centralisation in mind when he set up the sophisticated Diamond Technology Park in 2009 in Botswana, a project that was initiated through Safdico. The Technology Park brings together every facet of the diamond industry, from mining companies, traders, cutters and polishers, to services including couriers, consultants, brokers, banks and a world-renowned gem laboratory, and has made a signifi cant contribution to Botswana’s economy. And, like every Graff venture, the initiative is underpinned by his own relentless pursuit of perfection and professionalism. Graff states simply, “I can’t rest unless it becomes the best.”
Talk of the diamond industry leads to memories of industry icons, such as Harry Oppenheimer, son of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, architect of the mighty De Beers Group, and a titan of the diamond world.
Graff describes being summoned to Lucerne to meet Oppenheimer, who told him, “Laurence, I wanted to meet you, thank you for coming. I’ve been watching your career progress.” Graff explained in his usual direct manner that it was his dream to join the small, exclusive club of “sightholders”, granted direct access to a supply of rough diamonds, usually handed down from father to son. Oppenheimer offered him a tip: find the right father-and-son business, and buy his way in. Which, of course, he did, eventually becoming one of the biggest and most important of De Beers’ sightholders.
Today, he has edged even closer to the source of his industry as the largest shareholder in Gem Diamonds, owner of the highest mine in the world, the Letšeng mine in Lesotho, which sits at an elevation of 3,100m above sea level. Four of the five largest white gem-quality diamonds ever recorded have come from Letšeng. And Graff has been responsible for cutting, polishing and promoting each of these magnificent, historically important diamonds: the colossal 603-carat Lesotho Promise, the 550-carat Letšeng Star, the 493-carat Letšeng Legacy and the 478-carat Light of Letšeng.
His story about Harry Oppenheimer has not concluded, however. “I became Oppenheimer’s personal jeweller,” Graff says. When the De Beers chairperson turned 80, he came to see Laurence Graff in his London store. He wanted to buy his wife a gift of diamonds set in gold. “It was quite a thrill for me,” he recollects.
This story unlocks other riveting and revealing tales of Graff’s dealings with De Beers. As a leading sightholder, he was often rewarded with “specials” – important, more rarefied rough diamonds at advantageous prices. On one occasion, having finalised a lengthy deal for a “special” in South Africa, the next morning Graff called De Beers’ CEO, saying, “I’ve got a funny feeling that you left something in the safe. I can’t explain it, but I’ve just got this feeling that right at the back of the safe somewhere you’ve left a special diamond.” The CEO replied, laughing, “I have to tell you Laurence, you are an uncanny guy.” There was indeed one more stone in the safe: a Vivid Pink rough diamond that De Beers had owned for some 60 years.
The next day Graff and his Safdico colleagues went to see the stone, wrapped in the traditional “brifk a” or folded envelope, which, in customary fashion, was marked with the price: $200,000. Now, reliving the moment, Graff shows me how he barely unfolded the package to glance inside for a nanosecond, before saying, “I’ll have it. Invoice me.” When the invoice arrived, however, it revealed that the price was in fact $200,000 per carat – and since the rough was some 10 carats, Graff discovered he had spent more than $2m in the blink of an eye. He laughs as he recalls the moment. “It didn’t matter, because the stone was so amazing. From the rough we polished the most beautiful five-carat Vivid Pink cushion – an absolute beauty.”
So many Graff stories revolve around his famous “sixth sense”: the uncanny coincidences and strokes of good fortune that have helped him on his way through life; the stones, paintings or people who have come back to him almost as if he knew they must. But there are also the momentous split-second decisions, often taken in the pressurised environment of the auction room, to pay astronomical, unprecedented prices. Take, for example, the Graff Ruby – the fi nest ruby of his career, he believes – which is an 8.62-carat gem of exceptional “pigeon-blood” hue extracted from Burma’s historic Mogok mine, 200km north of Mandalay. He bought it at auction for a world-record price. “I still believe it’s inexpensive,” he says.
A further example of his nerveless audacity also involves De Beers, and another summons, this time to survey a room lined with tables on which were laid out before him numerous piles of rough diamonds, all carefully categorised. In the centre of these piles was a glass-topped box containing the prized De Beers collection of coloured diamonds.
Completely taken aback by this hoard of treasure, but as always adapting to the situation, Graff quickly assessed the coloured diamonds, and having asked their price, made an audacious offer on the spot. After some negotiation, and all the while keeping his eye very firmly on the glistening mounds of rough material surrounding him, he clinched the deal. Graff was then asked to assess the endless piles of diamond rough – a task, he estimated, that would take months to do properly. Yet he also quickly appreciated that this was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Seizing the extraordinary moment, he made a courageous, off -the-cuff offer for the entire room full of diamonds. He wanted to give them “the shock treatment”, he explains, adding that it was the biggest deal of his career, worth tens of millions of dollars. The rough material took some two years to polish – a period during which diamonds soared in value. The end result was a typical Graff triumph, both creatively and commercially.
Along with his masterful brand building, Laurence Graff is immensely proud of his art collection – one of the finest of its kind in the world – and of his stature in the international art world. Art gives Graff a huge amount of pleasure and also, he says, relaxation and intellectual stimulation. He sits on various boards of five museums and on the European advisory board of a leading auction house, while curators beat a path to his door to see the collection and to ask for loans. He is an astute art dealer, and hosts regular, sparkling dinners for auction houses, museum directors and curators at his exquisite art-filled home in Switzerland.
Graff first started looking seriously at art in the early Seventies, usually when he went to auctions. Initially he was seduced by the Impressionists. Later, as his tastes evolved, he moved on to modern and contemporary art, focusing particularly on the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. His superlative collection now comprises important works by Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
In his Swiss home, a powerful work by Basquiat takes up an entire wall. Warhol’s Elvis gazes down on the staircase, and Alexander Calder mobiles quiver from the ceilings. Graff points out Roy Lichtenstein’s Woman with Flowered Hat, inspired by Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar. “Even great artists are influenced by the old, which is taken forward to the new, just as Bacon was inspired by Velázquez,” he observes admiringly. He likes everything about the 1960s, including the furniture that he also collects. He appreciates the iconoclastic attitude of this era of cultural and social change. It was an important period too, of course, of his own lifetime.
“I lived through it,” he says. “I even met Warhol, who I used to see delivering copies of Interview magazine on Madison Avenue. I didn’t know who he was, just that he was a character.” He also encountered Bacon through a penchant for Dixieland jazz, which lured him into Soho when he was in his late teens. “Because of my upbringing though, I was terrified of anything improper – drugs, even smoking.” He did, however, go to the French House, a pub presided over by the extravagantly moustachioed landlord Gaston Berlemont, and frequented by Bacon, Lucian Freud and the photographer John Deacon. “Bacon was scary – well-spoken, but a tough character, with a very dark streak,” he recalls.
Graff has built his collection with the same passion that drives his buying of gemstones. “My ambitions have taken me into real estate, into art, into all sorts of precious things, but always on my own judgement.” As he talks about his choices, there’s that inimitable sparkle of shrewdness and daring backed by expertise, taste, and a superbly honed eye. “I chase the best. I have to be the best. That passion and drive means I never let something I want off the hook.”
That self-same zeal is also evident in his restoration of the splendid Delaire Estate, which is now one of the finest wineries in South Africa and a greatly admired resort hotel. Yet his continuing involvement with Africa, from the Estate to the mines and the workshops, means that he has also seen at first-hand widespread poverty, disease and hardship. He has been particularly affected by the suffering of African children, and, as a consequence, has striven to give something back to the continent which has played such a significant role in the achievements of the company.
“When I first went to Lesotho, I looked around the countryside and went to meet the people, and I knew they needed help,” he says. In 2008 he set up the FACET foundation to distribute funds to charities involved in health, education and the training of young people. A Graff Leadership Centre was opened in Leribe in Lesotho, improving literacy, employment and leadership skills, which also included a hostel for 50 young girls. It was followed by a Graff Leadership Centre in Botswana, providing innovative educational and psychological support programmes for vulnerable youths aged 12 to 18. “The idea was to team up with local charities with good personnel to run them efficiently,” he explains. Most recently, he says, FACET has embarked on a new initiative to equip vans with computers, desks and libraries, which travel around the Stellenbosch winelands, helping children (and sometimes their parents) to learn. “We’re doing things for these kids – feeding them and clothing them,” he continues. “They’re now beginning to graduate with a good education. They’ll get a good chance in life.”
That he is now in a position to influence the lives of so many young Africans speaks volumes for his belief in opportunity – the same opportunity which, albeit having arisen in very different circumstances, allowed his own unique blend of talents to flourish so emphatically. Graff, always impatient for progress, may feel that the growth of his business has taken a lifetime. But in truth it’s astonishing that the House of Graff has gone from a humble one-man band to a world-renowned, industry-leading empire in one generation.
Such has been its resonance in global terms that in 1973 Graff was presented with a prestigious Queen’s Award for International Trade, an award that the company was to receive again and again, in 1977, 1994, 2006 and 2014. Similar landmarks in the evolution of the House are almost too numerous to mention, but standouts have been the opening of the Knightsbridge flagship store in 1974, and a momentous move to impressive premises on Bond Street, in 1993. Then, explains Laurence’s son Francois Graff, the company’s CEO, there was a huge and ambitious programme of expansion, which began in 1998, masterminded by father and son.
“We both sat down together and came up with a plan for moving forward,” recalls Francois. “The opportunity to acquire Safdico went hand-in-hand with the decision we had arrived at to expand our retail operation dramatically. We realised it was going to get harder and harder to stock the business with the right diamonds, and while Safdico supported us in that way, at the same time an expanded retail network would support Safdico. A roll-out, we realised, would also strengthen brand awareness of Graff as a purveyor of treasure.”
The first boutique outside London opened in 2000 in Monte Carlo, followed by a flagship store on New York’s Madison Avenue a year later. The company has since grown at a phenomenal pace and today there are more than 50 stores around the world, with expansion continuing at a pace. Each one of these – from the flagship location on Bond Street to Hong Kong’s Central store and the boutique on Paris’s hallowed Place Vendôme – exudes the strong Graff identity, with a sleek yet opulent design and the now globally recognised Icon pattern. Needless to say, all of these are elements of the brand that Laurence Graff has nurtured through the years, alongside those showstopping moments, and a series of provocative and compelling advertising campaigns which marked another departure from the traditional jewellery industry.
“I could never have dreamt that one day I’d have shops all around the world,” Laurence Graff says, thinking of his early life, perhaps, and of his parents’ sweetshop. And yet the limit of his ambition is far from being realised. “We’re still a young brand, just beginning,” he continues. “I have no fear in growing further. There is something within me that makes me feel I can fly, soar even higher.”
Unsurprisingly, given the sense of family and community that Laurence Graff grew up with, the House of Graff is very much a family business. Laurence’s brother, Raymond, has long been in charge of jewellery manufacturing – expanding, modernising and continually improving the London workshops, which are now housed within the Graff headquarters. And Laurence brought his son, Francois, into the business when he was in his early twenties, ensuring he learned every aspect of the diamond industry from the ground up: qualifying as a gemmologist at the Gemmological Institute of America (GIA) in New York even before he went to university, spending time in the Graff cutting and polishing facility, and accompanying his father to auctions.
“There were just a handful of people running the business when I started,” Francois recalls. “I think there were maybe eight or ten people, running the whole business. So of course, we did a bit of everything. It was fantastic training. But I’ve seen it grow into the completely different animal that it is today.”
Francois shares his father’s engaging style of storytelling, and it’s soon clear that he has imbibed the Graff ethos that everything is possible. “My father lived and breathed the business, and he brought his work home with him,” he says. “Whether we wanted it or not, we got a good education in the world of diamonds and jewellery. He was always jetting off somewhere and of course, there were wonderful stories about exotic places and interesting people. It was never mundane – more like a fantasy. So I became absorbed in the diamond business early on. I didn’t even think about it. It drew me in.” After his studies at the GIA he spent time in Hatton Garden – where his father’s career had begun, and where the Graff workshops were at the time – working alongside his uncle Raymond. “But I wanted to get out into the world,” he says. Taking him at his word, Laurence Graff threw his son in at the deep end. His father, he says, believed in him, which in turn gave him confidence.
“I was just 24, and had only been in the business for three or four months,” he recollects. “We had a call from the Gulf asking us about jewellery for a big wedding – for the forthcoming marriage of a ruler’s son. My father sent me to speak with them. I was fortunate to do a deal worth millions of dollars, a huge transaction at the time, which really caught my imagination. There was no turning back.”
His fondest memories, he says, are of travelling around the world with his father on business trips. Most of all he remembers being impressed by his father’s swift and astute negotiating skills. In the ruby mines of Thailand, for example, he was able to sift through hundreds of stones, put together a package, negotiate with “tricky people”, and always come back with exactly what they wanted.
Francois now spends much of his working day communicating with the network of Graff stores scattered across the globe: Asia in the morning, Europe throughout the day and America in the evening. “My father taught me that when you get out in the world, the opportunities are endless,” he says appreciatively.
Raymond’s son Elliott – who works closely with Laurence – was also mentored by his uncle after joining the company in 1994. Like Francois, he has worked in every department of the business, but today, alongside Laurence Graff, is in charge of purchasing the majority of the House’s major diamonds, merchandising and production. It began when his father Raymond gently suggested he try a jewellery-making course at London’s Sir John Cass College, where Laurence had begun to learn his craft decades earlier.
It was when he began to study gemmology, however, that he found his true vocation. “I got very technical,” Elliott recalls. “I was fascinated by gem identification, totally immersed in coloured stones. I loved it.” So much so that like Francois, he went to study at the GIA in New York, learning how to grade diamonds. It proved an essential skill on his return to London to work in his father’s workshops sorting diamonds, especially since, he says, his father Raymond is as exceptionally strict about diamond quality as his uncle is.
“It was amazing training, but I wanted to learn about every aspect of the company,” says Elliott. “I rang my uncle and said I wanted to work in the shop on Saturdays.” Every weekend Laurence Graff spent at least an hour with his nephew, explaining the business. “I was 22, and it changed the way I looked at things,” he says. The budding diamantaire had the opportunity to watch his uncle in action. “Above all he is an incredible salesman, whether he’s selling stones, jewellery or his own personality,” he continues. “But I learned from him not only about business, but about life – how to be. I learned about integrity, manner, and most of all how to think. He has a naturally strategic mind. He listens, thinks, remembers.”
Elliott marvels at the way in which his uncle makes space to explore a diamond. “He has an extraordinary ability to give an important stone the time and attention it needs. Watching him, you can often see him falling in love with a stone,” he explains. Elliott witnessed this first-hand with the acquisition of the famous Wittelsbach-Graff diamond. Initially Elliott had been unconvinced by the stone. But without ever saying he was wrong, Laurence slowly persuaded him of the personality and the possibilities of this great historic gem.
His mentor also impressed the younger Graff with his genius for thinking on his feet and making rapid calculations – a talent that proves especially valuable in the heat of the moment at important auctions, when bids can suddenly start rising rapidly. “You have to think very, very quickly,” Elliott explains. “He’s a mathematical genius.”
Listening to the Graff s talking about their dreams and plans and their passion for what they do, it is hard not to wonder whether we might be witnessing the establishment of a great jewellery dynasty. One that will remain as synonymous with the world’s fi nest diamonds in 100 or 200 years’ time as the name Graff is today.
“I didn’t know what ‘brand’ was at the beginning, but all of a sudden it is all about ‘brand, brand, brand’, and a brand, I realised, is a name,” observes the inimitable Mr Graff , who, in 2013, was awarded a highly prestigious OBE in recognition of a lifetime of dedication and commitment to the jewellery industry. “It’s my name… I think it’s nice for names to carry on.” Thus, he is allowing the younger generations an increasingly free rein. “More and more I’m in the background, because I want to project others to the front,” he says. “I want them to go forward.”
Yet he still keeps a close eye on every aspect of his business, either from his home in Switzerland or wherever else in the world he happens to be, and twice a month flies to London to see the shipments that come in from the cutting and polishing facilities. “I’m sure my great-grandchildren will be intrigued by these stories, but theirs will be a different world, and they’ll have a different way of doing things,” Laurence Graff reflects.
It’s clear, however, that his mind is still very much on the here and now. “My ambition is to improve the brand all the time, to make it secure, to bring in more expertise where we can, and carry on dealing with the most fabulous jewels in the world.” As he speaks, he glances time and again at Bacon’s darkly glimmering Pope on the library wall, and I ask him for his appraisal of the painting.
“What do I see? I see a powerful figure coming out of the darkness, a man of great power,” he answers. Does he think that the imposing, enigmatic figure looks rather like him? “People tell me that, yes, that the image resembles me,” he muses. “Maybe it does.”
This piece is an extract from the coffee-table book, GRAFF, published by Rizzoli New York in 2015. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Graff’s charitable foundation FACET.