FREELY SPEAKING - Laurence Graff - Expert eye

March 2008

A confidante to sultans and Saudi princes, Laurence Graff knows diamonds like no other

Laurence Graff has probably handled more important diamonds than any individual in the last 100 years. His legendary career started in London’s impoverished East End. A coffee-table book about Graff documents how, at age 15 in 1960, he was sacked after three months at his first jewelry apprenticeship, where his duties included going out to buy sandwiches. But Graff’s unstoppable passion for diamonds, combined with raw ambition and a talent for building client relationships, would bring him immense success in the years to follow. In 1997, he bought a 51 percent controlling stake in a Johannesburg diamond wholesaler and manufacturer, Safdico.

Today, Graff has more than 20 retail stores in Europe, the United States, the Middle East and Asia, and on the luxury yacht residence The World. He owns cutting and polishing operations in Johannesburg, Antwerp, Mauritius and New York, and is a shareholder in diamond mining companies including Petra Diamonds and Gem Diamonds.

COUTURE International Jeweler: What’s the key to your lasting relationships with clients? Laurence Graff: Throughout history, jewelers have been the confidantes of their clients. We sell very expensive items and trust is needed. Nowadays, I might meet a client and chat for an hour, and hardly touch on the subject of jewelry. If the chemistry and the conversation are right, it’s always nice to be able to share interests and offer each other help. It started in earnest in 1974 when I opened my first major retail store in Knightsbridge on the Brompton Road. It became apparent that retail business was strong in London with the influx of Middle Eastern oil money. I often helped newly wealthy Arab clients find their way in London, connecting them with doctors, tailors and drivers. Even the Sultan of Brunei came into the store, and so did every member of the Saudi Arabian royal family. One unforgettable day, Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz walked in unannounced and bought out the entire shop, including a 14-carat diamond. Today, my meetings might be in a royal palace or an entrepreneur’s office. But with stores across the globe, clients can buy locally and feel like members of a very exclusive club.

CIJ: What are your most important recent acquisitions?

LG: In September 2006, we acquired the Lesotho Promise. At 603 carats, it was the 15th-largest rough diamond ever discovered. It came to light in the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho, and soon after the president of Lesotho called me up with the news, we bought the stone for $12 million. It’s now been carved into 26 beautiful stones. There has been a lot of interest in buying the stones individually, but I’m keen to keep the collection together. I also recently bought the 18th-largest diamond ever discovered, the Letseng Legacy, from the same mine as the Lesotho Promise. Weighing 493 carats, it is being cut and polished in Antwerp. I’m hoping it will yield one large stone.

CIJ: Who are your rivals? LG: It’s important to have choice with any product, so I welcome other jewelers on Bond Street. Perhaps art is a rival for jewelry. Cutting diamonds is one of the greatest art forms in the world. The average spend at Graff is at least six figures. We have pieces for $10,000 and into the millions.

CIJ: What are your plans for the business? LG: As a top-end luxury brand we need to stay ahead. It’s important we are consistent with our design, quality and craftsmanship. We’ll be opening more stores over the next two or three years in Geneva, on Madison Avenue and more to come in Asia. Perhaps the next step is a Graff mine. The challenge with owning a mine is that while diamonds are mined daily, quality ones are not, and when you own a mine you bear the costs of not finding extraordinary stones. But I’m convinced I’ll buy when the right opportunity comes along.