Laurence Graff OBE is an English jeweller, best known as the founder of Graff Diamonds, supplier of jewellery and jewels. His fascination with the emotional power of gemstones has transformed the House of Graff into a global hallmark of innovation, creativity and craftsmanship. He now resides in Gstaad, Switzerland.
When you look at your life, the way you started, your simple family, your childhood helping your mother selling candies. Now you are wealthy, famous, have beautiful things around you. How is it to have a life like this? Most people stay in the world where they were born. Yours is a big change.
Well it is and it isn’t. I was raised in maybe the worst times the world has almost ever known, and I was raised in an area which was tough, but I had shoes, I had a jacket, I could eat, I went to school and I always thought I was privileged. I didn’t feel hard done by. I didn’t lack any anything in my life, because I was better off than so many other people around me.
Were you ever afraid?
I was a young boy during the war. I think it gave me a certain character. It gave me a certain strength and courage. Maybe because of those days I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life. When I buy the biggest diamonds in the world people say, “You’ve got so much courage.” It doesn’t feel like that; it’s what I do.
I have a word that I live by. It’s a wonderful word – ‘beshert’. It is a Hebrew word that means ‘it was meant to be’. This is a word that always comes to mind, I heard it from a young age and it has given me great strength and comfort. It means that I believe in fate, I believe everything has a destiny. In work, in life, in good times and bad, it gives me confidence to take risks.
“We searched for the best diamonds in the world and designed jewellery to showcase them in the best way.”
Laurence Graff OBE holding important diamonds
Where did you start?
A lot of jewellery craftsmanship was in Hatton Garden. It was a centre. So I went there.
What was your job?
I was an apprentice, sitting at the bench, learning how to file metal and so on. After three months I was called in and I was told I would never make it in this business, it was completely wrong for me. “You are never going to be a jeweller,” they said. I was 15 years old.
You are not easily defeated?
No, not easily. I’ll always come back again. It was a very bad time in London and hard to make a living. After a few more apprenticeships I realized what I needed to do. I decided to start my own business.
How old were you?
I was 17. I set up with a partner, an older man who was more experienced. We started repairing jewellery. In those days people would make their jewellery last longer by having it repaired, as they couldn’t afford anything new.
How did your business go?
I went to a high street jeweller and convinced them to give me a contract for repairs. I told them I could give them a wonderful service and fulfil all their orders. Somehow I won the contract, so we immediately had work to do, and we immediately had an income.
You are a very good salesman?
If I had to compliment myself on anything, I would say it is being a good salesman! So that’s how it began. Three years later we owed the sum of three thousand pounds to our suppliers. My partner was worried; he had a wife and children to support. By this time I was about 19 with less responsibilities. So I decided to take over the debts and continue on my own.
You were never afraid of what could happen?
I’ve never been afraid. It is beshert! I went to the suppliers and made them a promise. I said: “If you give me a chance and give me credit again, I promise you, within a year I’ll pay you.” I paid everybody back in six months.
I was making jewellery for my friends, their mothers. I was doing repairs, anything to make income. Working hard, 7 days a week, Saturdays, Sundays, no holidays. That was the way I was brought up. 7 days a week for years. I went around England selling, and then eventually I began to travel.
Where did you go?
I was about 27 years old, I went into the travel agent and bought a ticket to Australia. I wanted to travel, to go as far as I could. In those days the plane would stop four or five times to get to Australia. So when I heard it would stop in Singapore I decided to visit. It was a place that I knew my father had travelled to during the war.
As soon as I arrived I found a store called Robinson’s. It looked like a grand palace to me. I went inside and saw they were building the jewellery department on the ground floor. I asked for the manager, and he came in and said: “Laurence Graff, what are you doing here?” He was a little jeweller in the north of England who I met when I was running around the country. Such a coincidence! He told me he needed product to sell. I said “I’m going to go straight back to England. I’m going to create a collection and you’ll have jewellery in one month.” That’s what I did. I went back, and then for years I made maybe six or seven trips a year backwards and forwards to Singapore.
“I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life.”
Did your fortune start with the Sultan of Brunei?
I was already successful by the time I met the Sultan. I had already travelled to Brunei from Singapore several times to hold exhibitions and meet the people but that is not where my fortune began. Years later in London the Sultan walked into our store, in Knightsbridge and said: “You used to come to Brunei. I remember you.” Then I got to know the family, and the wife. They built up a collection of magnificent Graff jewellery over the years.
You specialized in diamonds?
Diamond and gemstone jewellery. The jewellery became more unique and the stones more rare until we sold the most valuable items around. We searched for the best diamonds in the world and designed jewellery to showcase them in the best way.
I opened a new store in Knightsbridge in ‘72 and the timing couldn’t have been better. The Middle East became rich, and they came to Knightsbridge. I got to know every single member of the royal families. In those days I sat on the floor with them and sold them jewellery.
Were you always travelling?
I was travelling non-stop. I’ve travelled all my life. Then I started buying in the auctions and became the largest buyer of important stones.
What about retail? How did that develop?
I noticed that some French houses were expanding, opening up stores in different countries, and I noticed a word that I read somewhere in the newspapers. Brand. Once I recognized the word I realized the name is worth more than the business. So I began to create a brand. I began to create advertisements that would surprise and excite our clients. I worked with a famous hairdresser and put a million dollars of diamonds into a model’s hair. The photograph that we took was seen all over the world. Everything changed in the world because brands grew and the whole retail experience began.
The first Graff jewellery shop.
Exterior of the Graff Diamond jewellery store on London’s Bond Street.
The original ‘Hair and Jewel’, created by Laurence Graff OBE in 1970.
A ‘Hair and Jewel’ creation.
The largest rough diamond in existence, the 1,109ct Lesedi La Rona, in the palm of a lady’s hand.
Laurence Graff receives his Order of the British Empire (OBE) from The Prince of Wales at Buckingham Palcace.
“It is a risky business, to be able to polish these stones and market them.”
Are you involved in every stage of the process?
We create diamonds from the rough. This century more than 60 per cent of the large diamonds of the world have been bought in the rough and polished by Graff. And many of them have become the largest and the best quality of their type in the world. We are working right now on the largest rough diamond in existence, the 1,109ct Lesedi La Rona. It is a risky business, to be able to polish these stones and market them. We understand them. We can cut them. We can put them into jewellery. And we can sell them. In that chain many people can only do one thing. We can do it all. So it’s put us a head and shoulders above the industry.
How important is quality to you?
It’s the most important thing. If you don’t consider quality as vital then you cannot build a luxury brand, polish diamonds or create beautiful jewellery. At Graff we hire the finest designers and craftsmen. We use the best diamonds and gemstones that we can find. When you have the best ingredients you can produce something really exceptional.
Are you a very motivated person?
Wherever I go, if there’s an opportunity to do something my ambition at that moment is to take that opportunity and do it. Because I think everything is an opportunity in life, and when there are special opportunities I have to seize the moment. When I look back, the very few times I didn’t take the opportunity, which is very very few, I always regretted it. If I go somewhere and I see something I take hold of the moment and act on it. Whether it’s to buy a painting or a diamond. Or anything else.
Do you still work all the time?
I am always coming up with new ideas and projects, but I’m not sitting in the office all the time. I speak to the designers, I give them my ideas and instigate designs, but they do the magic. I am a collector of art; it inspires me every day. I am constantly travelling. I acquire the rare stones and I am close to the diamond production – the polishing of the large rough diamonds. It’s a risky process but very exciting.
Is London the home of Graff?
London is a great city and it is our home, but we now have almost 60 stores all over the world. We are a very global business.
Is Paris going to be the best?
We are planning our biggest ever store and it’s going to be in Paris, on Rue St. Honoré. We’re opening up an amazing emporium.
Who runs the business today?
My son is our Chief Executive and my brother and nephew are also closely involved. We work closely together, we talk constantly, we are a family business.
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