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Masters of Modern Luxury: Laurence Graff

Jill Newman

Laurence Graff began working in the diamond business as a 15-year-old apprentice jeweler in the London jewelry district. Sixty years later, he may be the world’s most powerful high-end diamond merchant. Known for his fearless pursuit of the best diamonds and gems, Graff pays record-high prices at auctions with the intention of selling the stones to his clients.

It is a winning strategy: Graff is now a billionaire who owns 36 stores around the world, expansive cutting and polishing facilities in South Africa and Botswana, and the Delaire Graff Estate, a South African vineyard and resort.

Wealth Protection
We are continually surprised at the amount of people who buy things on a whim. They walk into one of our stores and spend $1 million. Many of them are younger people who have made great wealth, and they spend it, whereas years ago wealth was often inherited at an older age. And in the past 15 years there has been an amazing explosion of wealth in Russia, China, and South America.

The first thing you do when you have wealth is try to protect it, and gems are a worldwide currency not subject to politics. Historically, the jeweler was always the trusted man in court; the jeweler was an honest person, knowledgeable, and knew how to protect wealth. People still buy stones today for that reason.

Brand Identity
Thirty years ago, most brands didn’t exist. Now with the expansion of emerging countries, many brands have grown. Our design style has evolved, and we have increased the capacity of production to meet demands. We sell important stones set simply; people want to see the stones. We make our own designs in our own image; we don’t make special designs for China or Dubai. Quality and brand value is a worldwide perception, and we believe that requires consistency.

We have a vast collection of pieces from $25,000 to $250,000, and many in the millions. When buyers come to Graff and they want a 1-carat diamond, they will get the best cut and quality—oftentimes cut by the same man who cut the 20-carat stone.

No Fear of Buying
I’m a born collector. In the diamond business you must collect to be in business. I’ve never been afraid to buy, because I know I can sell it. I have 60 years experience, and I know if you have the very best, the price doesn’t matter; eventually you will sell it. I’m bringing a mind-blowing piece to Maastricht [the annual art and antiques fair that was held in March in the Netherlands]. It’s a blue diamond peacock, and it will be the most expensive item at the show at $100 million. It will be sold. It is a museum piece.

At auctions I find important and special things. I look for exceptional sapphires, rubies, and emeralds, which are especially rare. I started by collecting diamonds, and in traveling around the world you see other things, and eventually I got interested in art too.

At first I collected impressionist art, and then friends introduced me to contemporary artists like Warhol, Haring, and Basquiat. At first I didn’t appreciate that work, but later my eye changed, and that is the art I want. I make new acquisitions all the time. I just bought Jeff Koons’s Venus sculpture and a piece by Allen Jones that he did at age 19.

When you are worldly and have a certain amount of wealth, you can become knowledgeable in art, and you buy more and more expensive things and build up. It is the same in jewelry. You gain confidence over time. There are always opportunities to buy; people cash in, and prices go higher.

Forever, If Possible
If you don’t have to, you must never sell. It is impossible to buy back. I couldn’t afford to buy my artwork today that I bought in earlier years. People are loath to let go of their diamonds they buy from us. They are impossible to buy back.

What I own will one day pass through to someone else’s hands, and diamonds especially are usually passed down generations. And if you have a tragedy or bad luck, those diamonds will support you. Hundreds of years from now, a father will show his son a diamond and say, “We used to find these in the ground.”

This article was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Robb Report. Click here to read more articles from this issue. 

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