'King of diamonds' a cut above

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am


'Diamonds are forever,' sang Shirley Bassey, and Laurence Graff could not agree more. The British jeweller sells diamonds to billionaires, royalty and even movie stars like the late Elizabeth Taylor, whose jewellery collection was legendary.

Graff, 73, nicknamed 'the king of diamonds', is founder and chairman of Graff Diamonds - which has 32 shops globally, including 14 in the US and London, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong.

'Diamonds are not just a girl's best friend,' he said, referring to the Marilyn Monroe hit from the 1953 movie, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 'but also some men's best friend.

'They're definitely my best friend,' he said as he polished the 102.79-carat Constellation - the crown jewel of his collection and valued at about US$50 million.

Born in 1938 to a Jewish family in London's East End, he started work when he was 15 years old as an apprentice goldsmith, but he did not find it to his liking and did not learn the secrets of the trade. His second job also involved jewellery, but the company went bankrupt.

Tired of being unemployed, at 16, he decided to set up a business with a partner to repair jewellery. He later bought out his partner and started selling his own rings worth a few pounds each.

His first breakthrough came when he convinced a jewellery-shop owner to offer up 33 small diamonds on credit.

'Instead of making 33 small rings with small diamonds, I decided to make one ring with 33 diamonds. That's because I wanted to offer the best of the best to the customer. It was sold to a jewellery shop for GBP100, and that was the first big deal that I made,' he said.

The rest is history, and the GBP100 ring is small beer compared with the jewellery sold through Graff Diamonds, which he set up in 1960. He first handled wholesale goods and he opened retail outlets in London before expanding overseas in 1960.

Graff opened its flagship shop in Hong Kong in the upmarket Peninsula hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui three years ago, but the jeweller's first visit here occurred decades earlier and was on a much humbler scale.

In 1960, Graff arrived in the city with a briefcase of sample rings, which he planned to sell by cold-calling on stores.

'This is how my shop began. It was a humble beginning. But hard work, honesty and integrity are the key to success. By offering value for money and good service to customers, they come back to you,'' he said.

The company's operations now span manufacturing and wholesaling as well as retail services. The least expensive diamond in his shop goes for at least US$10,000.

He said his client base had changed over the years, reflecting the economic cycles in the past half-century or so.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans were the big customers. They were replaced by Middle Eastern customers awash with petrodollars. In Asia, the Japanese and mainlanders are the big buyers. About 40 per cent of his customers are repeat buyers.

Graff has found that taste has not changed much over time. Classic and simple designs that show the value of the diamond always sell well.

His son, Francois Graff, is managing director and handles the retail sales operation, but the founder and chairman has no plans to step back just yet.

'Of course I will not retire. I have many ideas and plans that I would like to achieve,' he said.