Amongst the jewellery collection of Laurence Graff are those rarest of precious gems. Jewels with history and mystery, around which empires have risen and royal unions forged and betrayed. Diamonds such as the Porter Rhodes, the Golconda 'D' and the Imperial Blue are the ultimate prizes of the earth, representing everything that collectors and dealers work towards throughout entire careers. Indeed, to the most devoted of collectors, their acquisition is seen as the raison d'etre.
In Geneva, a nameless blue diamond was the subject of one of the most competitive auctions ever known to the international trade. As dealers and collectors bid enthusiastically against one another, it must have been disconcerting for some to observe Laurence Graff watching the proceedings with an air of detached confidence. Following the sale, the press described the diamond as 'the world's most expensive stone'. One week later, Graff announced the release of his own blue diamond, the 'Graff Imperial Blue' - at 39.31 carats, the largest flawless fancy blue diamond in the world, significantly more valuable than the blue which had caused such an unprecedented commotion at the Geneva auction.
Graff had kept the news of the diamond secret for over a year while his cutters worked on the stone. The rough had been discovered in the jungles of Guinea and was guarded by authorities until it could be sold to a jeweller with sufficient expertise to cut into this superior stone. Under Graff's supervision, the intensity of the stone continued to increase as the imperfections were slowly eliminated. Only after a vast amount of the 101.50 Ct rough had been cut away did the flawless pear-shaped diamond emerge. Graff was about to release the diamond onto the market when he heard of the forthcoming auction and decided to wait for the sales result before introducing the 'Imperial Blue'. It now holds pride of place in the Graff Collection.
Laurence Graff is at the summit of his profession: entrusted with the perilous task of overseeing the cutting of near priceless jewels and the design of a setting from his own aesthetic senses to complement that which is nature's embodiment of brilliant perfection.In addition to his high jewellery, the Graff Boutique Collection is regarded as one of the most prestigious lines of contemporary jewellery design, with intricate gold chokers richly encrusted with diamonds, cabochon rubies, emeralds or sapphires; all with matching bracelets, rings and earrings recognisable by their design and handcrafting to the 'Unmistakably Graff' standards.
Laurence Graff's first designs took shape when he was aged fifteen, having already left school. On a bench he had installed in his bedroom at his parents' home, he made and repaired small and inexpensive pieces of jewellery. By the time he turned seventeen, Graff had his own business.
"Working at the jeweller's bench I learnt the process of making jewellery from beginning to end", says Graff. "When I started my business I had a small line but no clients and so I had to go out on the road to sell it. I explored this country, going from shop to shop peddling my wares. I was very successful and decided to travel the world, starting in the Far East. I held my first exhibition in Singapore and started to supply the shops there as a wholesaler.
"The first stones I sold to the trade were in various sizes from about one to five carats. Then as soon as I could I bought my first big stone which was a 14 carat off-colour, round brilliant diamond. I do not remember how much I paid per carat, maybe 150 pound sterling or 200 pounds sterling and from then on, I suppose you could say, they just kept getting bigger. I began to buy entire collections, brand new stones and newly-polished stones which I then presented as solitaires. Eventually my manufacturing company became the largest in Great Britain and in 1972 we went public on the stock market. It was then that I decided to go into the retail business".
Graff's first public recognition came in 1973 when he became the first jeweller to be presented with the Queen's Award to Industry, an honour which he would receive again in 1977. Today in his luxurious Brompton Road showrooms, there are more opulent signs of his success. As Graff considers the merits of Russian diamonds versus their South African cousins, his son Francois snaps a diamond bracelet shut around the wrist of his wife, Greek model, Zeta Vomvogianni. The bracelet completes the necklace, diamond ring and earrings set selected for the photography session for VIVE. The bracelet adjusted, Zeta's captivating smile and US$40 million of flawless Graff diamonds greet the camera in a barrage of blinding light.
"You can see that there is a tremendous amount of power associated with big diamonds", says Laurence Graff. "Of course there is the fact that $5 million or $10 million is a substantial amount of money to hold in the palm of your hand. When a lady goes to a ball with a diamond such as this hanging from her neck, it says something about her husband. I have heard people remark, 'There is the man whose wife is wearing the superb diamond'. It is also a form of security and a guard against inflation. There is no doubt about it: diamonds are on the way up. If you purchase a large stone, you can be guaranteed that someone somewhere is going to want to buy it for more than you paid for it.
"There are more people out there with more money than every before, but it is still a special person who buys a large gem, an important gem. There are businessmen from the Far East, the Middle East, from America and Australia. The world is getting smaller all the time and it is not unusual to have someone call you from the Far East and have them on your doorstep the following day. You never know who will be waiting at your door in the morning - maybe nobody, but eventually someone comes along. Let us just say that there are enough special people making money".
While in his own words Graff "was never a great designer", he prides himself on his knowledge of the workings of the international diamond trade and his ability to recognise instinctively, the potential of a stone in its rough form. Considering the calibre of stones that he makes available to his cutters and designers it comes as no surprise to observe that they share an excellent rapport. Needless to say, Graff's business sense is acute, a necessity when one considers the legendary figures making his formative dealing years. As a young man he honed his negotiating skills against the hard experience of men who were already legends in the diamond trade; Harry Winston included amongst them.
"When I was an up-and-coming dealer, I used to call Harry Winston when I was in New York and he would say 'Come straight over'. I would arrive at his office at nine in the morning and we would talk for an hour or more, trying to see if we could do business together. It really was a thrill for me because his reputation was obviously significant and I had tremendous respect for him. Harry died over twenty years ago and I never did substantial business with him so I couldn't say what type of businessman he was with others, but as it turned out, I bought stones from him, but he never bought stones from me. Make of that what you will", smiles Graff.
In the finest tradition of established jewellery houses, Graff trusts his own experience will benefit Francois consolidating his own reputation in the footsteps of his father. "Francois is by my side all the time, no-matter what I am doing so that he knows exactly what is going on all day long. He has an incredible future because, firstly, he is the second generation; the name is now well-established and we have clients all around the world".
As if to quash any suspicions that Francois has already been written an open ticket bypassing the required learning period, and perhaps also with more than just a hint of pride in silent recall of his own achievements, Graff adds definitely, "You have to be totally involved in this business you make your own luck. You do not only need understanding and expertise, you have to have a certain amount of guts. You must be able to step outside and say 'This stone is worth this much', and once you have bought it, you must be able to sell it. Most of the people who buy an important gem today know as much about the stone as we do and will recognise a high price. Our expertise has to be in the buying: acquiring the stone at the right price and at the right time. There are two miracles in this business: one on the day you buy and the other on the day you sell".
Occasionally one of the world's most famous and historic jewels will re-appear in the Graff Collection after decades of mystery and intrigue have surrounded its whereabouts. One such gem is the Porter Rhodes diamond, one of the most important jewels in the history of modern gem exploration which Graff exhibited in 1987, thirty years after its last appearance for sale. The Porter Rhodes was originally discovered in 1880 on the Rhodes Claim in South Africa. Then a 153.50 carat octahedron, the Porter Rhodes alone dispelled forever the belief that South African diamonds were inferior to the Indian and Brazilian stones. Rhodes held an audience with Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie of France to present his magnificent stone before having it fashioned into a 73.00 carat old-mine cut which was purchased by the second Duke of Westminster in 1930.
The diamond was later acquired by a jeweller who refashioned it into a 56.60 carat emerald cut which he sold to the Maharaja of Indore, a man of enormous wealth who had abdicated in 1926 in favour of his son after a scandal had erupted over his fancy for a certain dancing girl. The Maharaja subsequently sold the stone to the first of a long line of collectors before it came into the possession of an influential American family who treasured the diamond for three decades before succumbing to Graff's persuasive offer. Graff repolished the Porter Rhodes into the 54.04 carat gem which today inspires collector's with a new splendour.
"I think that this is our job, to give the industry a lift and a standard by finding these important stones and doing our thing", says Graff. "The really notable ones do not surface very easily. If you were selling $400 million of tiny little diamonds every month and had buckets more coming out of the ground, what would you care about the odd one that comes out of the ground that may bring a few million dollars? I often call De Beers and they shrug their shoulders and say they don't have any big stones. I would give anything to inspect their pool and find out exactly what they do have. However, we have a close network of dealers who shop around and every now and then they are given a big piece of rough for which we tender. Sometimes our tenders are unsuccessful for the rough, but we may be successful with our tender for the polished stone".
A few years ago Laurence Graff was among a select group of diamond merchants invited by the Government of Guinea to examine a newly-mined piece of rough weighting 100.05 carats. Graff was marginally outbid in the secret tender, but so confident was he of the final potential of the stone, he monitored its progress as it passed through the hands of a master cutter and polisher to emerge as a flawless 30ct pear-shaped diamond of exceptional colour which Graff promptly secured. After presenting the stone as a ring in the simplest of settings, the 'Guinea Diamond' was sold within 48 hours of leaving his workshop.
There are other stones which Graff pursues for entirely different reasons; those diamonds which mean far more to the collector in Graff than their significance as measured by the number of zeros following the dollar sign.
"There are certain stones which seem to haunt you, they come back to you after a few years. They are usually the ones you hated to sell or just missed out on buying, but if you wait for long enough they will come back and give you a second chance. I have just acquired a magnificent diamond which I missed at an auction in '77. I have just given 1000% profit on the stone after thirteen years. It's a flawless blue diamond from Africa and it's not very big, just under 4 carats, but I think it may well be my favourite stone".
Sometimes news of a diamond comes from afar to stir the imagination of all players in the trade. One such discovery was made recently in Bombay. Two of Graff's associates reported the appearance of a 50ct brilliant cut diamond which they believed was once set in the Peacock throne made for Shah Jehan in the 17th century. It was Jehan, the Mogul Emperor of India who built the Taj Mahal as a memorial to his wife, Queen Mumtaz Mahal. Jehan's throne is undoubtedly the most famous throne in the world and was originally composed of 12 pillars adorned with bejewelled peacocks whose eyes were set with precious diamonds. In 1739 Persia's Nadir Shah invaded India and seized the Peacock Throne. While it is still thought to exist, it is minus at least a few of its most magnificent gems, including the Koh-i-Noor and the Darya-i-Noor diamonds.
Graff immediately began negotiations for the purchase of the diamond and was successful. In New York he had it re-polished to 47.29 carats, a flawless brilliant cut diamond of startling light, the largest of its kind in the world. As it was originally discovered in the Kingdom of Golconda, Graff named the diamond the Golconda 'D'. Might this achievement be the climax of Graff's career?
"Oh, I think ideally I would like to be sitting back and buying all the finest and most beautiful stones in the world and never selling them. Until I find myself in that unlikely position, I will just sit back and wait for them to come along, buy them , and then sell them. You never retire in this business. If one day, nobody in the world wanted to buy a diamond and I had cases of them, I might then ask, 'Why am I still in this business?' Even then, in that impossible predicament, I would be the one person still buying diamonds".