By Claire Adler
Last year, a couple – longstanding Graff clients – came to Laurence Graff, asking him to find them a special pink heart-shaped diamond. It was for their three-month-old baby. “She’s my youngest client,” Laurence Graff told me at the time.
Lovers of rare and precious diamonds, old and young, have long sought out Laurence Graff for a stellar selection of colored gems. Graff’s clients range from kings and queens to hedge fund billionaires, heads of state, red carpet celebrities and the richest people in the world.
The son of Russian immigrants who worked his way out of poverty in London’s post-war East End, opening his first Graff store in 1974, Laurence Graff’s turning point came in the mid-1980s. In 1984 Graff owned both the largest blue diamond in the world – the 39.31 carat Imperial Blue Diamond – and the largest pink diamond – the Express Rose, weighing in at a cool 72.79 carats. More than anything, this signified that Graff had become a force to be reckoned with in the rarefied world of important diamonds.
Today, the average customer spend at Graff is “at least six figures,” according to Laurence Graff, who has been known to sail on his yacht or fly in his private plane to meet his clients.
A coffee table book about Graff’s journey documents how a regular flow of orders from the Crown Prince of Brunei’s wife, now Queen of Brunei and her husband, the Sultan of Brunei, as well as other Middle Eastern families he met on his travels early on in his career, enabled him to begin buying the rarest colored stones on the market – the blues, the pinks and the yellows. Such was Graff’s special friendship with the royal family of Brunei that he regularly attended polo games with them and was lent an Aston Martin to drive himself around the kingdom during his monthly visits to the palace.
The Queen of Brunei is rumored to be the world’s biggest collector of colored diamonds and Laurence Graff is rumored to be her number-one supplier. Special commissions Graff has made for this queen include a tiara made entirely of pink diamonds.
In the mid 1980s, following a lapse in interest in colored diamonds that had lasted two centuries, customers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Brunei started buying them from Graff. When the Argyle mine, famed for its abundance of pink stones, was discovered in Australia in 1979, Graff tendered on the first pinks and bought all of them for $3.5 million. “It was unheard of,” Graff remembers. “Other professionals thought I was too adventurous; they didn’t believe they would sell. They were really small stones, mostly 0.25 of a carat to one carat, of an unusual pink color that hadn’t been seen before.” Graff culled all the different sizes and shaped pink diamonds together to make one flower.
“It was amazing,” Graff is quoted as saying in the book Graff: The Most Fabulous Jewels in the World. “I remember it was finished at four o’clock one afternoon and just then I had a call from the Sultan of Brunei who granted me an audience at the Dorchester – he had just bought the hotel. During our meeting, he asked me if I had anything I would like to show him. I had slipped this amazing piece into my pocket and while we were talking I pulled out the flower and said “Your Majesty, what do you think of this?” He opened his hands to have a look at it and I could see his eyes gleam with excitement at this absolutely unique and beautiful jewel and I sold it to him in two minutes. I was out of all the pink diamonds in two minutes!”
The more Graff brushed shoulders with royalty, the more, it seems, he acquired diamonds with regal provenance, which brought with them illustrious histories of their own.
The Whitney Blue Diamond originally belonged to Betsey Cushing Roosevelt Whitney, one of three society sisters from the Cushing family. Their mother was a fiercely ambitious social climber who married her daughters off to American aristocracy several times over. Betsey Cushing’s first marriage was to the son of U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Since her mother-in-law was a reluctant hostess, Betsey was often the official hostess for her events held by her father-in-law at the White House and at Hyde Park, the Roosevelt family estate in upstate New York.
When her marriage ended in 1942, Betsey moved on to Jock Hay Whitney, an even wealthier member of American aristocracy. The Whitney Blue Diamond formed part of her estate on her death and was sold in auction in 1998 to benefit charities. When Graff bought the pear shaped stone, a vivid blue flawless of 10.64 carats, he named it the Whitney Blue. It had formed part of a pair of pendant earrings, and he called the white / D flawless stone that accompanied it the Whitney White. “When I put in the winning bid, I knew I had the best blue diamond that existed in the world – it’s a major, major stone.” He later mounted it in a ring, which he kept for some years and then sold at a price in excess of $10 million.
Jewelry by Graff
In 1987, Graff took part in fierce televised bidding in an auction at Christie’s Geneva for the jewels that Edward VIII had given to his lover, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, who later became the Duchess of Windsor. There Graff acquired The Windsor Yellows, a pair of clips of canary yellow pear-shaped diamonds of 51.01 and 40.22 carats respectively, a precious remnant of a relationship that led a British king to abdicate the throne to live out his life with the woman he loved. After the couple married in 1937, they were exiled from Britain, moved to France and were shunned by royal family members. Graff later sold the Windsor earrings to Rafik Hariri, the then-prime minister of Lebanon, who bought them both to celebrate his re-election and as a gift for his wife.
One of the most famous yellows Graff has acquired is the Deepdene diamond, thought to have been discovered in 1890 in South Africa. In 1984, it came up at auction in Geneva, with the buyer rumored to be Aristotle Onassis. It later surfaced on the market again and Graff acquired it and then sold it to the queen of romance, novelist Danielle Steele. It is one of her favorite diamonds, according to Graff.
In 1997, a trip Graff took to South Africa led not only to the purchase of a jaw-dropping diamond but also to the acquisition of a diamond company specializing in fancy yellow stones and large diamonds – Krochmal & Cohen. When Graff saw the Hope of Africa, a 115.91 carat yellow diamond named to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s release after 28 years in captivity, he loved the stone so much that he bought it in five minutes from Johnny Kneller. Graff knew Kneller well. A partner in Krochmal & Cohen, his father had sold stones to Graff years earlier.
While there, Graff decided he needed a bigger company to obtain larger quantities of rough diamonds, and he soon struck a deal to acquire Krochmal & Cohen and form Safdico, the South African Diamond Corporation.
Today, Safdico remains the diamond manufacturing arm of Graff and is one of South Africa’s leading diamond companies. Specializing in top-end diamonds and fancy colored stones, Safdico has cutting operations in Antwerp and Mauritius, where it has a majority shareholding in the Floreal Diamond Cutting Factory. The factory in the U.S. focuses on important stones and handles certification of stones, exploiting its proximity to the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). Currently, Safdico is expanding in Botswana where it is building a state-of-the-art Diamond Technology Park.
Safdico is responsible for the creation of some of the world’s most famous diamonds, including the 100.09 carat Graff Vivid Yellow Cushion Cut Diamond, which was revealed at a reception at Kensington Palace, London, in 2006, which also celebrated Graff’s receipt of The Queen’s Award for Enterprise for the fourth time in his life.
“When I first saw the Graff Vivid Yellow Diamond in the rough, I was mesmerized by its unusual deep golden hue and I became entranced by its dream-like allure,” says Graff. “It was as if it were on fire with flames of orange and sensational yellows which resembled a golden sun radiating glory and heat.”
The rough diamond was of such an unusual and exceptional color that it was sent to GIA for thorough testing to confirm that it was entirely natural. Graff’s master cutter, Antonio Bianco, spent nine months cutting the 100.09 carat into its final magnificent quality. “It was truly the experience of a lifetime to see the Graff Vivid Yellow Diamond revealed in all its splendor for the first time and one which is unlikely to be surpassed,” says Graff.