Diamond geezer

Laurence Graff climbed from scrubbing toilets in a Hatton Garden workshop to run a worldwide jewellery retail brand with 15 stores in luxury spots including Monte Carlo, Dubai and Moscow.

by Forbes
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Graff Diamonds International is a vertically integrated operation, which buys rough stones and transforms them into the jewellery that appears in the display case, where they sell for an average purchase of $400,000.

Graff's customers include Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz, the Sultan and Queen of Brunei, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Elizabeth Taylor, Oracle's Larry Ellison and LA's newest arrivals David and Victoria Beckham.

Graff, like his customer Donald Trump, is known to be charming, blunt and a huge self-promoter. He is also immensely rich, valued at around $2.5 billion, with all the trappings of the billionaire's club including luxury homes around the world, $250m modern art collection, yacht and private jet.

Graff has benefited from the global luxury boom that has taken off since 2000, in which the very rich have become very much richer and have been shopping non-stop. Sales for Graff Diamonds International have jumped from $90m to $400m in that period.

Unlike other diamond retail brands such as Cartier and Van Cleef, Graff has extended his business backward to wholesale and manufacture of diamonds, after acquiring a 51% stake in the South African Diamond Corp (Safdico) in 1998. This has enabled him to cut out the middlemen in the trade who take a cut as the diamonds move long the production chain to the retailers.

He maintains a large inventory of stones estimated at $1.5 billion, from which he crafts unique pieces of jewellery made up of multiple stones. Safdico buys uncut diamonds from De Beers, and employs 370 cutters and polishers in South Africa and Mauritius, and 19 master craftsmen in Antwerp and New York.

Graff makes all his own jewellery in his London and New York workshops, concentrating on the production of big and expensive stones. In fact Graff controls virtually all aspects of his business, including marketing, even down to writing ad copy.

Graff grew up in London's East End sharing a single room with his Jewish Romanian mother. A poor student at school, aged 14 he took an apprenticeship with a jeweller in London's Hatton Garden, the historic centre of London's diamond trade. At 22 he started his own business and by 24 owned two small jewellery shops. Business was poor so he shipped out to Singapore carrying a briefcase of $1000 worth of diamonds. There he landed a quarterly jewellery exhibit that began to make money - and some very important contacts: the then prince of Brunei and his wife, as well as a number of important jewellery collectors. The Brunei connection made him, and when the 1970s oil boom began, Graff's Arab client list grew exponentially. One day in 1974 Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz walked in and bought his entire London shop.

Graff moved his London store to New Bond Street in the early 1990s and, as Middle Eastern sales tailed off in the 1990s as the oil price fell, turned his attention to the US. From 2001 he opened five shops in the States, and has successfully challenged the US diamond king Harry Winston; his New York store reportedly easily outsells Winston's.

Graff, who is 69, has brought his son Francois into the business as his number two and designated successor, although he has no plans to retire.

He is now planning to open stores in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Geneva and build a new boutique in New York's Madison Avenue. At the production end Graff is building factories in Botswana and wants to move into mining. He failed last year to buy a stake in a mine in Lesotho - unluckily, since only weeks later the 603-carat Lesotho Promise was discovered there. Graff eventually bought the diamond last October for $12.6m.

King of Bling
Susan Adams
Forbes August 13

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