Exclusive Interview: Laurence Graff OBE, Founder of Graff Diamonds
LAURENCE GRAFF OBE (81), is the founder of Graff Diamonds, one of the world's leading supplier of jewellery and jewels with over sixty luxury retail stores. A passionate philanthropist, Graff supports multiple charitable causes troughs his South-Africa based foundation, FACET. According to Forbes Magazine, Graff is valued at £4.5bn, making him the 317th wealthiest person in the world.
Deriving from a very simple background, how did you manage to create a global business?
I was raised in maybe the worst times the world has almost ever known and I was raised in an area which was tough but at least I had shoes, I had a jacket, I could eat and I went to school. Being a young boy during the war - I think it gave me a certain character. It gave me a certain strength and courage. Maybe because of those days I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life.
When I buy the biggest diamonds in the world people say, “You’ve got so much courage.” It doesn’t feel like that; it’s what I do. I have a word that I live by. It’s a wonderful word – ‘beshert’. It is a Hebrew word that means ‘it was meant to be’. This is a word that always comes to mind, I heard it from a young age and it has given me great strength and comfort. It means that I believe in fate, I believe everything has a destiny. In work, in life, in good times and bad, it gives me confidence to take risks.
How did it all begin?
A lot of jewellery craftsmanship was based around Hatton Garden. It was the centre. So I went there. I was an apprentice, sitting at the bench, learning how to file metal and so on. After three months I was called in and I was told I would never make it in this business, it was completely wrong for me. “You are never going to be a jeweller,” they said. I was only 15 years old.
You don’t let critics or setbacks disempower you?
No, not easily. I’ll always come back again. In London at that time it was a very bad and very hard to make a living. After a few more apprenticeships I realized what I needed to do, I decided to start my own business. I was 17. I set up with a partner, an older man who was more experienced. We started repairing jewellery. In those days’ people would make their jewellery last longer by having it repaired, as they couldn’t afford anything new. So I went to a high street jeweller and convinced them to give me a contract for repairs. I told them I could give them a wonderful service and fulfil all their orders. Somehow I won the contracts.
Are you a naturally gifted sales person?
If I had to compliment myself on anything, I would say it is being a good salesman! So that’s how it began. Three years later we owed the sum of three thousand pounds to our suppliers. My partner was worried; he had a wife and children to support. By this time, I was about 19 with less responsibilities. So I decided to take over the debts and continue alone.
How did the retail side develop?
I noticed that some French houses were expanding, opening up stores in different countries and I noticed a word that I read somewhere in the newspapers. Brand. Once I recognized the word I realized the name is worth more than the business. So I began to create a brand. I began to create advertisements that would surprise and excite our clients. I worked with a famous hairdresser and put a million dollars of diamonds into a model’s hair. The photograph that we took was seen all over the world. Everything changed in the world because brands grew and the whole retail experience began.
“Everything is an opportunity in life and when there are special opportunities I have to seize the moment “
“If I had to compliment myself on anything, I would say it is being a good salesman!”
“ My love affair with diamonds is life-long and crafting the 1,109 carats 'Graff Lesedi La Rona' has been an honour - it is beyond words.”
Artist Jessica Katz (daughter of Nancy Spielberg
What does philanthropy means to you and what is your vision for Graff?
Giving back is something I feel is the duty of every entrepreneur. If you can improve a child’s life by giving them the provision for education that they may not have otherwise received, then it is something everyone should do. I founded the FACET foundation in 2008 to support young people in South Africa, close to the areas that we find our beautiful stones. We operate three charity initiatives with carefully selected partners and each has benefitted the communities that they operate in a great deal. My son is our Chief Executive and my brother and nephew are also closely involved. We work closely together, we talk constantly, we are a family business and I would love for this tradition to continue for many years to come.
Watch the transformation of the 'Graff Lesedi La Rona' - the largest square emerald cut diamond in the world and the largest highest clarity, highest colour square emerald cut diamond ever certified by the GIA.