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 trough 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.
“Everything is an opportunity in life and when there are special opportunities I have to seize the moment “
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 on my own. Then I traveled.
“If I had to compliment myself on anything, I would say it is being a good salesman!”
Where did you travel?
I was 27 years old and I went into the travel agent and bought a ticket to Australia. I wanted to travel, to go as far as I could. In those days the plane would stop four or five times to get to Australia. So when I heard it would stop in Singapore I decided to visit. It was a place that I knew my father had travelled to during the war. As soon as I arrived I found a store called Robinson’s. It looked like a grand palace to me. I went inside and saw they were building the jewellery department on the ground floor.
I asked for the manager, and he came in and said: “Laurence Graff, what are you doing here?” He was a little jeweller in the north of England who I met when I was running around the country. Such a coincidence! He told me he needed product to sell. I said “I’m going to go straight back to England. I’m going to create a collection and you’ll have jewellery in one month.” That’s what I did. I went back, and then for years I made maybe six or seven trips a year backwards and forwards to Singapore.
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.
Are you involved in every stage of the process?
We create diamonds from the rough. This century more than 60 per cent of the large diamonds of the world have been bought in the rough and polished by Graff. And many of them have become the largest and the best quality of their type in the world. We are working right now on the largest rough diamond in existence, the 1,109ct Lesedi La Rona. It is a risky business, to be able to polish these stones and market them. We understand them. We can cut them. We can put them into jewellery. And we can sell them. In that chain many people can only do one thing. We can do it all. So it’s put us a head and shoulders above the industry.
Are you a very motivated person?
Wherever I go, if there’s an opportunity to do something my ambition at that moment is to take that opportunity and do it. Because I think everything is an opportunity in life and when there are special opportunities I have to seize the moment. When I look back, the very few times I didn’t take the opportunity, which is very very few, I always regretted it. If I go somewhere and I see something I take hold of the moment and act on it. Whether it’s to buy a painting or a diamond. Or anything else.
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.
“ 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.”
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.
Interview by Alain Elkann