JCK: How did you get from being an apprentice to being one of the world’s top jewelers?
LG: I left school at 14 to become a bench apprentice and started selling jewelry at age 17. I really built the business stone by stone. I traveled around the world with stones in my pocket. I had samples and did exhibits in the Middle East and Far East before other jewelers went there. I got to know what people like, and I cultivated personal relationships over time. Now, when Middle Eastern or Far Eastern clients come to me, I know how to produce for them.
JCK: Motivational gurus say you should visualize yourself where you want to be. When you were starting out, did you envision yourself here?
LG: I didn’t start by planning to crack into Winston, Cartier, etc. I thought it was a success to sell a few engagement rings – I sold my first one for £100!
JCK: Now that you’re here, what has changed?
LG: I still do today pay attention to details. I see every single piece of jewelry this company produces.
JCK: Please describe your “signature style.”
LG: Perfect gems mounted in exquisite metal.
JCK: Tell us about your stones and your jewelry.
LG: We’re a one-quality house all the way through. Our jewelry is classic, timeless, and dateless, our diamonds are D flawless, and most of our necklaces and bracelets more jointed than any others in the world.
JCK: You really won’t use anything but D flawless?
LG: Sometimes, maybe to match small accent stones, we’ll drop down to E or F color and VVS clarity, but nothing lower.
JCK: At your level, do you ever encounter people who treat diamonds as a commodity and want to haggle over price?
LG: Yes. It’s a very competitive business; people can buy a diamond basically for the same price everywhere. We have to make clients feel special about buying from Graff. Many travel from country to country and shop around, so quite a few know more than many jewelers. But once Rap is mentioned, we know they’re probably not going to be a client.
JCK: How do you deal with people who bring up Rapaport prices?
LG: We let them know we don’t take too kindly to it because we offer much more than a diamond at a price.
JCK: What about color?
LG: The colored stone business has died a lot in the past five years. We’re trying to introduce color again into some designs, and bring back the idea of color. But we do nothing with semi-precious stones.
JCK: And colored diamonds?
LG: They’ve been very strong in the past five years, but I think it’s not going to stay as strong.
JCK: What about pearls? They’re so popular right now!
LG: We don’t do much in pearls. The auctions are flooded with them, and every lady is an expert on pearls.
JCK: You’ve spent years building a solid Asian clientele. What effect has the economic crisis there had on you?
LG: There’s a lot of established wealth in those countries, and these people still have money and spend it on fine things. We still have clients from the Middle East and Far East. There may be less of them, but we still have the best ones. And the financial markets in America have brought in a new group of buyers.
JCK: Would you say the top tier of the luxury market is truly recession-proof?
LG: Money moves around, but it doesn’t go away. In this business, one door closes and another one opens. And London is really an international crossroads. Some weeks it’s like the U.N. in here – we see people from everywhere.
JCK: Would you characterize most of your clients as new money or old money?
LG: A mix. Our business depends on wealthy people rather than just people who have a few dollars in their pocket. But we have engagement rings starting at £15,000.
JCK: You mentioned the auctions. At your level, they must give you quite a bit of competition.
LG: It’s a love-hate relationship. The auctions are a competitor, but they also create interest. Any serious person who doesn’t have time to play around with auctions and needs fine jewelry, or who wants really beautiful, creative jewelry that hasn’t been owned by someone who’s deceased or a hardship case, has to come to one of the great jewelry houses.
JCK: But you’re one of that select group of dealers who used to bid millions on mega-diamonds at auction.
LG: I think prices on those stones are too high, but I still bid on slightly smaller world-class gems and jewelry.
JCK: Other than rare auction finds, where do you source your jewelry?
LG: We manufacture all our jewels ourselves. Occasionally I see something worth buying, but it’s so occasional it’s not worth mentioning. Ninety-nine percent of our jewelry is manufactured in our London workshop.
JCK: So many people complain about the lack of good bench jewelers. How do you find highly skilled people?
LG: I trained all our people and make sure they’re well paid so they’re not tempted to leave. They become members of the house.
JCK: Is most of your jewelry created for the store, or is a lot of it custom work for clients?
LG: We manufacture almost all of our jewels for stock. We occasionally get some commissions, but it’s rare.
JCK: How do you react to trends in the marketplace?
LG: In the commercial field, trends affect [jewelry design]. On the high end, they don’t. We create tastes. We don’t sell fashion; we don’t worry about whether you can wear it with jeans. This is classic jewelry, beautifully done.
JCK: But don’t your clients see new design trends and want to buy them?
LG: Trends do come to our watch and boutique collections, for example, flower designs and our pavé animals. We do have things that are a little more avant-garde, but not abstract. They’re still classical forms.
JCK: What do you define as a “boutique” collection? Where does it fit into your business?
LG: Jewels from our boutique line are in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. One has to have items in stock so high-quality customers can buy gifts. That’s why we have a boutique line.
JCK: Do you actually make watches or contract them out to a private-label watchmaker?
LG: We manufacture them. We don’t put our name on an already-manufactured watch. The only thing we do contract out are some of our objets, to a shop in Paris.
JCK: Do you have any plans to follow the trend of other luxury houses and develop a line of fine accessories or a fragrance?
LG: We have no plans to go ahead with fine accessories. We do have a perfume but haven’t launched it yet. We’re toying with the idea of a launch. [The fragrance is] all natural, and we’re treading very carefully.
JCK: Do you have any growth plans?
LG: I suppose one day there won’t be any new markets to go for, but in my day there will be new markets. China, Eastern Europe…
JCK: What do you feel is your most valuable asset?
LG: My name. The one thing people can’t take from you is your name. They can copy your designs, but they can’t take your name. I want clients to feel when they’re buying something Graff that they’re buying something special.
JCK: What advice could you give to other jewelers?
LG: You’ve got to have love and passion for this industry. That comes through to clients. If you love it, they love it. If you’re just in this business to make money, it’s a lousy business. But it’s a business, like any other, and it has a bottom line. Apart from being an artisan, a creator, a lover of gems, you have to be a businessman.
JCK: Could there be another Laurence Graff? Another starry-eyed teenager with stones in his – or her – pocket?
LG: [Laughing] I wonder what Harry Winston would have said to that! Seriously, there’s always somebody coming up, always some live wire. In any industry there are always a few who reach the top. It’s the nature of business.