By M.S. Shah Jahan (Sri Lanka)
It was 1972. I was in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Newspapers carried a news item about a British jeweller?s exhibition in the newly opened Hilton Hotel. Being a gem merchant, I was curious about this London guy, so I visited. It was in a small hall mobbed by ladies mostly young and middle aged, very few males, mostly husbands or boyfriends. More or less I was the only stag – without a company. My intention was to know the company that was conducting the jewellery exhibition, not to find or have a company for me.
Upon arrival, it was evident that a thin tall white man was directing the show with few staff. The goods were made of solid gold. Some were diamond studded or with semi precious colour stones. To me it was absolutely a small timer?s inexpensive jewellery for middle class consumers. The word ?from London? was making the ladies crazy and the sales were good.
After going around the jewellery exhibited there, I stood in a corner watching the movements. No doubt the chief had some occasional glance at me possibly thinking I was there for some other purpose than purchase. We exchanged smiles and I introduced myself. “I am a gem dealer from Ceylon,” I said to which he replied: ?Oh Ceylon, nice? looking at my visiting card. We talked about business and I found the goods I was dealing with were above the reach of customers he intended to cater.
Before coming to Kuala Lumpur he went to Singapore and had a show in Robinson Department Store which was founded by the colonial masters like Colombo?s Cargills and Millers. After the independence of Malaysia and Singapore, many European establishment changed hand and this too. It was Robinson that gave Laurence Graff the golden opportunity ? I mean the goose that laid golden eggs.
Robinson had a great crowd of fashion conscious cosmopolitan ladies of Singaporean who were more affluent than their Malaysian counterparts. There he met a bevy of women in Malay attire with head covering scarf and loaded with heavy jewellery. Their movements and the battalion of servants behind them told him that they were not ordinary. Sharp minded Graff gave extra attention to them and clinched a big deal. They never said who they were but he came to know that they were family members of Sultan of Brunei Haji Sir Hassanal Bolkiah Mu?izzaddin Waddaula.
Graff became closer to Sultan?s family and finally had the audience of His Majesty too. At that time the Sultan of Brunei was ranked to be the richest person in the world with his petroleum and gas resources. His lavishness is still history with 3,500 cars of 500 Rolls Royce and 1,788 room Istana Nurul Iman palace with 200 bath rooms. The palace is maintained by Hyatt Hotel chain. Graff found a good buyer with unlimited wealth to invest in the best of Gemstones and Diamonds. Sultan?s brother used to lend him his Aston Martin during his visits.
Graff became ?Sultan?s Jeweller? and from onwards started flying high as the sky was his limit. Today, he uses his private jet. Sultan?s friendship gave him contacts with big Sheiks in the Gulf. His Arab lady customers arrive in London and go straight to his headquarters on Albemarle Street, in the Mayfair section of London to get some petty cash for shopping ? not less than 50 GBP in few bundles.
After their shopping spree is over, they would turn to Graff for jewellery for functions, birthdays, gifts, etc back home. The women fly away probably in their own jets with final account of Graff with them. Money comes to him as a single payment by wire.
Graff is a son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who grew up in the East End of London. ?From an early age I could see a little area called Black Lion Yard where the Jewish people bought diamonds. It was a place where people wanted to put their money in something that seemed safe, something tangible, he recalls.
?It has been the same forever whether it was royal families in different parts of the world, or today. When people worry that their dollars are worth nothing, they want assets that will increase in value ? silent assets that you can put in your pocket because tomorrow, anything can go wrong,? he commented.
As a young man Graff was such a poor student that by the time he was 14 his mother arranged him to work as an apprentice for a jeweller in the Hatton Garden jewellery district, doing chores like washing floors and fetching sandwiches. He lost that job. ?I guess I was not good enough,? he recalled.
Shortly thereafter, he went into jewellery business with a partner. That venture failed and Graff decided to end it. Within a short span of time he began making his own pieces and by the time he was 24 years old he had opened two jewellery shops in London. He started travelling around the world, creating more important diamond pieces as his clientele grew.
He went to Singapore, Malaysia and further to Japan, Hong Kong and the Middle East as well. ?I went everywhere. I was the first ever Westerner who came into that market as a wholesaler: a man carrying a case of jewels.? On a trip to the Philippines, he sold millions of dollars jewellery to Imelda Marcos.
By the age of 30, Graff had built up one of the largest jewellery manufacturing business in Britain, and counted some of the world?s wealthiest individuals as his customers. In 1973, Graff became the first jeweller to be presented with the Queen?s Award to Industry and Export, an award he would go on to win on three more occasions. In the same year he opened his first major retail establishment in London?s prestigious Knightsbridge.
Graff describes about his passion for diamond: ?When I came across my first diamond I was struck, mesmerised. I felt that I could see right inside the stone and could tell you what it contained. It was an inherent feeling which turned into a lifetime passion. The hunt for diamonds goes on. We search on a daily basis for stones in the rough or polished. The best stones are rarer than anyone could ever imagine?.
Laurence Graff oversees the finding and production of the unique and exceptional diamonds he has always loved. It has been said that he has handled more important quality gemstones than any other diamond dealer. To name a few, the most fabulous and treasured gemstones and diamonds in the world, including The Idol?s Eye, The Emperor Maximillian, The Porter Rhodes, The Windsor Diamonds, The Hope of Africa, The Begum Blue, The Paragon, The Star of America, The Golden Star, The Wittelsbach-Graff and The Lesotho Promise, The Delaire Sunrise and The Graff Constellation were handled by him.
In 2007, Graff published ?The Most Fabulous Jewels in the World? ? a coffee table book chronicling Graff?s amazing journey and important jewels. All proceeds of this publication support the Nelson Mandela?s Children?s Fund. Two years ago I sent him the book ?Maharaja Jewellety? a collection of Royal jewellery which he liked much.
The Graff brand grew for exclusivity and global luxury. He has 32 stores throughout the world including corporate offices in London, New York, Geneva, Hong Kong and Tokyo. His customers have included Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington, Victoria Beckham and Danielle Steel. He helped make some of the costume jewellery that Elizabeth Taylor wore in her film role as Cleopatra, alongside Richard Burton and many more.
Now Graff is pushing into China where the billionaires rank second only to that of the United States. ?We make more sales to newer money than to older money,? Graff says in explaining China?s appeal. ?Americans are not attracted in the same way in spending money on jewellery as in the Far East.? Graff?s longtime lieutenant Barguirdjian says: ?If you had told me five years ago that the biggest buyers would come from the People?s Republic of China, we would have laughed. It took us by surprise. America used to be the No. 1 market. Now that is being challenged.?
Graff has links with FACET. Are you surprised? He is devoted to philanthropic and humanitarian causes. He established Graff Diamonds Foundation that supports an array of charities. FACET – For Africa?s Children Every Time, distributes funds for education, health and welfare of children throughout Africa. The Graff Leadership Centre in Lesotho directly benefits from funding from FACET and acts as a training centre, hostel and home to 50 orphan girls, victims of the AIDS and HIV epidemic.
It is my endeavour to bring Laurence Graff to Sri Lanka one day.
M.S. Shah Jahan, is the CEO of Taipan Trading Company, a Gem and Precious Stone Consultancy Company based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.