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World’s Greatest Jewelers: Laurence Graff

Laurence Graff

Laurence Graff, Master Jeweler
Celebrity hairdresser Harold Leighton pinned the last curl to the crown of the models head as the photographer snapped the first image. The model batted her doe eyes, emphasized with heavy mascara on her lower lashes, as she posed for the next shot. In the wings of the shoot stood diamond cutter Laurence Graff, a pleased smile creeping across his lips. Graff imagined magazine readers flipping through their pages and pausing among the advertisements when they came to this image–his brainchild–of a young girl, hair pinned up in large curls, peeking out under the weight of $1 million worth of precious gem and diamond jewelry.

This iconic 1970’s image, called “Hair & Jewel,” was commissioned by Laurence Graff to promote his jewelry business. It was a daring move, as he was still building his business and diamonds were mainly worn by wealthier, older women as a status symbol–not by provocative sex-kittens, and certainly not worn as a decoration for the hair. Graff explains his concept as “groundbreaking” and “unconventional.” He liked that it broke the traditional, conservative style of modeling jewelry.

Sometimes called the “King of Diamonds” or “The New Harry Winston,” English jeweler Laurence Graff was born into a Jewish family near London in 1938. He left school at age 15 to become an apprentice at a jewelry store, and later partnered with another jeweler, Schindler, to repair rings and create jewelry. Due to the financial situation in England at the time, many people opted to have rings repaired rather than purchase a new one, so the pair had plenty of work. Since Schindler specialized in the repair work, Graff started to design his own jewelry pieces inspired by the “Victoriana” period. He started selling pieces for 2-3 pounds each, and eventually earned credit to buy some diamonds. He incorporated these diamonds into a ring, which he sold for 100 pounds. Each piece earned Graff more money, paving the way for his growing business.

England’s economy made it tough for Graff and Schindler to sustain their business, and eventually they went out of business. Graff said there wasn’t enough business in England, so he traveled the world and started making money by selling jewelry in the Far East. After several years on the road, Graff returned to England to set up shop. In 1960 he founded the Graff Diamonds Company, and by 1962, he had two jewelry shops–one of which was located in Hatton Garden, the center of London’s jewelry trade since medieval times. Graff set himself apart from other designers in 1970, when he released the “Hair & Jewel” advertisement photo. His modern take on jewelry drew the attention of Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz, who purchased everything in Graff’s shop (including a 14 carat diamond) in a single day! In 1973, Graff became the first jeweler to be presented with the Queens Award to Industry–an award renewed in 1977, 1994, and 2006. Today, Graff has over 40 stores worldwide.

Graff made a huge purchase in 2008 when he bought the Wittelsbach Diamond for 16.4 million pounds–much higher than its 9 million pounds guide price. In 2010, Graff revealed he had three diamond cutters repolish the stone to eliminate chips and improve the stone’s clarity, reducing the diamond’s size from 35.52 carats to 31 carats. The stone was also renamed after the polish, and is now known as the Wittelsbach-Graff Diamond. Gemologist Richard W. Wise said the repolish raised the GIA grade of the stone from a “fancy deep grayish blue” to a “fancy deep blue” and raised the clarity from VS2 to IF. As of June 2014, the Wittelsbach-Graff is housed in Gstaad, Switzerland and is worth over 80 million dollars.

Graff celebrated his 60th year in the jewelry business in June 2013, and marked the event by starting his collection of vintage cars and opening 7 news stores in Asia. Additionally, he recreated the “Hair & Jewel” image with a modern twist–the jewels used in the 60th anniversary photograph are worth $500 million. Graff still holds the chairman title of Graff Diamonds International, and his son, Francois, serves as the CEO.

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