A Conversation with Laurence Graff OBE, Founder of Graff Diamonds

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Building a successful business out of a passion is a rare and wonderful thing, but building a global business out of a passion is rarer still.

The notion of passion being a pre-requisite for success is not without precedent.  When I asked Sir Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin Group) what the key to success was, he told me simply, “It’s a combination of passion, vision, creativity and a sense of adventure.” I asked the same question to N. R. Narayana Murthy (Founder of Infosys) who told me, “Great entrepreneurs are people with tremendous passion. Without passion you cannot go on a journey that requires such huge personal sacrifices, looks bleak, risky and impossible in the beginning…” and Steve Case (Founder of AOL) told me that, “Passion matters…  It’s rarely a straight-line to success, usually it’s a roller-coaster.

Of all of man’s passions in this world, diamonds are perhaps one of the most primal.  These gemstones have been held as items of beauty and mysticism since ancient times- and in our modern world, they are a symbol of our most sought after characteristic, love.

Laurence Graff began his lifetime love-affair with diamonds in 1950, as an apprentice at Schindler’s jewellery workshop in London’s Hatton Garden aged just 15.  He founded Graff Diamonds in 1960, and in just 50 years, grew the business into a multinational with over 500 staff around the world.  Laurence’s passion has made him one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, and has allowed him to also become a philanthropist and benefactor of significance to many charities and the arts.  Graff remains a family business to this day, with Laurence’s son Francis Graff, serving as CEO.

I caught up with Laurence to learn more about how his passion for diamonds turned into a fairytale success story.

Q: What does entrepreneurship mean to you?

[Laurence Graff] Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking, a way of acting, that enables you to realise your dreams.  It allows ideas to thrive and become reality and success to be born from hard work, good intention, taking risks and believing in something that others may deem to be impossible.

I observed entrepreneurial spirit from a very early age living in London’s East End.  It was during the war; I observed business men and women seizing opportunity and making the best of a very difficult time.  It taught me to always keep my eyes and ears open, to always see the light in every situation.

Q: What are the characteristics of a great business?

[Laurence Graff] For me, a great business is about emotion.  Its about the belief in a product and the desire to be part of a brand.  There is an extreme beauty to a diamond.  They give people incredible pleasure and mark life’s most wonderful moments.  The emotion that these stones bring is infused throughout everything we do.

Q: What characterises a great entrepreneur?

[Laurence Graff] A great entrepreneur always acts with full intention and without limitation, always striving for the best in everything they do.  From an early age I knew I had to rely on myself, look after myself, to not be afraid of anything.  It gave me huge confidence and unshakable belief.  It is that belief that overcomes obstacles and paves the way to success.

Q: What are the characteristics of a great brand?

[Laurence Graff] A great brand is always built from deep passion.  For me, this passion is the diamonds that are central to everything we do.  It inspires all our designs and their natural incredible beauty is the driving force behind everything we do.  We have searched for the best diamonds for many years and continue to work with the very best examples in the world.  I believe that if you have the best craftsmen and the best designers and the best stones you can create something magnificent.

Q: How do you translate a brand and company culture globally?

[Laurence Graff] Being a family business allows us to retain strong values and consistent point of view at the heart of the company.  Everyone who joins the business is introduced to our brand DNA and experiences first hand how that spirit infuses through the business, right from the centre.  It is important to localize our activities so that we can serve our clients in every culture across the world, but the origin and central direction remains the same.

Q: What have been the keys to your own success?

[Laurence Graff] I haven’t remained still since I started in business, I am always moving forward, always looking ahead.  I have always said ‘the sky is the limit’ and have lived by that motto every day.  I believe a great part of my success has been a result of ardent curiosity and an appetite to learn.  At first I didn’t even know that I was hungry for knowledge, but as it came I wanted to know a little bit more.  I began to travel extensively early on in my career, and with every trip I learned something new.

Q: What does wealth mean to you?

[Laurence Graff] Wealth is something that can allow you to live your life in a certain way, but for me it is my family and my passions that are my wealth, those things are invaluable.

Q: What are the unique characteristics of a family business?

[Laurence Graff] Inspiring the next generation and beyond is a responsibility I have taken very seriously.  Seeing my family’s eyes light up on seeing a magnificent jewellery creation or rare diamond is very exciting.  You cannot force that deep passion, it is a special moment when you first see it in someone close to you, it brings you together and you realise then how strong a family business can be.

Q: What is the role of the entrepreneur, and the business, in the community?

[Laurence 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.

Q: What have been your most important learnings in business?

[Laurence Graff] To always be honest, always be correct.  It is something I learned from my elders years ago  and these values have shaped my own career.  I have always paid my bills, always kept my word.

Q: What does failure mean to you?

[Laurence Graff] Failure gives us an opportunity.  I feel it is important to admit when you have made a mistake and take it as an opportunity to learn and improve.  If you fall down you must stand up again and carry on, then you always keep moving forwards.

Q: What motivates and inspires you?

[Laurence Graff] Diamonds are a miracle of nature, they are millions of years old, they survived a hazardous journey to the earth’s surface and the discovery of them is an exciting moment.  To see the rough diamond and then watch it come to life on the polisher’s wheel with incredible fire and scintillation is incredibly inspiring.  I stare into the depths of a diamond and I am lost for a moment in its beauty.  I am constantly in awe and inspired by this and feel honoured to work with these magnificent stones each day.

Q: What would be your advice to the next generation of entrepreneur?

[Laurence Graff] To follow your dreams and imagine the unimaginable.  Everything man-made that we see and touch on a daily basis has been invented by someone, by an entrepreneur. All you have to do is to look around you to feel inspired by creation and invention.  Life is exciting and you can create your own destiny, just as long as you believe in yourself and step outside of the box.


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