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<< Back to Robb Report, July 2013

Masters of Modern Luxury: Laurence Graff

Jill Newman

Laurence Graff began working in the diamond business as a 15-year-old apprentice jeweler in the London jewelry district. Sixty years later, he may be the world’s most powerful high-end diamond merchant. Known for his fearless pursuit of the best diamonds and gems, Graff pays record-high prices at auctions with the intention of selling the stones to his clients.

It is a winning strategy: Graff is now a billionaire who owns 36 stores around the world, expansive cutting and polishing facilities in South Africa and Botswana, and the Delaire Graff Estate, a South African vineyard and resort.

Wealth Protection
We are continually surprised at the amount of people who buy things on a whim. They walk into one of our stores and spend $1 million. Many of them are younger people who have made great wealth, and they spend it, whereas years ago wealth was often inherited at an older age. And in the past 15 years there has been an amazing explosion of wealth in Russia, China, and South America.

The first thing you do when you have wealth is try to protect it, and gems are a worldwide currency not subject to politics. Historically, the jeweler was always the trusted man in court; the jeweler was an honest person, knowledgeable, and knew how to protect wealth. People still buy stones today for that reason.

Brand Identity
Thirty years ago, most brands didn’t exist. Now with the expansion of emerging countries, many brands have grown. Our design style has evolved, and we have increased the capacity of production to meet demands. We sell important stones set simply; people want to see the stones. We make our own designs in our own image; we don’t make special designs for China or Dubai. Quality and brand value is a worldwide perception, and we believe that requires consistency.

We have a vast collection of pieces from $25,000 to $250,000, and many in the millions. When buyers come to Graff and they want a 1-carat diamond, they will get the best cut and quality—oftentimes cut by the same man who cut the 20-carat stone.

No Fear of Buying
I’m a born collector. In the diamond business you must collect to be in business. I’ve never been afraid to buy, because I know I can sell it. I have 60 years experience, and I know if you have the very best, the price doesn’t matter; eventually you will sell it. I’m bringing a mind-blowing piece to Maastricht [the annual art and antiques fair that was held in March in the Netherlands]. It’s a blue diamond peacock, and it will be the most expensive item at the show at $100 million. It will be sold. It is a museum piece.

At auctions I find important and special things. I look for exceptional sapphires, rubies, and emeralds, which are especially rare. I started by collecting diamonds, and in traveling around the world you see other things, and eventually I got interested in art too.

At first I collected impressionist art, and then friends introduced me to contemporary artists like Warhol, Haring, and Basquiat. At first I didn’t appreciate that work, but later my eye changed, and that is the art I want. I make new acquisitions all the time. I just bought Jeff Koons’s Venus sculpture and a piece by Allen Jones that he did at age 19.

When you are worldly and have a certain amount of wealth, you can become knowledgeable in art, and you buy more and more expensive things and build up. It is the same in jewelry. You gain confidence over time. There are always opportunities to buy; people cash in, and prices go higher.

Forever, If Possible
If you don’t have to, you must never sell. It is impossible to buy back. I couldn’t afford to buy my artwork today that I bought in earlier years. People are loath to let go of their diamonds they buy from us. They are impossible to buy back.

What I own will one day pass through to someone else’s hands, and diamonds especially are usually passed down generations. And if you have a tragedy or bad luck, those diamonds will support you. Hundreds of years from now, a father will show his son a diamond and say, “We used to find these in the ground.”

This article was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Robb Report. Click here to read more articles from this issue. 

Todd Reed’s Play on Pearls

Tanya Dukes

Known for his innovative use of rough diamonds, Todd Reed is showing his softer side with a foray into pearls. In sharp contrast to his use of rocklike uncut diamonds, his new collection—a series of earrings, necklaces, and rings ($8,800 to $34,430)—presents an array of softly colored smooth Tahitian pearls in shades that range from off-white to gunmetal to gold. Reed’s signature style, however, appears in his inventive use of metal to partially encase each pearl.

The Boulder, Colo., designer, who founded his eponymous brand more than 20 years ago, has been collecting pearls for many years and has used them in some older pieces, but was holding on to them until he was ready to develop a new concept. Though working with perfect spheres challenged Reed after his years of contending with the irregular forms of raw diamonds, he has given the classic gems an edgier feel.

And this will not be that last of his experiments with different gems. He notes that many new collections are on the way and that he is “excited to use more unique, raw materials.” As always, his pieces are created entirely by hand by a team of master jewelers in his Boulder studio—situated, coincidentally, on Pearl Street. (800.376.3609, www.toddreed.com)

New Nicholas Liu Jewelry Draws Inspiration from Mythology

Tanya Dukes

The latest creations from the jeweler Nicholas Liu borrow a chapter from ancient mythology that recounts the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. The two escaped captivity by flying away on wings built from feathers and wax. Though warned that his wings would disintegrate if he flew too close to the sun, Icarus ignored good counsel and fell into the sea.

To capture each stage of the journey, from exodus to descent, Liu’s collection ($4,200 to $45,000) uses wing motifs in different states. One pair of earrings suggests the start of the flight with curvaceous 18-karat-gold wings blanketed entirely in diamonds and pearls. A ring with lean, spare lines, darkened surfaces, and scattered gemstones alludes to the deterioration of Icarus’s wings. And a strand of gray pearls subtly references his fall with accents of fire-red ruby and diamonds set in black and yellow gold.

The designer himself is just taking flight after growing up in Hong Kong and studying in Germany, Singapore, and San Francisco, as well as at London’s Central St. Martins and the Royal College of Art. He apprenticed under established stars including Shaun Leane and Lara Bohinc, and two years ago he struck out on his own. With skilled jeweler’s hands and a clever imagination, the New York–based Liu has already attracted loyal followers. (www.nicholas-liu.com)

Royal Asscher Teams with Design Sisters for Jewelry Collection

Tanya Dukes

Not many jewelry houses have a history as long and storied as Royal Asscher. Its legacy spans 160 years, and the company is renowned for its namesake diamond cut and for cleaving the largest diamond ever discovered. It continues to make news for its contemporary jewelry and an expanding offering of striking pieces in colored gemstones.

The Amsterdam-based firm recruited hometown design talent for its latest collection. Sisters Jetteke and Lieke van Lexmond—a fashion editor and a television personality, respectively—collaborated with Royal Asscher to create a vibrant assortment of pieces unlike anything the company has produced before. The Seychelles and the unusual flora and fauna found there inspired the tightly edited range of 26 pieces.

Consisting primarily of items depicting the islands’ unusual vegetation—like the coco-de-mer, a fruit found only in the Seychelles—each piece is crafted in 18-karat gold (starting at about $2,100). Some are composed exclusively of the metal, like an elegant serpentine necklace with a texture that mimics the bark of a coconut tree. Others are more exuberant in their shapes and colors. A pendant shaped like a bisected pear reveals the fruit’s interior, complete with black-diamond seeds; a pair of oversize earrings shaped like palm fronds are topped with electric-green tsavorites; and a charm bracelet dangles a pineapple, a lychee, a strawberry, and other fruits accented with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and pink sapphires. (212.922.1908, www.lexmondvslexmond.com; available through Luxe Intelligence, 212.398.9700)

Sevan Bıçakçı’s New Jewelry Pieces Portray Fanciful Beings

Carolyn Meers

Known for his signature method of reverse carving, or intaglio carving—which creates captivating miniature scenes within a gemstone—the Istanbul-based jewelry artist Sevan Bıçakçı has unveiled his latest designs, featuring wildlife imagery both real and fantastical. Among the artful pieces is a single gold ear cuff with a giant South Sea pearl, depicting a mermaid ($30,549); a diamond ring carved with an image of two angels mounted on winged horses ($51,419); and an aquamarine pendant necklace etched with a dove and set in rose gold ($42,560).

This collection, Bıçakçı says, illustrates an evolution of skill for him and his design team. “I feel that with each creation we have higher expectations and standards for our work,” he says. “I have been blessed with a creative team who have incredible talents, and together we challenge each other to attempt new feats in the design process.” Each piece requires countless hours of carving and sometimes miniature painting to create the image, and there is always the risk that a valuable stone will crack under the pressure of the tools. Over the years, the artist and his team have ruined many stones—but they have succeeded with far more, and he now has an international list of clients who collect his work and wait for the latest one-of-a-kind creations. (www.sevanbicakci.com)

An International Jewelry Journey

Jill Newman

The jewelry designer Pippa Small pays homage to the fascinating jewelry legacy of Afghanistan with a collection of large, colorful gemstone pieces ($150 to $5,000), using stones sourced from throughout the country in designs that reflect its unique culture. New designs include gold-plated drop earrings of bright-blue lapis lazuli as well as draping necklaces with layers of rough-cut stones.

Last year, the London-based designer visited Kabul to purchase stones and work with local craftspeople at the charity Turquoise Mountain, which trains and places jewelers. “I was asked out to Kabul initially to create a collection inspired by the ancient Bactrian gold that has been touring the world the last few years,” explains Small, who made her first visit to Kabul seven years ago. Those ancient treasures were famously buried by the museum director in Kabul when the Taliban took over, to protect them, and they later toured around the world. Following that initial project, Small returned to the region and partnered with Turquoise Mountain, and her commissions helped employ the first jewelry craftswomen in the workshop.

Her latest jewelry, which features gemstones that appear like tumbled rocks and carefully etched gold pieces, draws on designs from Bactrian, Turkmen, Uzbek, and other cultures in the region. For generations, the region has produced an extraordinary array of gemstones, but political and military conflicts have deeply affected the local mining and flow of stones. Small has, as a result, sought to develop ways to use the stones in pieces created by the local people.

The designer’s interest in various cultures began when she was young and traveled with her parents around the world. She went on to study anthropology and earn a master’s degree in medical anthropology; making jewelry began as a way to fund her degree, and her designs were an immediate success among a fashionable international crowd. Throughout her career she has continued to try and find ways to support indigenous craftwork, including by the San people of the Kalahari and the Kuna people of Panama. “I began working on my projects about eight years ago, sure that there would be a way to bring benefit from working with traditional communities,” she says. “I feel that jewelry has the potential to change lives by working with communities, creating jobs and opportunities, and using design to raise money and awareness.” (+44.0207.792.1292, www.pippasmall.com)

Bulgari Celebrates 130 Years with New Exhibition in Houston

Carolyn Meers

In celebration of Bulgari’s 130th anniversary, the Houston Museum of Natural Science has partnered with the Italian jeweler’s Heritage Collection to coordinate Bulgari: 130 Years of Masterpieces. The exhibition will showcase more than 150 Bulgari jewelry designs, representing each phase in the brand’s history since its founding in 1884.

The exhibition highlights many of Bulgari’s most innovative designs throughout its history, starting with items crafted by Sotirio Boulgaris, the silversmith who founded the company and worked at its first outpost, in Rome, at the turn of the 20th century. The exhibit then explores every successive era, from elegant platinum-heavy works of the 1930s to the boldly modern, colorful designs of the 1960s—such as emerald-and-amethyst bib necklaces—to the serpent-shaped watches from the mythology-inspired Serpente collection of the 1970s and nature-inspired designs of the 1980s. The show also includes a selection of gems from the personal collection of Elizabeth Taylor, along with portraits depicting Bulgari jewels modeled by the film icons Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren, among others. The exhibition will run through October 5. (www.hmns.org/bulgari‎)

Arts and Crafts of Berber Women on Display in Paris

Carolyn Meers

The design and artisanship of Berber women are being celebrated with an expansive exhibition at the Fondation Pierre Bergé–Yves Saint Laurent in Paris through July 20. Berber Women of Morocco showcases more than 600 handmade objects, from tapestries and pottery to garments and jewelry, all made and used by women from the Berber people of Morocco. Opened last month, the exhibition highlights the personal collection that Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé assembled starting with their first trip to Morocco in the 1960s. The items are typically on display in the Musée Berbère, a converted villa in Marrakech, and this exhibition marks the collection’s European debut. 

The exhibition reflects the Berbers’ unique culture, traditions, and crafts and also illustrates the couple’s deep passion for the arts of Morocco and their appreciation for traditional artisanship. The display includes traditional Berber head scarves, rugs, and blankets made of silk, cotton, and wool; some have been dyed vibrant colors like indigo, while others are embroidered with colorful tassels or painted with henna dye. Perhaps most eye-catching are the exhibition’s elaborate jewelry designs, which include a variety of necklaces, belts, brooches, and headpieces featuring vivid coral pieces, hammered silver, carved amber, and intricate beadwork. (www.fondation-pb-ysl.net)

The Largest-Ever Exhibit of Indian Jewelry Opens in Moscow

Carolyn Meers

The most comprehensive exhibition of Indian jewelry ever staged has just opened at the State Museums of Moscow Kremlin in Russia. India: Jewels that Enchanted the World features more than 300 pieces of handmade jewelry—including necklaces, earrings, wrist cuffs, brooches, and turban and hair ornaments—some dating back to the 17th century. New pieces will also be presented by the renowned Indian jewelry designers Bhagat and Munnu. The exhibition, a collaboration between the State Museums of Moscow Kremlin and the Indo-Russian Jewelry Foundation, features items culled from over 30 museums, including the British Museum, Qatar’s Doha Museum of Islamic Art, Switzerland’s Musée Barbier-Mueller, and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as private collections including those of the jewelry houses Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. The ornate designs on display highlight the use of gold, platinum, and precious gems ranging from emeralds and rubies to sapphires and diamonds. The exhibition will run just over three months, from April 12 through July 27. (http://www.kreml.ru/en-US/exhibitions)

Rare Diamond Pendant Debuts at a Fabergé Easter at Harrods

Anush Benliyan

This Easter, Fabergé will debut a limited-edition Spiral Tassel Pendant (price available upon request), which will be available only at Harrods in London from April 1 to 21 for the exhibit A Fabergé Easter at Harrods. The necklace features a gemstone tassel that can be finished with vibrant amethyst, tsavorite, or spinel trickling down from diamonds set in a spiral to form the shape of an egg. The pendant, whose spiral design is meant to symbolize transformation, is Fabergé’s modern-day interpretation of its iconic imperial Easter eggs. From 1885 on, as the Russian imperial family’s goldsmith, Fabergé created 50 opulent gemmed eggs for the czars. For decades, the eggs were ceremonially gifted within the Alexander Palace for the Easter holiday. Other aristocratic families, including six generations of the British royal family, have also been loyal followers of the jeweler. For the three-week exhibit, Harrods will have a trompe-l’oeil window display facing Brompton Road to illustrate Fabergé’s opulent history. Harrods, which had a more humble beginning as a grocer and tea merchant, will dress the window display in Fabergé flags and exhibit the Apple Blossom Egg, an original egg from 1901 made of gold, diamonds, and nephrite. (www.faberge.com)