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February 15, 2017updated Mar 03, 2017

Interview: Vartkess Knadjian of Backes & Strauss

By Lauren Jade Hill

By Lauren Jade Hill

Backes & Strauss

As both the world’s oldest diamond company and an ambassador of fine craftsmanship, Backes & Strauss is a name that’s synonymous with unadulterated luxury. And while the company set out on its diamond legacy in 1789, it is now celebrated for its opulent watches. It was the brand’s CEO Vartkess Knadjian who was behind this redefining transformation.

I meet Vartkess in the brand’s sumptuous flagship store in the heart of Mayfair. Having joined Backes and Strauss in 1976, the influential CEO has an almost inimitable knowledge of the diamond industry, acquired from years of honing his craft. “In those days, the only way you could learn about the diamond industry was to sit next to the master cutters and polishers.” Vartkess explains, “You had to be patient, and learn by sitting at the end of a polishing wheel, then sitting next to a trader to see how they operate. We had no price lists or trading reports, so we had to value the diamonds ourselves. At the end of a five or six-year period, you really did become an expert with an affinity for the industry.”

Backes & Strauss

“It was a very family orientated industry – father to son – so it was much harder to get into as an outsider. But, Backes and Strauss was independently managed, so when the head trader left, I knew it was something I had to go for. Fortunately, I was well prepared, and over the years I was promoted until I eventually became CEO.”

It was as CEO that Vartkess decided to take the company forward by establishing it as a distinct brand. “When I joined the diamond business, it was an exciting industry to be in. But in the ’80s and ’90s, diamonds became more of a commodity, price-lists appeared, and diamonds were graded by a third party. I thought the trading business would have a limited shelf-life, so we decided to use our heritage to create a high-end luxury brand. I have long had a great passion for watches, and at that time we were supplying diamonds for Franck Muller in Switzerland. By partnering with them, I thought we could create a high-end watch brand that focused on diamonds. And that’s exactly what we did.”

Backes & Strauss

Owing to Backes and Strauss having been based in London since 1814, Vartkess decided the brand’s focus should fall on its provenance, so the designers from Franck Muller were brought over to London to create a look that would be a quintessential reflection of the capital. “The designers fell in love with the architecture of Regent’s Street. John Nash, who was the architect responsible for these buildings, created symmetrical and circular structures. That was the inspiration behind our first watch, the Regent. Each collection since has been inspired by Regency and Victorian London, and we’ve increasingly found our niche in very high-end bespoke production, creating one-off pieces. Eventually, we’ll bring in a jewelry collection to mirror what we’re doing with these watches.”

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After collaborating with the English National Ballet, the company went on to associate themselves with the Kabuki theater in Tokyo, which ties in with Vartkess’s love for Japanese culture. “I think the service in Japan is second to none,” he enthuses, “whether it’s at a western-style hotel or ryokan; my favourite hotel in Tokyo is the Mandarin Oriental. And Japan is our number one market. They love history, heritage and fine craftsmanship, and they adore anything to do with Britain.”

Backes & Strauss

“One of the best pieces we’ve ever made is the Beau Brummell pocket watch,” he continues, “Beau Brummell was a friend of the Prince Regent. He was a dandy – beautifully dressed – and they say he was the man who invented the suit as we know it today. When we made our first tourbillon, I didn’t want it to be a wrist watch. I thought, in tribute to Beau Brummell, I’d make a pocket watch, because I imagined that if he was alive today and he came to commission me, he would want me to make him one like this. We made the tourbillon with invisibly set diamonds, and limited it to a run of just five. And each person who buys one has the option to go to a Savile Row tailor to have a bespoke suit made. We have two more of these pocket watches to make, each with a recommended retail of $2,000,000.”

“We’ll be seeing the third piece,” he says as one of the Beau Brummell pocket watches is brought over to us. He pulls the layer of material covering it away to reveal the invisibly-set diamond encrusted time-piece. “And it doesn’t have to be a men’s watch; women could keep it in their clutch.”

As we admire the pocket watch before us, Vartkess concludes: “We call ourselves the Masters of Diamonds since 1789, and Franck Muller call themselves the Masters of Complication, so together we can say we’re a meeting of the masters. And this tourbillon is what best illustrated that.”

Backes & Strauss, London

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