Leading a multifaceted, global, family-run business is no easy task. Francois Graff, CEO of Graff, one of the world’s most important jewelry houses, shares his insights and stories of rare stones with Roberta Naas.
It is a very rare moment. I am sitting in a well-appointed office across from Francois Graff, the 50-something CEO of one of the most revered jewelry houses in the world. Having the opportunity to interview Francois is nearly as rare as being able to acquire one of Graff’s famous diamonds, making the chance to hear his stories about exquisite stones firsthand very special.
For decades, Graff has acquired, cut, polished and set some of the rarest and most unique stones in the world. When Laurence Graff, Francois’ father, started the company in London in 1960, he had a calling for diamonds. But not just any diamond would do: Laurence sourced stones worthy of creating a legacy.
Graff procured record-breaking stones, including the the 47.39-carat yellow Star of Bombay diamond in 1974, the 39.31-carat Imperial Blue diamond in 1984 (the largest flawless fancy-blue diamond in the world) and, most recently, the sensational 302.37-carat Graff Lesedi La Rona diamond (the 1,109-carat rough stone was the largest gem-quality rough diamond found in over a century). The size, quality and high prices of these acquisitions quickly put Graff on the same level as the most prestigious and oldest jewelry houses, and made the Graff name synonymous with the rarest and most valuable stones.
The brand is vertically integrated: Graff’s gemologists scour the world to acquire the finest gemstones, then work with the cutters in the company’s cutting and polishing facilities to study the rough stones, and eventually arrive at a cut that will render the rough extraordinary. Finally, a team of designers and craftsmen take those gems and create sensuous, feminine and powerful jewelry. But Graff isn’t just known for jewelry: It has a robust watch division with both highly complicated mechanical timepieces and incredible high-jewelry watches.
“I’ve been involved in the business for just about 35 years now, and everything we do is about creation,” Francois says. “I have been fully immersed in each of the divisions. It is wonderfully beneficial to have that background. [The business] is so close to me that running the company is like second nature.”
Of Laurence’s three children, Francois is the only one who seemed to also have a calling for the family business. “From a very young age, I was surrounded by gemstones, and they captured my imagination in a very special way,” he says. “I was captivated, and to this day I still am. Every day we wake up and say, ‘How are we going to make people happy today?’”
One might think that being the son of the founder of the company would mean Francois did not need to work his way up through the ranks. In fact, the opposite is true.
“I had to learn every part of the business if I was going to manage it. I grew up in this company with my father’s very strict view of how it was going to operate,” says Francois, admitting that while he has never cut a diamond, he has learned all about the time-consuming and thoughtful process from many of the world’s finest gemcutters, which undoubtedly helps Francois select record-breaking diamonds to acquire.
Having a thorough understanding of every aspect of the business is crucial to his success running the company. He says his biggest challenge is getting all of the business’s moving parts — from sourcing stones to designing jewelry to inventing new timepiece complications and finally selling the masterpieces through the firm’s 60-boutique retail network — to work together in harmony.
“It is my job to understand what each division wants to achieve and then offer direction. The biggest challenge is to make sure that each part of our business is operating the best it can. The overriding ethos that touches every division and every different price point is no compromise at all in quality. This is the global ethos and the common thread of the brand. This is what we have always and will always stand for. We work within very narrow parameters regarding quality and integrity. Quality is paramount, and to occupy that very hallowed position at the top of the pyramid is what we aspire to do all the time.”
Of course, being a family-run business is quite helpful in this process. “We have a very shallow management, so we are very accessible. A salesperson in Beijing can call me about a client or a stone at any time and I will pick up the phone. We can make a decision without waiting for a board meeting or 20 layers of management to weigh in. This is a true asset in our business,” he says.
While Graff creates jewelry in many price ranges, its most iconic stones are set into pieces that will become the legacies of tomorrow. And of course, these famous stones all have incredible stories. One such stone is a 3.5-carat round blue diamond of the highest quality that just does not seem to want to leave Graff.
“My father had a client who was wearing a ring, and the stone was so blue and beautiful that my father admired it as a zircon. The client told him it was a blue diamond, and my father bought it,” says Francois. “We have sold that stone three times, and it has always come back to us.” Recently, it was sold again, but the client changed their mind, and the stone remains with Graff. “It is a strange and peculiar thing,” says Francois. “It has an affinity for this company and doesn’t want to leave.”
When I asked Francois if he has a favorite stone, his answer was akin to a parent’s; he says, “There are so many stories and so many beautiful stones that it is like asking which child you like best. You can’t choose.” But when pressed, he does manage to choose a favorite ‘child:’ the Eternal Twins, a pair of sensational earrings that came from a 270-carat diamond rough.
After careful study of the stone, it was cut into two diamonds that are incredibly similar in both measurement and weight, each weighing 50.23 carats. “They’re almost identical and are so extraordinary. I don’t think we will ever repeat that in the history of our company,” says Francois, noting that the stones are set as the final drops in a pair of high-jewelry diamond earrings.
Finding, cutting, polishing and setting such spectacular stones is truly what sets Graff apart. “Hopefully, because of our stones, our designs and quality, we are the brand customers go to when they want the best of the best,” says Francois. And while each stone creates a legacy for its new owner, it also continues the legacy of the Graff family.