Fawaz Gruosi: The king of black diamonds

How the founder of De Grisogono jewellery empire, Fawaz Gruosi, went from high school dropout to a favourite among celebrities
Fawaz Gruosi: The king of black diamonds
Fawaz Gruosi admits if he had not started selling black diamonds he would not be where he is.
By Lubna Hamdan
Fri 24 Jun 2016 12:30 AM

Fawaz Gruosi credits his billionaire status and diamond empire to pure madness.

“I did everything that was not logical. And it worked,” he says.

But the blue-eyed Lebanese-Italian does not seem mad at all.

Sporting a light grey suit and a seemingly genuine smile, the founder of Swiss jewellery house De Grisogono appears calm and collected. Famous for being the first jeweller to use black diamonds and coloured gems, Gruosi succeeded in opening 17 boutiques as well as selling to 114 retailers worldwide. They rake in over $100m a year in revenues, while Gruosi himself is estimated to be worth a cool $1.9bn.

His success, he insists, took years of burning the midnight oil.

“I worked like a Chinese dog; put a lot of pressure [on myself]. I never took a vacation in 24 years,” Gruosi says.

It was not exactly what the high school dropout had planned.

“I decided to get married when I was 17 years old. My family were furious, they made a big deal about it and they did not accept. So I told them if they did not sign the papers, because I was too young to decide by myself at that age, they would not see me anymore,” he says.

“They signed the paper, but they said they would give me my pocket money only for a year, and after that I would be on my own. I didn’t believe them and I went on with my normal life. And then suddenly, they stopped giving me any money. So I panicked. The first job I found was in a jewellery store in Florence. And that’s how my career started,” he says.

After the position in Florence, it was job after job for Gruosi. Luckily for him, a career in jewellery was a blessing in disguise.

Just two years after working as a junior staffer, Gruosi became manager of the shop in Florence. Shortly after, he was sent to the brand’s London franchise to teach new staff, but, again, was so impressive he was appointed manager there.

Barely in his 20s, Gruosi was discovered by renowned jeweller Harry Winston – “the king of the jewellery industry [at the time]” - who offered him a general manager's role in Saudi Arabia.

“I was very young; I was 21 years old. The position was a dream for anyone. I never understood till now why they chose me at the time. And it was the time of the oil. Money was, as a joke, coming from the sky,” Gruosi says.

Dreamy as the job was, three-and-a-half years later, Gruosi did what few men would have done. He quit.

“I decided to leave, not because I did not like it, but because it’s another world. I was talking like a rich friend of mine in Saudi, talking about millions only, private planes, the life was so easy to live. I was not able to be in the same crowd of people my age, only very important families. And I was not really working. Besides, the first three months I was there, I was just having lunches and dinners after dinners with all that crowd,” he says.

“Basically, they were just asking me for gifts for their wives, daughters, business associates. I would just call [their] office [and] they would come wherever I was, and I was selling every day [to] quite important figures. So I thought I lost contact with reality. I said I better get back, because if I spent another three years here I would not be able to get out of Saudi. It was a good move I did.”

Indeed it was. Less than a month later, Gruosi was hired by Italian luxury goods and jeweller Bulgari.

“I was very lucky professionally speaking,” Gruosi admits. “From the first job as a junior then I went to Harry Winston then to Bulgari.

“Bulgari at the time was the biggest creator in design. I was under the president and CEO of the brand, Gianni Bulgari. They were three brothers and Gianni was in charge of everything... But then at some point there was a misunderstanding between the three of them, and Gianni resigned. I was so upset that I said ‘I’m leaving too’.

“The day after, I woke up and regretted it and started to get scared. I said what am I going to do now? Because I could not go work for another brand like this, that measures to other iconic brands. So I decided to open a shop.”

And he did. With a humble investment of $60,000, Gruosi partnered with two other associates in Geneva in 1993. On top of competing against giant Swiss brands, Gruosi had a major problem: his associates thought he was crazy.

“After [two years], the associates came and they said ‘listen, you look crazy to us and you have strange ideas and everything is wrong’. They said ‘we can’t work with you; either you buy us out or we buy you out’. So I bought them out, and again I was scared because I had no idea how to run a shop,” Gruosi says.

“And then I think, more or less, I started to do crazy, unusual things, like the black diamonds and the icy diamonds. I let myself go, simply because the reason I went, let’s say, on the ‘opposite side’ of the entire industry, was because at the time, every shop in every big city in Europe or the States was creating what we call minimalist designs, small pieces. So I started to do bold things, colourful, coming out with unusual material.”

Gruosi’s so-called crazy methods took him a long way, and most recently earned him a spot among the industry’s biggest names in one of the world’s most sought-after locations: The Dubai Mall.

The brand’s second UAE boutique stretches across 175,000 square metres and houses glass chandeliers and mid-century Italian furniture. Comprising three rooms, of which one is a private guest room for VIP clients, the boutique is quite impressive. But you will not be seeing another one in the Middle East anytime soon.

“I treat the Middle Eastern market like any other market. I never had a preference for the Middle East or for Europe or for the States or Russia, because I never wanted to have clients where everyone else is; I wanted to have a niche. So I’m pleased to be [in the UAE] with our second shop, but I don’t want to have 10 shops in the Middle East,” says the jeweller, adding that the reason behind his limited expansion plan lies primarily in exclusivity.

“If you compare De Grisogono to the measure of brands you have already here, they all have 150 shops, 200 shops, 300 shops. And I never wanted to go that way, simply to keep the exclusivity of the products. I never wanted and I would never do this while I’m alive.

“I’m focusing a lot on unique pieces. So we have from a minimum of 300 going up to 500 unique pieces a year, which sounds like a joke but it’s really hard not to copy yourself with that quantity in 24 years. So I put my target for the next five years to reach probably 25 to 30 boutiques, and that’s it.”

Given the global economic slowdown, expansion plans may very well be out of Gruosi’s hands. But he does not think so.

“Due to the crisis [over the past] few years, the market has gone down worldwide. But strangely enough, we started to sell very, very important pieces. And I could not understand what was happening, normally it is the opposite,” Gruosi says.

“The reason, I found out, is that unusual political situation, people have started to take jewellery seriously as an investment. Before it was just a pleasure for your wife or kids or whatever, but it became like a real asset. And it’s true because from the last 10 years to now, any form of jewellery from diamonds to stones, the price has increased year after year after year, like insane. So if you bought something 10 years ago, today it is worth 10 times more, at least,” he says.

“Just to give you an example, in a year-and-a-half, we sold two pieces, one is a pair of green diamonds, real green, not just greenish, which is something unique, almost impossible to find. And the price was insane. I was ashamed to ask the price. I’m talking about several millions.

"And another one was a necklace with a single stone - same story. These two sales were more or less around 10 million [dollars] each. So pieces like these are assets. If something happens, you can always sell it without losing money. And it’s an asset that you can take with you. You can’t take your house with you if something happens. You can’t take a painting with you if something happens. You can’t take a car, but you can take something that easily fits in your pocket.”

Despite the rise of jewellery as an investment, Gruosi admits his brand has been affected by an economic slowdown.

“But life goes on,” says the jeweller. “You have to react. And it works. It doesn’t work like it used to, it was a boom a few years ago, but we have to work harder, put more efforts, and cut costs,” he says.

Given his humble start among the biggest players in the jewellery world, it is unlikely that Gruosi’s De Grisogono empire will falter.

“We are the smallest people of all these huge brands, but we are bothering lots of them. We’re among the biggest ones now, I don’t want to say more than that," he says.

"That proves that it’s not just about money in life, by the way, but most of all it’s the passion and belief in what you’re doing. Some people they ask me ... how can I do it what do you think what should I do? These young designers which they study for years and they then have good ideas, and they are much more capable than myself and other existing designers today, but the drama, the limit of those young generations which are very capable with a lot of possibilities for the future, they get scared to go on the other side and say I don’t care, I believe in it and I’m going 300 kilometre further,” says Gruosi.

The blue-eyed billionaire, much like the black diamonds he once believed in, has built a name for himself unlike that of any of his competitors – a name synonymous with that of the king of the black diamonds.

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