Fawaz Gruosi

Fawaz Gruosi, President, owner and founder of De Grisogono is one of the world’s most sought-after jewellers and watch makers and we had the unique chance to meet this distinctive talent during his first trip back to his paternal country in many years.

Many do not know it, but Fawaz Gruosi is of Lebanese decent. Indeed, Fawaz El Hajj, as he was known then, was born in Beirut on August 8th 1952 to a Lebanese father and an Italian mother. Tragically, his father passed away when he was just eight years old whereupon he moved to Italy. When I enquired as to why he tends to downplay his Arab roots he answered with total sincerity about how he spent his formative years in Florence, speaking Italian, eating Italian and dressing Italian and, without a real father figure, it was only ever inevitable that he would feel more Italian.

Gruosi’s appearance on the day of our interview certainly confirms his Italian nature. Well-groomed, well dressed and composed, he has the air of a jet-set playboy. His naturally sleepy eyes certainly help reaffirm this supposition. But as the sponsor of lavish celebrity parties the world over I am somewhat taken aback by his quiet demeanour. He talks in such a hushed and discreet voice that I found it very challenging to hear him over the loud music that was emanating from the beach party just around the corner. He also admits to being very shy and forgetting people’s names which, as a result, is often mistakenly perceived as arrogance or snobbishness.

Nowadays, de Grisogono is a big player in the jewellery world, but what is most surprising is the speed at which Gruosi built his brand. The marque and the mastermind behind it are extremely well known quantities after only fifteen years of business. That is a very short amount of time indeed. Consider for example that Cartier was established in 1847 and Bvlgari in 1884. But for Gruosi, much of this rapid success can be attributed to coloured diamonds, or rather black ones to be more specific.

While diamonds are available in a wide spectrum of colours the most unusual colour is black. Despite the fact that, historically, these stones were never really acknowledged or appreciated, the black diamond takes on its colour because of imperfections arising from graphite inclusions that actually absorb the light. Gruosi risked his entire business by buying up huge stocks of these stones. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely.

While novelty may get your foot in the door, it is quality that keeps you there and in this respect de Grisogono cannot be faulted. Gruosi is a perfectionist that feels no need to be constrained by conventions. While many other jewellers allow the prize jewel to stand out by presenting it a subtle entourage of complimentary gems, a de Grisogono piece is far more complex. Imaginative, audacious, flamboyant yet perfectly aesthetic and wearable, his creations caught the imagination of both aficionados and women who, at that time, were literally craving for something new.His inventive style and his passion for perfection led to further innovations. There were the ‘Icy Diamonds’ which are lactescent diamonds whose moon-like colour and brilliance are seemingly softened by an inner veil. Then there were the watches. De Grisogono launched into watches with many stunning releases. Indeed, Gruosi was the first in the watchmaking and jewellery world to have offered, in 2000, ladies’ watches with bracelets made of shagreen or galuchat, a substance made from the skin of the rayfish that looks like bubbly leather. But the most significant horological release to date was this year’s Meccanico dG, the world’s first fully-mechanical digital wristwatch.

Though Gruosi started de Grisogono with two associates it was not long before he bought them out. Later the Scheufele family, the owners of Chopard and also Gruosi’s in-laws, bought a 49 per cent stake in his company. But since 2007 Fawaz Gruosi bought back that stake too and now he is alone at the helm. The future of de GRISOGONO has never looked better.

Fawaz Gruosi, president, owner and founder of de GRISOGONO is one of the world’s most sought-after jewellers and watch makers and we had the unique chance to meet this distinctive talent during his first trip back to his paternal country in many years.

Where does the name Gruosi come from?
It is my mother’s name. Fawaz El Hajj was too difficult for the Italians and I thought about dropping the Fawaz too but I wanted to keep something to remember my father by.

And the name de Grisogono?
It is actually the maiden name of one of the two associates that I started the company with. We were searching for a good Italian name and then we stumbled upon this one. It is in fact difficult even for Italians to say as the stress is on the first ‘o’. And at the beginning people would say “de Gris-o-whatever it is called.” Oddly enough, it actually worked in our favour.

How did you get the idea of black diamonds?
First of all fashion at that time needed a change. Back in 1997 I was reading a book and I came across a beautiful black stone of 190 carats called ‘Black Orlov’. I was enthralled by its colour and I wanted to know more. I was very surprised to know it was a diamond that had minute inclusions, which, in professional terms, gives it a jet-black hue and a certain mystery. Apparently they had a moment of popularity in the 1930s but their rarity and the difficulty in cutting them restrained the enthusiasm of the specialists at the time.

Did you then corner the black diamond market?
No, but I did buy a fair amount. I set about visiting diamond mines across the globe with a view to collecting enough stones to create a collection of jewels unique in the world. The problem was that even when I got enough diamonds, no one wanted to cut them because they are so tricky.

Why are they so problematic?
Because you cut a white diamond by looking through a microscope but the black diamond is opaque and therefore you cannot use a microscope. Not only that but sometimes when you cut the black diamond you will find little white spots so even though it is a perfect diamond there are imperfections throughout. Essentially what was happening was that I was wasting about 50 per cent. If let’s say I was paying 100 USD a carat it would cost me 200USD.

It was a risky gamble but surely it paid off when the price of black diamonds went through the ceiling on the precious stone market?
It was a risky gamble betting on a virtually unknown stone. For three years I got a lot of criticism, they would say I am cheating people because these stones were worth zero. They would say it is just ugly. I was suffering, you have no idea, and it got to the point where I was not even going out in Geneva anymore. But after two years I was consecrated by the competition.  Cartier and Chanel started using black diamonds in their collections too.

Now are you recognised as the saviour of the black diamond?
Yes in fact I wrote a book about them before the competition started. I wrote it because my research at the time gave me few answers. I went to Christies and found nothing, I went to the GIA [Gemological Institute of America] and found very little, so I hired people to do the research and we wrote a book that was dated so no one could say they started it, even though I was small at the time, I certainly had something to prove. And in the end the black diamonds gave me a lot of attention but quality is not just in the material but the setting.

Could you tell us a little more about the famous de Grisogono settings?
Yes for me I do not care about how much money something will cost me to make, I want it to be perfect in every way. I want it to be a talking piece so when you go out to dinner people will notice. For example, one of de Grisogono’s trademarks is the pave technique of embellishment, where small matching stones are set together to form a bejewelled pavement. The stones are packed so tightly the gold or platinum base is barely visible. The effect is of a fluid surface of shimmering stone. This could even include parts of the jewellery that move, such as a chain of a necklace, a technically complex process.

How did you start in the business?
I started to work in a jewellery shop in Florence at 18 and in fact I was made to clean up at first. I think I was probably the best shop cleaner because I would perform all my duties so quickly and efficiently just so that my friends did not see me in action [laughs]. Anyway then I worked my way up and seven years later I was asked to oversee the opening of a new store in London and then I was made store director for four years.

Then you went to work in Saudi Arabia?
Yes when I was 30 years old the Alireza family of Saudi Arabia hired me to become the official representative of Harry Winston in the Kingdom. At that time, Saudi Arabia was the most important market in the world for any jeweller. I thoroughly enjoyed myself during those three years after which I went to Bvlgari where I stayed until the departure of Gianni Bulgari.

What international markets are most important to you now?
I have had the experience of working with other companies and I have seen how many times jewellers focus on a certain market. As I said before Saudi Arabia was a very important market, then the Sultanate of Brunei, now Russia is important. What I understood more than anything is to never focus on only one market. So I want to be well balanced across the globe, perhaps I am strongest in Europe but that is because it was my first market.

How many boutiques do you have now?
We have 16 boutiques now and by the end of 2009 we will have 20. I favour quality by limiting the number of boutiques in the world because for me luxury must remain exclusive.

Watches currently constitute how much of the business?
Unfortunately, more than 50 per cent, for my heart is that of a jeweller. Of course it is much easier to sell watches than jewellery and we were selling more to women than to men so now we are pushing the men’s watches more and bringing out additional models.

What is the secret of success?
I love what I do and that helps very much, I mean many of the other jewellers out there are not really jewellers; they are more like merchants of stones. It is sort of crazy how I started with relatively no money. I mean even if someone gave me 10 to 15 million Euros today to try and do it I do not think I could. I do not know how it even happened. What I do know is that I work very, very hard at my job, I took a lot of risks and I believed in myself.