In the Diamond Mind: Graeme Thompson

A Conversation with Graeme Thompson, Worldwide Head of Jewels, Phillips

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Graeme Thompson, worldwide head of jewels at Phillips, selling a blue diamond in New York City in December 2019.

Graeme Thompson is charming, savvy and funny. His experience with diamonds might have begun with a light clip to the head as a child, administered by a frustrated mother wearing a number of diamond rings, but his career would hardly be described as bumpy. During a tough year, Graeme has led Phillips Jewelry to 21% sales growth compared to this time last year. A rapid pivot to online and private sales, rich digital content and an emphasis on contemporary jewelers have been significant drivers of success. That Graeme enjoys the thrill of big challenges surely plays a role as well. While the mere thought of standing at the rostrum during a big auction makes most of us insurmountably queasy, Graeme chose to become an auctioneer to overcome a deep fear of public speaking and today it’s his favorite part of the job.

Graeme Thompson is worldwide head of jewels at Phillips.

What’s the story of your first diamond?
My family has worked in diamonds for years. When I was a child, my uncle Peter brought home the replica of a two hundred carat diamond found by De Beers, where he worked for 25 years. At the time, the company created a replica of each important diamond it found. Also, I recall my mother clipping me over the head with a hand filled with diamond rings once for being naughty. She is a loving mum, but I don’t think she realized the impact of those diamond rings and they left quite an impression.  

What excites you most at the moment?
The most exciting part of my career is the auction block. I am an auctioneer and there is that moment right before stepping onto the rostrum when the adrenaline starts buzzing. It’s the moment before the start of a complex performance and I love it. 

Ironically, I used to be absolutely petrified of public speaking. It scared the life out of me. When starting at my first auction house, I thought one way to conquer that fear was to take auctions. I trained with a coach and one day at work my boss said, “I am going to save you a night of not sleeping before your first time on the rostrum and put you on in an hour.” He would not take “no” for an answer and soon I found myself taking 30 lots. It was a blur, but I clearly remember being sick when I finished. I have absolutely loved getting up on the rostrum ever since.  

Also, I’m very excited about leading the global jewelry department at Phillips and about our newest initiatives. We get to handle such rare, beautiful diamonds, colored stones and jewelry – I feel very lucky. I see a lot of promise in Flawless, our private sales division that runs alongside our auction business. It allows us to serve clients every day across price points and interests, from collectors to bridal.

Les Jardins de Giverny, a tribute to impressionist painter Claude Monet by jeweler Feng J, will be auctioned off at Phillips in Hong Kong in November 2020.

We have also separated ourselves from other auction houses by discovering and championing the best contemporary jewelers of today, like the artist Feng J who has created two magnificent pieces for our November 28 auction in Hong Kong. The artists we find are creating the finest jewelry and work that is completely unique. Feng J’s philosophy, for instance, is to paint with gemstones and she does this using a proprietary invisible setting technique. The two pieces we will auction off later this month are Les Jardins de Giverny, a tribute to impressionist painter Claude Monet, and Fountain of Diamonds, inspired by the fountains of Paris. When the pieces arrived on my desk in Hong Kong, I opened their boxes and – wow. It’s hard to wow me these days, I handle so much beautiful jewelry, but I was in awe.

What is your intention for the year ahead?
A strong end to the year. 2020 has been groundbreaking in many respects. We have all faced significant headwinds, but the year has also been monumental for Phillips Jewelry. We went online and our sales are 21% ahead of this time last year. We ran six online jewelry sales this year, compared to two last year. We began putting out more online content than ever and, rather than feeding people sales items, we tailor content to our clients, focusing on what they want to learn or what they might enjoy. I want to continue our steep growth trajectory through our live and online sales, coming up in Hong Kong and New York City, and make this year one of great success.      

What’s your greatest indulgence? 
An evening of fine wine and food from Italy, Spain or France, followed by a fast game of squash the next day to wear it all off.

What diamond destination is at the top of your list? 
It has to be New York City. I spent years there working in the auction world and also running my own business as a jewelry dealer. While 47th street, the Diamond District, isn’t the most attractive, once you discover the back offices, it is amazing. Personally, I think the city is one of the most important destinations for doing business in our world. It’s so exciting and buzzy too!

What inspired you to pursue a career in jewelry? 
I had absolutely no intention of getting involved in jewelry. After school, I started out in finance. After saving some money, I left my job and traveled to Australia, where I spent it all. I returned to Edinburgh, where I grew up, but it was right after the dot-com bubble and I could not find a job in finance. One day, a family friend offered me a job in his antique jewelry shop. Even though I barely knew what a sapphire was, I accepted. After two weeks of training and carrying jewels I knew nothing about around on trays, the owner asked if I liked the job. I truthfully replied, “No.” He convinced me to stick it out for two more weeks and now here I am. This career found me and I’m so grateful.

What moment still blows your mind? 
Winning business. Cheesy, but true. The auction industry is very competitive. Knowing that we overcome others to win business is exhilarating. The feeling can only be topped by walking off the rostrum after a successful auction and taking a large gulp of champagne.

What life lesson has been the hardest earned, and taught you the most? 
To pursue a career, you have to make difficult decisions that don’t always please people; however, if you always act with integrity and good will, your intentions shine through and people see them.

What advice would you give your younger self? 
The world of jewelry is built on trust and a handshake. Never breaking your word in the jewelry business is paramount. I’ve never done it and that is how I have built important, long-term relationships. Those people are the ones who have supported me and have brought me to where I am today.

What’s next for diamonds?
Billions of years more. A lot is impacting the world of diamonds right now, but regardless, nothing can replace natural diamonds. It is impossible to replicate the billions of years and incredible geological processes that forms these stones, or the magic of people unearthing these gems, cutting them on a wheel and setting them into magnificent pieces of jewelry.