The jewel trade, where big-money deals are finalised with a handshake, has always had a sexy image. Matt Keating asked Neil Duttson what it's really like.
Saturday March 31, 2007
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Neil Duttson varies his route to work each day. When making a delivery or purchase in Antwerp, Tel Aviv, New York or London, a bodyguard accompanies him. At meetings with suited-and-booted clients in the City, he has been known to wear threadbare jeans and T-shirt. "It's just a precaution," he says. "Other times I might wear a Richard James suit."
When we meet, the security-conscious 37-year-old is wearing the latter. But the down-at-heel plainness of his office seems far removed from the image of his job. The first clue about the nature of his work is that his office is in a building in Hatton Gardens, London's diamond quarter. The second is that his firm, Duttson Rocks, is not listed on the directory in the building's foyer. There's the twin set of time-lock doors that have to be negotiated and the omnipresent security cameras. And, finally, his business associate wants to remain anonymous. "You don't come into this room unless you trade and unless he wants you in this room," says Duttson.
Duttson is a diamond broker and jewellery designer. He provides a "bespoke gem-buying service". That means finding diamonds for rich clients, then designing the jewellery within which those lumps of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms can sparkle.
Duttson's customers include Premiership footballers, top bankers, a very senior diplomat, as well as what he calls "normal people" who will spend up to pounds 15,000 on a rock.
"I went to New York over Christmas for a client because we couldn't find the right diamond here," says Duttson. "In fact, my associate and I spent two or three days looking for this particular rock - a seven-carat emerald cut, which means it's oblong-shaped."
When it comes to engagement rings, most fiancees know what they want from the off. "I'm seeing a lady at lunchtime who hasn't got a clue, which is rare because most women fantasise about what they are going to wear on their finger from an early age."
Still, Duttson reckons he converts 85% to 90% of first meetings into sales. And eight out of 10 sales involve a gripper - a simple metal ring that allows clients to try on the diamond before it's set in jewellery.
Duttson's job is not for the shy and retiring. "I have to spend a lot of time with new people, learning what they like, gelling. I always meet people when they are happy, never sad. I have to travel a lot, too."
However, Duttson did not meet the client who has, thus far, provided the highlight of his career. A man in New York phoned asking for some earrings for his girlfriend. "I'd met neither of them, but within the hour the money was in my account and I hadn't even bought the bloody stones," he says. "Two years later he phoned me up again and we did another $175,000 [pounds 90,000] deal, again without meeting."
De Beers is probably the name most people associate with diamonds. Despite major discoveries of diamonds in Russia, Brazil, Canada and Australia, the South African giant still dominates - critics say dictates - the global diamond market. However, Duttson sees De Beers as the "police" of the diamond trade.
For many years, the industry was accused of turning a blind eye to the sale of blood or conflict diamonds, those sold to finance war and human rights abuses. To thwart this, the diamond industry - comprising 45 countries, including most of the diamond-producing nations - the UN and numerous NGOs adopted in 2003 the "Kimberley" certification scheme. "Although conflict stones equate to under 1% of world diamond sales, that's still about pounds 50m, which buys you a lot of AK47s and has killed a lot of children," says Duttson, who is a passionate advocate of Kimberley.
He shows me a diamond certified by one of the industry's main governing bodies, the Gemological Institute of America (GIA). The GIA certificate includes the carat, colour, clarity and cut as well as a serial number that corresponds to the digits lasered in the stone itself - digits invisible to even the most expert naked eye. "The certificate enables me to trace the rock back to the source," says Duttson.
Still, Amnesty International and the UN are concerned that self-regulation threatens the integrity of the entire certificate scheme. Duttson says he is confident his diamonds are blood-free because he has faith in his two suppliers. One receives diamonds direct from De Beers, the other is a privately owned firm with offices in Israel, New York and Antwerp that employs Duttson's associate.
Their first meeting is an example of how trust has more currency than cash in this line of work. "When I started in the business no one would give me a straight answer," says Duttson. "At a jewellery fair in Basle, Switzerland, I went around all the stalls. But, because I was new, no one would give me the time of day. Out of maybe 100 people, I met only two who would deal with me, and one of them is now my associate."
The diamond trade is an honour-bound profession. "It's the only industry I know where you can do pounds 100,000 deals without paper and it will stand up in court," says Duttson. "It is all done by looking them in the eye, a shake of the hand and a single word: Mazal."
Mazal is a Hebrew blessing for good luck or destiny - not something Duttson wishes on one of his former employees.
"For six months I taught this man about diamonds and sent him on courses," says Duttson. "He was a really nice guy, we got on well. But one day when I came back from holiday he told me he was going to start his own business. I said in what? He said in diamonds. Next thing I find, he's using my jeweller, using my suppliers. So, I dropped them. He's now moved overseas - and good riddance."
Duttson himself is relatively new to the industry; seven years ago he was running an events management company. "Then, one day, I turned around and realised I was 31, I was really knackered and I didn't want to do the job any more," he says. "So, I walked out of the business I'd spent 10 years building up."
He recalled a childhood fascination with diamonds. So, he remortgaged his flat and headed for Antwerp where "85% of the world's diamond go through". There he enrolled on a six-month diploma at the Hoge Raad Voor Diamant.
"I learned about the makeup of diamonds - that this one is an E and that's a F [colour], or that's a VS1 while this one's VS2 [clarity]. They also taught me how to use the tools of the trade, such as a Presidium, which we use to measure the dimensions of the stone.
"At school, I was rubbish at maths and physics and chemistry," says Duttson who left at 16 without any O-levels. "But when it came to diamonds, I loved it because I could see the application."
And he spotted a gap in the market, while window shopping on his weekends off - he would go to the big jewellers in Geneva or Paris with his then-girlfriend and pretend to be looking for a diamond engagement ring. "It was always a spotty 19-year-old who didn't have the answers to any of the questions I asked."
On his return to London in 2001, Duttson set up as a diamond broker. It was slow progress until a friend, Richard Relton, was about to get engaged. "I said Dick, I'll go get a rock for you." Duttson went back to Antwerp and bought a round stone from an Armenian dealer he had met during his course.
Duttson then turned to a former school friend and award-winning jewellery designer to make the ring. "We worked together for about a year but it became a bit expensive so I looked for other makers." Duttson now works with a jeweller in the next door workshop to his Hatton Gardens office. He also has a 50% share in another workshop up the road.
"I'm the man on the street doing what Cartier and Tiffany's do. Duttson Rocks has made more money in the first few months of this year than it did for the whole of 2006. And I know that this is a proper business now because I have repeat customers." One day he would love to have his own shop in Bond Street in London's West End. "At this rate, in five years' time there's no reason why this room shouldn't be gold-plated."
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