In November 2015, a jaw-dropping rough diamond was uncovered at Lucara Diamond Corporation’s Karowe mine in north Botswana. Christened the Lesedi La Rona, or “Our Light” in the Tswana tongue, the stone weighed a whopping 1,109 carats, making it one of the largest rough-cut diamonds known in history, and thought to be third-largest after the Cullinan and Sewelô diamonds.
It was originally set to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s London at an estimated price of US$70 million in 2016. The lot went unsold after its highest bid stalled at US$61m, and it was subsequently acquired by Graff Diamonds for US$53m in 2017. After 18 months of careful analysis and processing by experts in the company, 67 exquisite diamonds were cut from the distinguished rough, including the largest: the Graff Lesedi La Rona.
This principal diamond made history and cemented its status as the biggest square-emerald-cut diamond in the world, weighing in at 302.37 cts. It was also the largest diamond to have earned the highest colour and clarity ever graded by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA): a top D colour, exceptional clarity and excellent polish and symmetry.
At that time, Graff Diamonds was in the midst of expanding into the fragrance business, and the Graff Lesedi La Rona floated into its vision as a source of inspiration for the first collection.
A Meeting of Minds
The brand reached out to Walter Johnsen, global development director and fine fragrance creator/designer of Interparfums Inc, to lend his expertise in overseeing this monumental journey.
After all, Johnsen has had over two decades’ worth of experience in the beauty and fragrance industry, having earned the moniker “The King of Fragrances” as well as having blended numerous fragrances for high-profile brands including Anna Sui, Dunhill and Gucci.
“While I knew of Graff as a luxury diamond company, I knew that it was important for me to immerse myself into the brand and understand its DNA so I could create something that represents who it is,” Johnsen says, describing his initial interactions with the brand.
He took the opportunity to travel to London from New York, where he visited the atelier and met Laurence Graff, its founder, to get a first-hand sense of the brand’s identity. Johnsen instantly understood where the brand stood in the world of jewellery, describing it as “the pinnacle of high luxury”, and was excited at the prospect of seeing the Graff Lesedi La Rona.
“They had the real diamond locked up somewhere, so I didn’t get to see it in person,” Johnsen admits. However, he did meet a cubic-zirconia replica of the legendary stone, and even that was sufficient to ignite a spark of inspiration.
“The mock-up itself is a remarkable piece of work. And this helped me to understand the dynamics of the firm’s creative process better and gave clarity in how precise and in-depth we needed to go in crafting this line of fragrances,” he reveals. One thing for sure: it was going to have to be special.
Following The Scent Trail
Johnsen then embarked on a journey to “custom-make” four fragrances for this launch. Instead of getting in contact with a maximum of five houses — which he normally does with other fragrance productions — he took this project further, reaching out to all the fragrance houses around the world instead. So eager were they to be part of this project that Johnsen promptly received 120 fragrance sample bottles… but none lived up to his standards.
“I was in panic mode and decided to walk through all the stores in New York and London with Bettina Bamberger, vice-president of global marketing for Graff’s Fragrances, to see what’s available in the market,” he recalled.
They noticed that the fragrances, whether mass, prestige or niche, either smelled the same or lacked identity. He held on to that thought and did further research on fragrances and the Graff brand, before deciding to knock on the doors of the fragrance houses once again.
This time, he received almost 70 submissions before narrowing the list down to 20. He then whittled the selections further down to 10. Next, he had intimate discussions with the respective noses for each and was successful in finally picking out four unique fragrances for Graff.
Just when he thought this arduous task of fragrance selection was over, he received two phone calls begging him to consider last-minute submissions. He was apprehensive at first but finally relented, as he thought that it was possible that they could add value to the current fragrance quartet.
At first whiff, he was blown away by how much depth these new submissions brought to the table. “These two new entries not only embodied the Graff brand, but also were able to elevate the existing collection with their unique qualities,” Johnsen says.
One of two, was eventually launched as the Lesedi La Rona II.
This group of six scents was eventually given the green light by Graff’s management and was set to be released globally, starting with an exclusive launch at Harrods in London back in March 2020. That very same day, America mandated the return of its citizens due to COVID-19, thwarting the initial plan of global outreach.
It was disappointing, but the brand decided to continue with sales in Harrods.
Fast forward to a year later, it was discovered that during the pandemic, the Lesedi La Rona fragrance collection had risen to become among the top three highest-selling fragrances in the London store, making the extra work put in to overcoming the initial setbacks all worth it.
This spelled good news for both Interparfum Inc and Graff, but has this venture supported society in any way especially during unprecedented times?
No Stone Left Unturned
Johnsen insists that the ingredients sourced for this fragrance collection are nothing short of luxurious and of the highest quality. The famously painstaking methods to obtain extracts from ingredients such as orris root, Vietnamese oud and jasmine, among others, are responsible for the high price tag on this collection’s fragrances. But Johnsen did not turn a blind eye to businesses and causes that required support.
Take for example the pink peppercorn extract used in Lesedi La Rona I. Johnsen reached out to farms in the Amazon Valley in Brazil to support their efforts in reforestation.
Also, the Sichuan peppercorns used in Lesedi La Rona II were not only harvested during the optimum period of the year but sorted by the Laboratoire Monique Rémy (LMR) Foundation, one of the leading quality-control organisations in perfumery that advocates sustainability.
Through Lesedi La Rona III, Johnsen supported a female-run business in Grasse, France, that supplies the highest-quality roses exclusively for the brand.
Ingredients such as vanilla beans, ylang ylang and clove are supplied by a community of farms on Nosy Be island of Madagascar. Not only did the brand commit to buying and growing crops there, it also built schools and hospitals to provide education and medical assistance to support the community.
There has been news buzzing around the pending arrivals of Lesedi La Rona VII and VIII — which Johnsen has confirmed. He further revealed that the eighth fragrance in the collection will feature Oriental ingredients that are light yet luxurious, hopefully catering to an Asian sensibility.
The fragrance is slated to be released around Lunar New Year 2022.
Graff’s Lesedi La Rona fragrance collection retails at $473 for 100ml. Available at Graff boutiques and Amaris Beauty.