By  on December 6, 2004

CHICAGO — Visitors to the new largest-of-its-kind Graff store in Chicago could barely contain their awe.

“It’s so jaw-dropping,” said Heather Farley, who visited the luxury jeweler on its first day of business along upscale East Oak Street here last Wednesday. “It’s absolutely breathtaking. It’s not every day you see these kinds of pieces.”

Indeed, it is not. Near the store’s entrance, the 100.57-carat Star of America diamond, along with a 45-carat pear-shaped diamond on its own $5 million necklace, greet visitors from a gleaming golden-framed mahogany display.

Just steps away is an impressive assortment of rare blue diamonds, including a 13.78-carat deep blue heart-shaped diamond ring valued at $15.45 million.

“You won’t see that anywhere else; it’s very special,” noted Henri Barguirdjian, Graff’s president in the U.S.

The jeweler believes Chicago will be a special market, as well. That’s why Graff, with two U.S. stores, in New York and Palm Beach, built its largest unit here.

Purchasing the property that once housed BCBG Max Azria, Graff tore down the building and created its own not-to-be-missed signature four-story, limestone 7,500-square-foot town home. Its marble floors, archways, winding staircase and golden-framed displays built into the stone-finish walls may at times give visitors the feeling they’ve entered an intimate, centuries-old European museum or exclusive Swiss bank.

“As soon as we started to trade in New York,” Barguirdjian said, “we encountered a vast clientele from the Midwest. We thought we could bring something that didn’t exist here, something really exceptional.”

Chicagoans agree. Graff sold a few pieces, including a $200,000 yellow diamond bracelet and a $110,000 charm bracelet, during its grand-opening party Tuesday night. It followed those sales with brisk business on its first full day of trading Wednesday, Barguirdjian said.

“It’s been nonstop,” he said, noting four sales that morning. “If everyday is like today, business will be terrific.”

The average sale in a Graff store is $200,000, Barguirdjian said, adding that most clients are not necessarily the society set or celebrities but rather private entrepreneurs and business people who enjoy collecting art and fine jewelry.“The majority of people are in their 50s,” he said. “They’re very discreet. You rarely see their names in the press.”

In turn, Graff believed Oak Street, with its “understated refinement, fit our image and our product” better than Michigan Avenue, Barguirdjian said.

Other upscale retailers such as Hermès, Prada, Tod’s, Barneys New York and Yves Saint Laurent all sit along Oak Street. Graff is almost directly across the street from Hermès, between Kate Spade and Arden B.

The prominent building possesses room for offices and two floors of about 4,000 square feet for retail and special events such as dinner parties or art presentations, Barguirdjian said. Graff’s Chicago business will be strictly retail, with Barguirdjian stating he sees little competition. But then where were its customers shopping before Graff came to town?

“Maybe Cartier or Tiffany, but it’s not really the same kind of client,” he said.

Graff’s price point ranges from $7,000 for an eternity band to $15.45 million for the rare heart-shaped blue diamond ring. Engagement rings account for roughly one-third of sales, Barguirdjian said.

In addition to opening the Chicago store, Graff plans to expand further into the U.S.,  opening a store in the Las Vegas Wynn Resort this April. Los Angeles may be the next stop for Laurence Graff, who started his business 45 years ago and now operates two stores in London as well as ones in Monte Carlo, Monaco; Courchevel, France; Moscow; Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Tokyo.

To help promote its brand in the U.S., Graff has partnered with Saks Fifth Avenue. Currently, Graff jewelry is available at nine Saks locations, in California, New York, Texas and Florida. Barguirdjian said he expects Graff’s presence to grow to 22 Saks stores, where the average sale is $35,000.

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