WHEN DE BEERS sent its top marketing man Stephen Lussier to China in the 1990s, motorways were being built by oxen. There were only three jewellery shops in the country (used by ambassador's wives) and no cars, except the one he was in.
China is now the world's second largest diamond market, behind the US. But the story may only be half true. From London to Israel, sources in the diamond trade are unanimous on one thing: Stephen Lussier is “one of the greatest salesmen of all times.”
Largely unknown in mining circles, in the diamond market, Lussier is big news. He has been the brains behind De Beers' marketing operations for nearly 25 years and a key link between the company and the Oppenheimer family, who sold out in 2011. He is also tipped by some as an eligible successor to the group's current chief executive, Philippe Mellier, widely seen as on his way out.
This week, Lussier was named chairman of the DPA, a new club of mining companies, designed to win back the headspace of consumers, after a 20-year loss of marketshare to other luxury goods, from iPhones and coloured gemstones to leather handbags.
Sources inside the club say it is waiting on its first “mood boards”, to brainstorm for its first campaign. Sources outside the club say they were “embarrassed” when they saw the size of its annual budget, $6m, given the scale of its
task: to revive diamond sales amongst young consumers, in competition with the mega-budgets of Apple and Louis Vuitton.
Depending on the direction it takes, the DPA could bolster Lussier's legacy, as the best brain in the diamond business, vaulting him either into retirement, or the top job at De Beers.
“Let Her Know”
Born in Boston, the son of a doctor, Lussier studied clinical psychology, before joining ad agency NW Ayer in New York in the 1980s. Ayer was the agency behind the mass popularisation of diamonds in the 20th century, inventing the greatest slogans behind the rise of De Beers, including “A Diamond is Forever” and “She married you for richer or poorer... let her know how it's going.”
But Lussier quickly jumped across to its glitziest client, working for De Beers in London and Japan, before being promoted to head its marketing division in '93, a post he has held ever since. He is a quintessential marketing man, diamond insiders say, who never stands still and is always looking to expand De Beers into new markets. “He's like a lanky, easygoing, American kind of guy. And he sticks out because he's in England.”
Lussier is also a master of mild-mannered spin. In public, he toys with the idea that De Beers gave up its monopoly to avoid handling blood diamonds. In fact, it had traded untraceable stones for several decades, before its cartel was broken by the Russians in the early
'90s. Blood diamonds were made notorious by a human rights campaign, several years later.
But Lussier rightly recognises that for consumers, all that is irrelevant detail. What matters is emotional signalling: stimulating desires, then satiating them. Sources say that from his focus group days at NW Ayer, Lussier keeps his finger on the pulse of what consumers want to hear. “Promise”, for example, is a word he uses again and again.
“He understands the idea behind diamonds,” one large dealer says. “Diamonds are not a utilitarian commodity. That does not mean that they are not important. The need for human beings to communicate emotions is as much a need as, I don't know, I wouldn't say drinking water, but it's a close second.”
Lussier's own wedding in '96 (to Anthony Oppenheimer's daughter) was straight out of a 1990s social calender, with loud ties, reckless dancing and a photographer from Tatler. Skiing and sailing are his favourite pursuits and he has dropped American football in favour of rugby and cricket. Who better to understand the aspirations of a diamond buyer, in his mid-to-late fifties?
South African banking sources say De Beers' former chairman, Nicky Oppenheimer, tried to appoint his son Jonathan as CEO in 2010, but the move was blocked by Anglo American, who appointed Philippe Mellier instead, after a long hiatus period. Within months, the Oppenheimer