It’s officially engagement season—40 percent of couples get engaged between November and February, according to WeddingWire—and the world’s most brilliant diamonds might be found just outside the Loop.
That’s where, on the 18th floor of a nondescript Sharpstown office complex, you’ll find Brian Gavin Diamonds.
“When you think of the diamond business … you would think India, Antwerp, New York, Tel Aviv,” says Brian “The Cutter” Gavin, the bespectacled man behind the eponymous company who’s something of a celebrity in the biz, as evidenced by one customer who won’t leave without a selfie. “You don't think of Houston as being the center of the world's finest made goods.”
Yet this southwest corner of the city was the backdrop to Gavin’s pioneering business, one of the first to take diamond sales online in the late ‘90s and the architect of the hearts and arrows system, an internationally recognized way to grade a diamond’s cut based on its facets and mathematical proportions for light performance—in layman's terms, the most sparkly stones.
“We are unique in what we do because most people walk into a jewelry store and buy a diamond, and they don't know what they're buying,” Gavin says. “We set certain standards which I think definitely influenced a lot of the industry across the world. What is a diamond? It's a crystal, it's a prism, and it needs to be optimized for light return. All diamonds sparkle, but some are going to sparkle a lot better.”
In true Houston fashion, Gavin’s success story is that of the gumptious immigrant. It begins in South Africa, where his grandfather—already an accomplished diamond cutter—went to teach his craft, leaving Amsterdam before the start of World War II. “That’s why I’m here to tell the tale,” Gavin says. “Seventy members of his family were all murdered in the Holocaust—nobody was left alive.”
Gavin grew up in the family business and eventually met his wife, Dana, who’d moved to South Africa after enduring Zimbabwe’s civil war. Her family lost everything when they left, Gavin says, and things were only marginally better in South Africa, where apartheid still existed. By the time the couple had their first son, Danny, they knew they didn’t want to raise a family in Africa.
So, they set their sights on the states, despite having no familial ties here—save for one of Dana’s aunts, a headhunter nearly 9,000 miles away in a city called Houston.
“I said, ‘let's go,’” Gavin recalls. “‘It sounds like a nice place. It's not big like New York, it's not crazy like Los Angeles, it's not over-burdensome and cold like Chicago.’ And we came, and I love Houston. It's a small town in a big city.”
The young family settled around their synagogue in southwest Houston and have remained there for 35 years. Straight away, Gavin turned to what he knew best: diamonds. He got into the wholesale business before founding a company with friends that went on to meet a messy end. He left until, “by sheer popular demand,” he reemerged with a new business under his personal name, earning $1.2 million in sales off a blog in the first nine months.
The advent of the world wide web informed the trajectory of Gavin’s company as he became an early adopter of e-commerce, going on to double and triple sales during the internet’s infancy.
“People say to me, How can you buy on the internet? Well, how can you not buy on the internet?” he says. “Everything is open to abuse in life, and there will always be criminals who want to take advantage of situations. The digital world, yes, it is changing life, and it is changing society ... but I don't think you can hold it back.”
Though he rebuffs the “visionary” qualifier, Gavin admits he saw opportunity where others didn’t. “I think life is always about timing: Are you in the right place at the right time? And do you work on those opportunities and take them?” he says. “That was something I did. I just saw it happening.”
It paid off, and a bulk of the company’s sales—all around the world—still come from online. In fact, you’ll hear more typing than anything else in the “call center,” where Dana and a handful of other diamond specialists engage with customers the way they did in the early years on ICQ Chat.
The cavernous office space thrums with activity, each room dedicated to a slice of the business from wax casting to detailed photography. One drizzly September day, workers meticulously placed dozens of tiny stones in a flashy band Gavin revealed was commissioned by a top Sony executive.
He’s also behind the art-deco inspired 810 Collection, named for the 8.10-carat center stone of the principal piece; patented emerald cuts; and a series of “nightclub diamonds” that shine blue under UV light. Then there’s the pièce de résistance: a three-stone cushion cut replica of Meghan Markle’s engagement ring.
“We are the pinnacle of what there is available in a sparkly stone. It’s very well-priced in relation to other stones on the market, but you pay for that you get,” says Gavin. “There’s no free lunch.”
Especially given that everything—even from the catalogue—is bespoke. A customer can work with Gavin to materialize the ring of their dreams (like the Anita Halo, a top-selling BGD design originally made for, wait for it, Anita) or choose an existing model to be custom-fit to the stone—and finger—of choice.
“I always tell them, this is not an instant pudding,” Gavin says.
Take, for instance, a custom $500,000 graduated diamond necklace a client commissioned for his daughter’s wedding day. “We had six weeks to do it, which was a miracle,” Gavin says. “It was the most amazing piece; it was the most energetic high that I’ve ever been on. But it was the biggest anticlimax. When I finished, I sat with it rolled up in my hand and I said, that’s half a million dollars?”
It’s an intimate job, too, crafting the heirlooms for special moments, from engagements to anniversaries to what Gavin facetiously calls “farewell presents.” He swipes through photos on his cell phone to find one dazzling diamond piece, a recent $250,000 creation for an elderly woman who’d lost her engagement ring.
“It was special,” he says. “It's a sort of a bloated thing to say, but we do make the finest diamonds in the world. In our small space, in the geek space of the diamond performance world, we are known for that.”