Leaving South Africa to immigrate to Australia wasn’t an easy decision for Des Miller and his sons’ Lonn, Craig and Glenn – after all they had worked hard for years to build up the family’s diamond wholesale business and did not want to leave it behind.
However, like many before them, the Millers felt that South Africa no longer offered them a safe future, so they began the process of “closing down” their business and relocating to a “new life” in Sydney.
Lonn, the eldest son, moved first in 1996. Newly married at the time, his decision to immigrate was made easier by the fact that he had already holidayed in the city where his parents-in-law had migrated 18 months earlier, and had “fallen in love” with it.
Des followed with his wife Margot and second son Craig in 1998 and was joined by his youngest son Glenn in 1999, following the completion of his university degree.
Since their staggered arrivals, the Millers have worked together to re-build Miller Diamonds: the company is still not as “big” as it was in South Africa but it has certainly made a “big” impact on the Australian market in a relatively short time.
Des began his working life as a diamond cutting apprentice in a Johannesburg factory in 1965.
“I always had a passion/fascination with diamonds,” he recalls, “so when I turned 16 and had to go to work because my father had passed away I got a job in what was then probably the best diamond cutting factory in South Africa.”
After learning to cut diamonds “perfectly” and completing his five-year apprenticeship he left the factory to start trading diamonds.
“In 1971 I left the bench with virtually no money and went out and started trading; I was ambitious and didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working on the factory floor.
“Fortunately I was quite successful and managed to build up a substantial dealings business.”
In 1980 Des’s ambitions changed direction again and he moved backed into the manufacturing sector; he bought a “small factory with 20 employees” and became a De Beers sight holder.
“I always wanted to achieve everything I could achieve in the diamond industry and create a great future for me and my family.
“In those days the diamond businesses in South Africa were primarily family businesses – a cutting business was normally handed down from one generation to the next and that’s the opportunity I wanted to create for my family.”
Des’s factory gradually increased in size until he was employing around 250 people and had begun a joint venture exporting diamonds with the Tache Diamond Company (then one of the top diamond manufacturing and distribution companies in the world).
As his business grew Des “got more involved in the industry”.
“I always felt I would like to put back in the industry if I could so I joined the Diamond Club of South Africa and the Master Diamond Cutters Association of South Africa.”
In the years that followed Des’s commitment to the industry grew even further with active roles in several industry bodies such as the Jewellery Council of South Africa, the South African Diamond Board, the Master Diamond Cutters Association, the International Diamond Manufacturers Association (IDMA) of which he became vice president, the De Beers Carat Club and the World Federation of Diamond Bourses (WFDB).
“I was kept pretty busy,” he says.
Meanwhile Des’s ambition to create a family business was being realised.
“I grew up in the diamond business,” explains Lonn.
“My earliest memories are of the diamond factory and the way it smelled and looked and sounded.
“I used to come into the factory to help out during the school holidays but dad never pushed me to join the business.
“When I went to university I did a finance degree and thought I might look at a career in merchant banking but after just one job interview I thought ‘there is no way I can do anything except work with diamonds’ – the very next day I told dad ‘I want to come work in the factory’.
“Dad welcomed me into the business but his philosophy was that I had to start from the beginning of the diamond manufacturing process and learn the whole process all the way through otherwise nobody in the trade would really respect me …
“I put on a pair of overalls and learned how to cut diamonds like everyone else in the factory.
Craig started an apprenticeship in the factory three years later.
Although the family business was growing, the dramatically changing political situation in South Africa was becoming an increasing cause for concern for all the Millers.
“I had been robbed three times in one year and Lonn had been hijacked in his car,” recalls Des.
“We all knew that we had to get out of the country but it was still very hard to leave as I had put all this work and effort in my business and had built up very strong relationships in the industry…”
After many discussions with his wife and sons, Des sold a large share of his factory to the Tache Diamond Company and followed Lonn to Sydney
New life in Oz
Shortly after settling in Sydney, Lonn began trading diamonds.
“When I arrived here there wasn’t a cutting industry for me to work in so I just took a parcel of diamonds and went on the road to establish a customer database,” he says.
“I literally just knocked on doors, introduced myself, and slowly began to build up relationships.”
When Des and Craig arrived 18 months later they too started working for the new Miller Diamonds.
“The majority of the diamonds that were being sold in Australia at the time were not the well cut quality diamonds we were used to; they were predominantly cheaper cut diamonds from India and Israel,” says Lonn.
“This presented us with a great opportunity. It would have been much more difficult for us to establish our business if the market was already filled with high quality diamonds.
“We introduced the first GIA certification into the country and spent a lot of our time educating clients about our cut of diamonds – the ‘ideal cut’ – which had a GIA certification of ‘Ex Ex’ for polish and symmetry.”
Meanwhile Des was inspired to turn the company’s ‘hearts and arrows’ diamonds, which had been created in its South Africa factory, to a brand.
“It took about three years to perfect the ‘hearts and arrows’ cut,” says Des. “It was beyond the pinnacle of the ‘ideal cut’ – not just any cutter could cut it.
“A few years after the launch of the brand the GIA introduced a cut grade into their certification system so our diamonds immediately qualified for a 3 times excellent grade (polish, symmetry and cut) – officially making them the most perfect diamonds available.
“We named the new brand ‘Passion8 Diamonds’ as we are so passionate about these perfect diamonds which have eight hearts and arrows each.”
Miller Diamonds followed the successful launch of Passion8 diamonds in 2001 with a Passion 8 jewellery collection in 2008.
Des, Lonn, Craig and Glenn all admit that it has been a challenge to re-establish Miller Diamonds in Australia but are nonetheless proud of their success.
“We are also proud of the fact that we have changed the mindset of retailers and through the retailers, the diamond buying consumer,” says Des.
“Before we introduced GIA certification into Australia, most people didn’t ask for a certificate when buying a diamond.
“In addition as a regular advertiser in all media Passion8 has become a well known and trusted brand bringing diamond awareness to the consumer.
“Passion8 diamond advertising brings customers to diamond jewellery retailers – even those that are not Passion8 stockists.”