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October 14, 2009

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Multi-faceted diamond man

DEREK Palmer markets diamond baubles to rich young Chinese - and in his other life he helps Bangladeshi orphans and destitute women. Xu Wei reports. For most of his life, Derek Palmer has been accustomed to a culture that rewards personal achievement with personal bonuses, a culture in which status is important.

But ever since his affinity with China began about 20 years ago, he has found it refreshing to experience a much more balanced approach to life, where it is traditionally as important to reward society as the individual.

"I was born in London and am a Westerner obviously, but I can't deny the influence of Chinese culture on my life and career over the past decades," Palmer says. "Chinese people seem to be much more aware of people around them and work more as a society than as individuals."

Palmer, 62, used to be De Beers' global market research manager and regional director for the Asia Pacific for the world's leading diamond company. Now he is global marketing director for Pluczenik, one of the world's leading diamantaires (craftsmen who cut, polish and transform rough stones into jewels) in Antwerp, Belgium.

Palmer was so polished and impeccable when he recently attended the opening of a flagship store of QBT diamond center on Shanghai's Huaihai Road that at first it was difficult to associate him with his other life - one far removed from selling high-end baubles.

He and his wife Pat Kerr MBE initiated and manage the Sreepur Women & Children's Village, 64 kilometers north of the capital city of Dhaka, in rural Bangladesh for more than 800 destitute women and children. This has been their passion for around 20 years.

"My wife now lives in rural Bangladesh, she is the only white woman in about 8,000 square kilometers," Palmer says proudly. "It is not something she necessarily started off thinking she would do, but fate comes and you have just to see it through."

Palmer jokes that they have a "strange" marriage as they have to meet where they can and his wife has to return to Bangladesh to run the project.

"It is not an easy lifestyle," he says. "So while a diamond ring represents a fantastic lifestyle making you feel brilliant, we have the other ring and connection - trying to run an orphanage.

"We are both very happy with our lives and feel we have been very fortunate and lucky to have done what we have."

Palmer first visited Shanghai more than 20 years ago and has been returning frequently ever since. Annually he spends several months in Shanghai.

In the city, he says, he appreciates that life is a balance between individual desire and social responsibility. Chinese culture is also about caring for each other as a group, he says, and this strengthens his commitment to charity work.

"There is no end to personal desire," says the man who sells diamonds. "Once you have bought a car you want a better one; once you have a better one you want two cars and so on."

You can work all your life and never be satisfied, Palmer observes. "When I was a student years ago I had little money but I had a fantastic time. So money plays an important role, but we should never pursue material things to the detriment of other pursuits. Enjoy nature. Enjoy life. Enjoy being active."

As a veteran marketing director in the diamond trade, Palmer understands the lure of diamonds, "a girl's best friend."

Since Chinese culture also values material things - and there are more and more newly rich and aspiring Chinese - Palmer and other De Beers senior executives together introduced the phrase "A Diamond Is Forever" in the late 1980s.

There was virtually no diamond jewelry in the shops back then, diamonds were a completely new thing. To promote diamonds to the Chinese market, Palmer and his colleagues rode bicycles from one jeweler to the next.

"Today there is huge energy in the market and nearly every Chinese bride in Shanghai has a diamond wedding ring," Palmer says. "China is set to be the No. 1 market in the world. This is quite an incredible achievement in such a small span of time."

In Palmer's eyes, Shanghai culture is the most sophisticated in China. Women in Shanghai always want to feel fashionable and distinctive in their style and diamonds will play an increasing role in the following five years.

There is still some misunderstandings about diamonds, he says - people used to only buy high-quality diamonds.

"Try not to get too focused on the specific grading but look at the stone and see if you love it," Palmer suggests. "All diamonds are beautiful so buy one that fits your budget and looks good in the ring you have chosen. Let the diamond talk to you."

In their leisure time, when they can seize it, Palmer and his wife enjoy sailing and the sense of freedom and being close to nature.

"The oceans are such a valuable natural resource and we need to look after our environment better," he says.

Palmer is looking forward to next year's World Expo in Shanghai and he wants to take in more performances of traditional Chinese operas.

"New York and my hometown London are both old cities but they still have energy," he says. "Shanghai is a fascinating young city, full of energy, excitement and changes and surprises." Derek Palmer

Nationality: British

Age: 62

Profession: Global marketing director for Pluczenik Diamond Co



Energetic, adventurous, curious

Favorite place:

The Bund.

Worst experience:

A dish of chicken feet.

Strangest sight:

Street food vendors.

Motto for life:

Win-win forever.

How to improve Shanghai:

Shanghai needs to have more green plants and trees.

Advice to newcomers:

Don't sleep in case you miss the splendid night views and fun of the city.


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