Throughout his life, American jeweler Harry Winston was synonymous with the glamor of mid-20th century’s Hollywood royalty and heads of state – and rightly so. He led a rich and varied life and had a keen eye for precious gems and innovative design. The Duchess of Windsor made a point of visiting him in New York, Jackie Onassis sported a Winston diamond engagement ring, and Richard Burton gifted a pear-shaped diamond, purchased from Winston, for his wife Elizabeth Taylor. In 1947, Cosmopolitan magazine bestowed him with a moniker that followed him throughout his storied career: the King of Diamonds. He was so celebrated in his day that even Marilyn Monroe sang his praises in ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’.
King of diamonds
Born in 1896, Harry Winston worked at his father’s jewelry store in New York, showing a remarkable aptitude for the craft from the beginning. When he was just 12 years old, he spotted a green stone in a neighbourhood pawn shop going for just 25 cents; a few days later he sold it for $800 – it turned out to a two-carat emerald. Soon after, the family moved to Los Angeles and Winston left school at 15 to join the business.
“I love the diamond business. It’s a Cinderella world. It has everything! People! Drama! Romance! Precious stones! Speculation! Excitement! What more could you want?”
In 1920, Winston returned to New York City to open his first enterprise, the Premier Diamond Company, when he was just 24 years old. With a sharp eye for fine gemstones, he started to acquire entire jewelry collections at estate sales. His first jewelry collection belonged to Arabella Huntington, the wife of the railroad magnate Henry Huntington; she had a famous collection, mostly from Paris maisons such as Cartier. Winston, who bought her collection for $1.2 million, went on to prove his craft – and business – skills by redesigning the old-fashioned pieces into modern styles, which were snapped up by high-society customers.
“Each diamond has a different nature. Each diamond must be handled the way you handle a person.”
By 1932 he could afford to expand operations even further. He opened Harry Winston Inc., selling modern pieces rendered in exquisitely detailed platinum. He was known to hire classically trained artists to work as designers, because Winston felt that they truly understood what brought fine jewelry to life. The company’s philosophy – that the diamond should dictate the design, and that their natural brilliance should take the lead – is still espoused by the maison today.
Harry Winston owned many fine gems, often travelling across the world to acquire those on which he set his heart. In 1952, Life Magazine reported that he owned the world’s second largest collection of historic jewels. For context, the largest belonged to the British royal family. Although shrewd, he was purportedly infamous for ignoring sensible security measures. He could often be found with a multi-million dollar diamond in his pocket, and it is fabled that he once posted the 726-carat Jonker diamond in the mail.
But Winston also used his wealth to support worthy causes. Between 1949 and 1953, he took his most precious jewels – including the Hope diamond, the Star of the East and the Jonker – on tour across the US. The exhibition, called “The Court of Jewels”, raised large sums for local charities.
Harry Wilson passed away in 1978, leaving the company to his two sons, Ronald and Bruce. In 2000, Ronald bought Bruce out for $54.1 million. In 2013, Harry Winston Inc was sold to the Swatch Group of Switzerland but Harry’s legacy lives on in the company that still bears his name. His salons can still found the world, from the famous flagship on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to London, Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai.
Important Harry Winston gems and designs
Some of the most famous stones to be owned by Winston include the 726-carat Jonker, a rough stone that Winston split into 13 diamonds. The blue-tinged, white diamond was named for the prospector Jacobus Jonker after the stone was found in 1934 in South Africa. The Briolette, which once crowned a Maharaja’s headpiece is fabled to be the oldest diamond on record – worn by royalty and finally bought, then sold, then repurchased by Winston.
The Hope Diamond/Taylor-Burton diamond
In 1949, Winston acquired the famous 45.52-carat Hope diamond. Found in India, the heart-shaped blue diamond was a centerpiece of the crown jewels of pre- revolutionary France. In 1958, Winston donated the Hope diamond to the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains on permanent display. The diamond, commonly known as the Taylor-Burton diamond, is a flawless 69.42 carat pear-shaped stone. It was bought by Richard Burton for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor.
The Winston Cluster
Apart from being a connoisseur of stones, Harry Winston also had artistic vision. In the 1940s, he was inspired by snowflakes twinkling on a holly wreath – the dazzling display gave him the idea for a design that became known as the Winston Cluster motif.
His in-house designers, led by Nevdon Koumrouyan, drafted a design under Harry’s direction – pear-shaped, marquise, and round brilliant diamonds were grouped together and angled in such as way as to capture their brilliance and sparkle from every direction. The method and motif have proven to be timeless, and continue to inform the sculptural designs for which the maison in known to this day, including the Lily Cluster, a more affordable variation featuring pave diamonds.
Harry Winston Inc. holds a vast design archive, home to more than 100,000 drawings and sketches, the details from which continue to inform new collections.
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