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“Jewels are more than my love and my life; they are an insatiable obsession.” Harry Winston was frequently referred to as the ‘King of Diamonds’ and with good reason – it is estimated that over a third of the world’s most important diamonds have, at some point, passed through his hands.
Harry Winston (1896 – 1978) was born in New York at the end of the 19th Century after his parents left Ukraine to start a new life in America. His father ran a jewellery workshop and it was here that the young Harry learnt a love of jewellery and admiration of fine stones. A popular story told of Harry is that aged just twelve he spotted a ring in the junk tray at a local pawnbroker which, far from being junk, was in fact set with a 2ct emerald. He bought the ring for 25 cents and sold the emerald two days later for $800. It was this keen eye and entrepreneurial spirit that would eventually ensure that the name Harry Winston would be synonymous the world over with exceptional gems and world class jewellery.
In 1916, Winston used $2,000 of his own savings to open his first company, the Premier Diamond Company. He began by buying and selling diamonds but after a few years he started to buy up unfashionable antique jewellery from auctions, re-set the stones into contemporary styles and then sell them on at a substantial profit. By 1925 he was successful enough to be able to buy the jewellery collection of heiress Rebecca Darlington Stoddard for $1 million – this was to prove the first of many significant purchases. In 1932 Winston closed down this company and started Harry Winston Inc. The business went from strength to strength with the focus still on the acquisition and re-setting of beautiful gems. Three years later he bought the 726ct Jonker diamond (the 7th largest rough diamond on record) and amidst huge publicity he had the gem cut in New York into twelve polished diamonds, the subsequent sale of which earned him in excess of a million dollars profit – as well as international fame. This set the tone for the following years during which Winston purchased some of the most important jewellery, diamonds and coloured gems in the world including the infamous Hope diamond (subsequently donated to the Smithsonian Institution) , the Catherine the Great sapphire, the Napoleon diamond necklace of 1811 and the Indore Pear diamonds.
Despite his huge success, or perhaps because of it, Winston was a very private man. He married his wife Edna in 1933 and they went on to have two sons, Ronald and Bruce, who would eventually inherit the business. He refused to be photographed publicly, the only glimpse of him being the famous image of his hand cradling a selection of the exceptional gems in his collection. His love of gemstones extended far beyond their monetary value and it was something he wanted to share with as many people as possible. So in 1949 he organised an exhibition of some of his most precious and important gems called ‘The Court of Jewels’ which spent the next four years touring the States raising money for local charities. In 1952 Life magazine reported that Harry Winston owned the second largest collection of historic jewels in the world, superseded only by that of the British Royal family.
In 1953 Winston was immortalised by Marilyn Monroe in the song ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ from the hit movie ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. Three years later, the first international store was opened in Geneva followed by another in Paris in 1957. In 1960 the New York flagship relocated to 718 Fifth Avenue where it remains today housing not only the client showrooms but also the design studio and archives. Harry Winston jewellery has been bought and worn by some of the most famous and glamorous women in the world including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor. He was also the first jeweller to lend pieces to an actress to wear for an award ceremony, when in 1944 he loaned diamond jewels to Jennifer Jones for the Academy Awards. Today of course his jewellery often appears at red carpet events and is seen on stars such as Julia Roberts, Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Winston’s attitude towards jewellery design was to allow the stones to take centre stage, the setting enhancing the beauty of the gems and not competing with them, hence his jewellery has always been classic, timeless and elegant. Harry Winston passed away in 1978 leaving his wife in charge of the business. After her death it passed to their two sons and today it is owned by the Swatch Group.