Icons of Jewelry Design: Harry Winston

Icons of Jewelry Design: Harry Winston

Brief History of Harry Winston

Harry Winston was born in New York in 1896. He was exposed to the workings of his father’s jewelry shop from a young age. He bought his first emerald in 1908 for 25 cents and two days later sold it for $800 at the age of 12. Harry Winston who had grown up learning the business in his father’s small jewelry shop on New York’s West Side. Harry Winston spotted a green stone among some costume jewelry in a pawn shop and recognized it as an emerald. 

Less than 20 years later, Harry Winston opened The Premier Diamond Company in 1920 on Fifth Ave. Despite his extensive knowledge, the jewelry industry was difficult to break into and his key to becoming respected proved to be estate auctions. Buying large collections of old-fashioned jewelry allowed him to amass spectacular gems that he would then re-cut and redesign for a more contemporary clientele. One of his early successes was in 1926. Harry Winston acquired the estate of Arabella Huntington for $1.2 She was a socialite and widow of a railroad tycoon who owned a hugely important collection. After having built up a thriving business, Harry Winston Inc. was founded in 1932. Harry Winston quickly established itself as the biggest name in the rarest and most exceptional jewels, especially diamonds.

Harry Winston by Eliot Elisofon, Getty Images.

Harry Winston's signature technique of the ‘cluster’ or ‘clustering’ was conceived in the 1940s. The Winston Cluster or ‘Wreath’ necklace was inspired by a holly wreath the jeweler had hung on his front door. The design featured pear, marquise and round cut diamonds hand-set at angles to maximize sparkle and the discreet platinum settings made the stones appear to float. Harry Winston boutiques were a destination from the 1950s through to the 1970s for the elite.Having made his name by sourcing and cutting extremely rare and exceptional jewels, Winston’s designs were always dictated by the stones themselves, rather than the settings.  

Harry Winston was a private man who was rarely photographed. A clause in his business insurance policy forbade him from showing his face publicly. He was famous for many idiosyncrasies. He was rumored to have carried diamonds in his pockets so he always had one near him. Harry Winston was also a vocal patron of the US Postal Service, sending stones worth millions for cents via USPS. Harry Winston event sent the the Hope Diamond via USPS for just 64 cents. His motto was "If you can't trust the United States mail, who can you trust?".

After Winston’s death in 1978, the company was left to his two sons, Ronald and Bruce. The first collection of Harry Winston watches was launched in 1989. In 2000, his son Ronald assumed control of the company.  In 2013, the Swatch Group acquired the retail arm of Harry Winston, with Nayla Hayek assuming the role of CEO. Hayek has continued Harry Winston’s legacy, adding one-of-a-kind diamonds to the Winston collection.

The Hope Diamond on display at the Smithsonian.

Harry Winston King of Diamonds

Harry Winston handled some of the world’s most famous diamonds, coloured gemstones and pieces of fine jewelry, earning himself a reputation as ‘The King of Diamonds’. It is estimated that one third of the world’s most famous diamonds passed through Winston’s hands during his career. Harry Winston's history with some of the biggest and most unusual jewels is unparalleled. In the 1950s, his collection was second only to that of the British Royal Family.

While Winston acquired many notable private collections, diamonds and gemstones, perhaps the most recognizable was the Hope Diamond, the largest-known deep blue diamond in the world. The 726 carat Jonker Diamond made headlines around the world when purchased by Harry Winston in 1935. He toured the gem around the United States as part of his Court of Jewels exhibition between 1949-1953. The nationwide tour of Harry Winston's famous jewels. The tour also included a press tour that included a photo shoot with the actress Shirley Temple wearing the Hope Diamond. In 1958, Harry Winston donated it to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. 

Other notable gems owned by Winston include the 601 carat Lesotho Diamond. Harry Winston famously cleaved the Lesotho into 18 stones on live broadcast television. One of these diamonds became Jackie Kennedy’s engagement ring when she married Aristotle Onassis. 

Collectors cherish Harry Winston jewelry for its innovative design and exceptional quality. Harry Winston emerald rings and Harry Winston diamond rings are particularly sought-after, especially Harry Winston Asscher cut rings. Harry Winston engagement rings are prized for their exceptional stones, selected from only the top color and clarity grades.

Harry Winston
Mrs. Thomas Phipps wearing the Hope Diamond lent to her by Harry Winston in New York, November 1949.

Harry Winston Jeweler to the Stars

His discerning eye and lifelong passion for precious stones led him to become one of the world’s most famous jewelers with clients including the Maharajah of Indore and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Royalty, Heads of States, Hollywood stars and business moguls were all fans from nearly the beginning. Betsy Bloomingdale, Elizabeth Taylor and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were all clients of Harry Winston. Harry Winston quickly became synonymous with glamour and was nicknamed “Jeweler to the Stars”. Harry Winston was first jeweler to lend pieces to an actress. Jennifer Jones wore Harry Winston to the 1944 Oscars. Harry Winston jewels have subsequently been worn by the likes of Helen Mirren, Viola Davis, Madonna and Regina King. Gwyneth Paltrow was wearing a Harry Winston necklace and earrings when she won her Best Actress Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love in 1999.

Gwyneth Paltrow with her Best Actress Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love at the 1999 Oscars.

Meanwhile, on screen, Harry Winston jewels have appeared in several movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, worn by Ann Bancroft in The Graduate and were perhaps most famously referenced by Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, whose musical number Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend includes the line “Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it.”

$4 million Harry Winston Diamond Fringe Necklace

Sotheby's and Harry Winston Jewelry

Sotheby's sells rare and collectible Harry Winston jewelry at auction and buy now marketplace. In 2023, Sotheby's sold a $4 million Harry Winston diamond fringe necklace featuring 177.51 carats of diamonds. The spectacular Harry Winston necklace has nine pear-shaped diamonds weighing from 14.93 to 2.04 carats, decorated with brilliant-cut and pear-shaped diamonds, mounted in platinum. This magnificent diamond necklace showcases the creativity of Harry Winston jewelry with a distinctive arrangement of diamond clusters and shaped stones of complementary sizes and remarkable brilliance.

Sotheby's Specialists are always sourcing and consigning Harry Winston jewelry so make sure to check back for additional styles. You can also contact a Jewelry Specialist if you would like to sell Harry Winston jewelry in our next auction or buy now marketplace.

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