The “King of Diamonds”, Harry Winston (b. 1896 – d. 1978) was a hard-headed businessman and a fanatical gem-collector. The American jeweler famous for his acquisition and possession of several of the world’s most spectacular gems, Winston’s various collections were once rivaled only by the British Crown Jewels. For more than half a century, the “King of Diamonds” made headlines with his purchases and his drive to educate the public with knowledge and appreciation of fine gems.
The third son born to Jacob and Jeanette (Harvimen) Winston, Harry was born into the family jewelry business on March 1, 1896 in Manhattan. At the time of Harry’s birth, Jacob Winston was operating a jewelry retail and repair shop on the upper West Side of New York City. When Harry was seven, his mother died and his father made the decision to move the family to California. Young Harry helped his father for the next several years in the jewelry shop Jacob opened in the heart of the Los Angeles business district.
Harry quit school at the age of fifteen and continued to work for his father until their return to New York City three years later. In 1914 when Harry was eighteen years old, his father opened another jewelry store on St. Nicholas Avenue in upper Manhattan. After Jacob’s death in 1929, Harry ventured out on his own and began to buy and sell in the New York Diamond Exchange.
At only nineteen years old, Harry Winston started his own firm, the Premier Diamond Company. The firm opened in 1916 and was located at 535 Fifth Avenue in New York City. With backing from the New Netherlands Bank of New York, Winston began to bid on estate collections that he in turn refurbished and sold for profit. His early estate purchases included the collections left by mining tycoon B.J. Baldwin and The Gary jewels which he purchased from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Gary jewels included the famous pear-shaped Lord Dudley pearl.
In 1932, Harry Winston reorganized and formed the firm, Harry Winston, Inc. He married Edna Fleischman on February 10, 1933 and together they had two sons, Ronald and Bruce who eventually went into business with their father.
In 1935, Winston made headlines when he purchased the 726-carat Jonker stone, one of the world’s largest diamonds. It had been discovered in South Africa in 1934 and was still rough when he bought it. It remained rough until early 1937, when it became the first major diamond to be cut in the United States. Winston kept the largest Jonker diamond (125-carats) in his collection for fourteen years before it was sold to King Farouk of Egypt.
Within the next ten years, Harry Winston acquired two more important uncut diamonds, the 726.6-carat Vargas and the 155-carat Liberator. Although his involvement with new stones brought his name to the forefront of the gem industry, his interest in acquiring estate jewelry never ceased. In 1949, Winston paid an estimated $1,500,000.00 for the late Evalyn Walsh McLean’s jewelry collection. This collection contained the 44.5-carat Hope Diamond.
The Hope Diamond, shrouded in mystery and legend, was once owned by King Louis XIV and is mounted in a pendant with sixteen white diamonds surrounding it and attached to a necklace chain consisting of forty-five diamonds. Winston used it as the showcase piece in his 1949 tour “The Court of Jewels,” and then later donated it to the Smithsonian in 1958. The Hope Diamond remains one of the museum’s most visited exhibits.
Harry Winston bought several famous jewels from estate collections, including the 72-carat Idol’s Eye Diamond, the 337-carat Catherine the Great sapphire, the Earl of Dudley emerald necklace, and the 1,240-gem Westminster tiara. Winston’s love and respect for the history of each of the jewels was legendary. He was scorned by some due to his refusal to improve upon the historic jewels by recutting, even if it might enhance the gem. His honoring of the stones’ tradition and history earned him respect in the diamond industry.
In 1953, Harry Winston purchased a rough diamond weighing 154.5-carats. This diamond when cut into a single pear-shaped stone, would be named for the “King of Diamonds.” The Winston diamond weighed in at 62.5-carats and was one of Winston’s favorite stones.
Harry Winston’s firm continued to be a world leader in retail diamond, jewelry and watch sales throughout the next two decades. The company began lending actresses and celebrities with its jewels in 1943, when it outfitted actress Jennifer Jones her jewelry for the Academy Awards. Harry Winston, Inc. now lends $200 million worth of jewels to celebrities each year. This sharing keeps the Winston name in the eye of the public while the stars get to sparkle for free. As Winston once stated, “People will stare. Make it worth their while.”
Harry Winston died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-two in his Manhattan home on December 8, 1978. His legacy lives on in what is now the world’s largest publicly traded diamond company. The Harry Winston Diamond Corporation, formerly known as the Aber Diamond Corporation debuted on the New York Stock Exchange on November 19, 2007 under the ticker symbol “HWD.” Harry Winston Incorporated is still headquartered in New York City and operates eighteen retail salons worldwide.
The flowing designs created by the “King of Diamonds” will be appreciated for several generations. The legacy of Harry Winston and his truly innovative creations will continue to shine timeless like the fire in his diamonds.