So many times, I hear actors on the red carpet gush about their jewelry, and then the name – Harry Winston. He seems responsible for decking out a ton of Hollywood ladies and I got to wondering – who is this guy?!
So, it turns out Harry Winston is not actually alive anymore. His company is still around, though, and that’s what people are referring to. The man himself died in 1978.
During his lifetime, he was called the “King of Diamonds” and the “Jeweler to the Stars.” He understood the value of using Hollywood glamour to sell diamonds, and diamonds were his specialty. More on that in a bit….
You’ve probably come across some of Harry’s quotes on Pinterest. The most popular one I’ve seen is:
“People will stare, make it worth their while”
Which is a good one. But he also said:
“If I could, I would attach diamonds directly onto a woman’s skin”
I’m not sure how I feel about that one….
A story of an emerald
When I was doing my research about Harry, I kept coming across the same story. It goes something like this: Harry is a kid of 10 or 12. He sees a green stone (or green ring?) in a pawn shop and buys it for a quarter. Turns out it’s a two carat emerald! He sells it later for $800. The story is meant to emphasize that early on, Harry had a real eye for good quality gemstones.
Harry was a typical New Yorker, a second generation immigrant who worked in his father’s jewelry shop. Sadly, his mother passed away when he was just seven, and the entire family moved out to California. But Harry couldn’t stay away from New York, and at 15, he quit school and headed back east.
Harry the collector
Harry started his first company, the Premier Diamond Company, in 1920. He got diamonds by trolling estate sales, and buying up entire jewelry collections. Lots of times, the jewelry was cheap because the settings looked (or were) old, dated, and seriously unfashionable. Harry didn’t care. He just wanted the gemstones.
Harry would re-cut the stones and put them in a different setting, ones that really showcased the gem. Then he sold them. For a profit. He did well enough at this that he could spend $1 million to buy the jewelry collection of Rebecca Darlington Stoddard, an heiress from Pittsburgh. Not too shabby! Just a year later, he was able to pay $2 million for the jewelry collection of Arabella Huntington, once known as the “richest woman in America.”
Harry become a household name when he purchased the jewels of mining tycoon B.J. “Lucky” Baldwin in 1930. This was because the collection included a massive 39 carat emerald-cut diamond, the largest ever sold a public auction, and a 26 carat ruby. From this point forward, people starting paying attention to Harry Winston.
Diamonds are the star
Harry wanted to sell his own jewelry line, so he started Harry Winston, Inc. in 1932. His motto was “only the exceptional,” and he went to great lengths to acquire incredible large and beautiful diamonds. One of his first purchases was the Jonker diamond. Discovered in 1934 in South Africa, it was an astonishing 726 carats, uncut. He bought it, had it tour the United States publicly, and then cut it into twelve amazing diamonds. The largest one was still 125 carats – WOW!
Next, Harry purchased a 726 carat diamond from Brazil called the Vargas diamond. And later, he paid $1.5 million to get the famous 45 carat Hope diamond as part the Evalyn Walsh McLean estate auction. (If you’re curious about the Hope diamond, read my blog post about it here.)
Harry wanted the public to look at all these gorgeous gems, so he had all the famous diamonds he’d collected tour the US in something called “the Court of Jewels,” with the proceeds going to charity. By 1952, Harry’s collection of gems was second only to the British Royal Family. And they even bought gems from him!
Harry developed a reputation for using a light setting to showcase large, brilliant diamonds. He also mixed sizes and shapes.
Harry & Hollywood
Harry was a guy who was savvy about marketing. He was the first guy to loan diamonds to celebrities for the red carpet. Jennifer Jones wore Harry’s diamonds in 1944 when she won for Best Actress. Then Katherine Hepburn wore a stunning necklace in 1947.
Before long, all the celebrities wanted to wear Harry’s diamonds on the red carpet. It’s a tradition that continues. If you want to make a statement, wear Harry Winston. Today, nearly everyone has worn Harry’s diamonds on the red carpet – Halle Berry, Gwenyth Paltrow, Adele, Sophia Loren, Scarlett Johansson…. the list goes on and on.
Harry Winston Today
Harry got so famous in his lifetime that he became a recluse, and refused to be photographed after 1960. But he clearly loved the beauty of gems, and wanted to share them with the world. He made major donations to the Smithsonian Museum – the Hope diamond in 1958, the Portuguese diamond in 1963, and the Oppenheimer in 1964. The Hope diamond remains a major attraction for Smithsonian, and if you’re ever in Washington, DC, I highly recommend going to see it!
Harry Winston died in 1978, and his company was passed on to his two sons, Ron and Bruce. They squabbled for years over the company, but now it’s owned entirely by Ron. The company has moved into timepieces and has stores all over the world. They are still known for one of kind gems and settings, and have famous clients to prove it.
When I was doing all this research about Harry, I thought he lived a charmed life. He seemed to agreeing, saying,
“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?”