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Harry Winston – the man behind the diamond legend

The name Harry Winston is now synonymous with the high end jewellery manufacturer but this disguises the fact that the man behind it was born with almost nothing. His parents arrived in the United States in 1890 from the Ukraine and Harry was born on 1st March 1896 into a life that would be in stark contrast to his later years. Harry Winston started what would become a gemstone and jewellery empire from a small store in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He learned the jewellery trade from his father, Jacob Winston, and by the age of just 12 the young Harry was able to recognise a precious two carat emerald among low value stones in a local pawn shop, purchase the stone for $0.25 and immediately sell it for over $800. Thus he had shown the talent that was to make him one of America’s most successful second generation immigrants! Today the Harry Winston Inc is listed on the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) and it owns high end retail outlets around the world in addition to sizeable share in a Canadian diamond operation.

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(A signature Harry Winston Diamond & Emerald necklace)

A few years after this formative deal, Winston graduated high school and began to work for his father full time. He started by buying some stock from his father which he sold for a profit and used the capital to start his own business with $2,000 at the age of just 19. Initially he bought and sold diamonds on the New York Diamond Exchange and in just 2 years of doing this he had increased his original investment 15 fold to more than $30,000, a princely sum in 1917. However it didn’t all go the young Harry’s way and at one point a member of his staff ran off with his entire stock and all of his cash which almost bankrupted the business! Luckily Winston was able to raise a bank loan and restart his operation from scratch, narrowly avoided a total disaster. Ever the shrewd entrepreneur, his next move was to buy antique jewellery from the contents sales of old estates, reset the precious stones into more modern pieces, attune to contemporary tastes, and sell them on with a sizeable margin. He became so adept at this he was able to buy the entire jewellery collection from one estate sale for over $1 million and a year later he was able to purchase another for $2 million!

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(A dated piece HW acquired in the estate sale after the death of railway tycoon Henry E. Huntington)

Despite his burgeoning diamond and jewellery business empire and associated wealth, Harry Winston was still largely unknown until he purchased an enormous 39 carat diamond in 1930 and newspapers across the USA decided to run the story of the immigrant’s son made good. Two years later he started to design fine pieces and his reputation began to build among the high society of America and Europe who went to him to grow their gemstone and fine jewellery collections. The media attention surrounding Harry Winston began to build as he continued to purchase ever larger and more famous diamonds and coloured gems. In 1935 he bought the 726 carat ‘Jonker’ diamond for $700K, which he went on to cut into 12 smaller stones and sell for over $2 million. Buying huge stones and cutting them into smaller ones became his hallmark as his enduring legacy. By 1972, at the age of 76, he completed the largest such example of this when he purchased a 970 carat Sierra Leone diamond, then the third largest diamond ever discovered, and cut it into 17 individual stones. One of these was 143 carats in itself and Harry Winston went on to cut this again into 6 smaller diamonds, making further profits at every stage.

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(One of the pieces cut from the famous Jonker Diamond – HW made a vast fortune from the sale)

Although Harry Winston was a very successful man, he was at heart a dedicated collector of diamonds, emeralds and all manner of coloured gems and precious stones. In his later years he became increasingly philanthropic in his outlook and placed a good many of these gemstones on display for the wider public to enjoy and a number of these are still on view today. By far the most famous gem in his collection was the ‘Hope Diamond,’ of which he was the last individual owner, was bought by Winston in 1939 at a cost of $1 million. In an act of unparalleled generosity Harry Winston donated the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institute in 1958, where it remains to this day. Winston often spoke of his desire to share with others the beauty of precious stones and in 1963 and 1964 respectively he donated the ‘Portuguese Diamond’ and ‘Oppenheimer Diamond.’ Despite his fame and fortune Harry Winston was an intensely private man and, in an age before social and mass media and the perpetual intrusion of the Paparazzi, he managed to keep his photograph out of the papers from 1960 until his death in 1978 at the age of 82.

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(The Hope diamond, one of a kind, donated by HW to the Smithsonian in 1958)

Upon his death, Harry Winston left the business to his two sons, Ronald and Bruce. A decades long legal battle ensued before an agreement was finally reached in 2000 whereby Ronald, in a consortium with Fenway Partners, bought Bruce out of the business for $54.1 million. Winston’s main legacy is that of one of the most famous jewellers the world has even known and he has made his way into popular culture for almost a hundred years. One such example is the line “talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it” in the 1953 hit musical film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Rusell. Since then Winston has featured in numerous film and media references and the best selling author Lauren Weisberger made him the subject of her 2008 work entitled Chasing Harry Winston. Today Harry Winston Inc is owned by Swiss watch giant Swatch but it is still headquartered on 5th Avenue, New York City and it now boasts over 39 salons and retail affiliates in locations as diverse as Las Vegas, Honolulu, Cannes, Moscow and Tokyo.

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