‘Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it!’ shouted Marilyn Monroe as she sang ‘Diamond’s Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in the 1953 film ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’.
The history of diamonds is full of fascinating characters that prospected, mined, traded and owned these fabulous precious stones. But perhaps the most fascinating and famous of them all was a man called Harry Winston, who was so well known and flamboyant that he was immortalised in the lyrics of this famous Hollywood movie. Some of his larger-than-life character is reflected in one of his most famous quotes ‘People will stare. Make it worth their while’. He was definitely one of those people who knew how to make people take notice of him and during his lifetime he built up one of the most successful jewelry businesses in the world. The very name of Harry Winston is synonymous with diamonds and during his long career he was lucky enough to own some of the largest and most exquisite diamonds ever to have been dug out of the earth. He also counted some of the world’s richest and most influential men and most beautiful women among his customers.
Harry Winston was born in 1886. His parents immigrated to the USA from the Ukraine, and his father started up a small jewellers business on their arrival. The young Harry was put to work in the business from an early age and there is a story that when he was only around twelve years of age he discovered an unassuming ring set with a green stone in a pawn brokers shop. He apparently recognised that the stone was actually a precious emerald, so he bought it for 25 cents. The green gemstone did indeed prove to be a two carat emerald and he managed to sell it on for $800, which was a great of money back in those days.
He started his career as a jeweller to the rich and famous when he purchased an amazing jewelry collection from the estate of the late Arabella Huntington. Arabella Huntington had been the wife of a wealthy railroad tycoon called Henry Huntington, who purchased many fine pieces of jewelry during her lifetime, mainly from the Parisian jewellers such as Cartier. Harry Winston cemented his reputation as an innovative, exciting jewelry designer when he broke up Arabella Huntington’s jewelry and reset it in more modern, lighter settings. He specialised in setting fine diamonds in gleaming platinum, creating unique pieces that moved with their wearer and fitted in with their more mobile, modern lives.
Although Harry Winston became a very wealthy man he was famously casual when it came to his precious stones, and could often be found with a priceless diamond in one of his pockets. Apparently on one occasion he also sent a very large and valuable 726 carat rough diamond called the Jonker in a package through the ordinary mail. He counted many famous movies stars, entertainers, royalty and aristocrats among his customers having once sold a pair of diamond earrings to the Duchess of Windsor and Richard Burton also bought a fine 69 carat diamond from him for his jewelry loving wife Elizabeth Taylor.
He started his company, Harry Winston Inc, in 1932 and it is still successfully trading today, with a HQ in New York. He was also a major donor of important gemstones to museums, making several large donations to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. He also put together a famous exhibition of gemstones called the ‘Court of jewels’ which toured the major cities around the USA between 1949 and 1953. This fabulous exhibition was put together to raise awareness and educate the public about precious stones and it also raised considerable funds for charity. The company still owns some of the world’s most famous diamonds and many more have passed through its hands. So let’s have a look at some of these famous precious stones.
The Hope Diamond – probably the most infamous, diamond that ever passed through Harry Winston’s hand was the fabulous blue Hope Diamond. This 45.52 carat precious stone was said to have been found in the Kollur Mine in India in the mid 17th century. When it was brought to Europe it became the property of the French monarchy and was then owned by a wealthy English family before it found its way to the United States. The Hope Diamond has the reputation of being cursed and bringing death and misfortune to its owners. Whether this was just a clever marketing ploy or not, the deaths of several prominent historical characters such as Marie Antoinette have been linked to the ownership of this large blue diamond. He purchased the Hope Diamond from the wealthy US socialite Evalyn Walsh’s estate in 1949 and it became one of the centrepieces of the ‘Court of Jewels’ exhibition. It was to be one of the first gemstones in the National Gem Collection as he donated the it to the Smithsonian in 1958. The National Gem Collection now brings in around seven million visitors every year and in 2010 the company, Harry Winston Inc, celebrated the anniversary of this magnificent donation by designing a new, modern setting for the Hope Diamond called ‘Embracing Hope’
The Portuguese Diamond – there always seems to be some mystery surrounding famous diamonds, and the Portuguese Diamond is no exception. Where this gemstone actually originated from is a matter of some dispute, as one story says that it was found in a mine in Brazil in the mid-18th century and once formed part of the Portuguese crown jewels, while another, more likely as it is backed up by some documentation, states that it was extracted from the Premier Mine in the Kimberley, South Africa early in the 20th century. It is known that the Portuguese Diamond was owned by a member of the glamourous Ziegfeld Follies called Peggy Hopkins Joyce who had acquired it set in a platinum choker from Black, Starr and Frost in 1928. Harry Winston bought it from her in 1951 and included it in his ‘Court of Jewels’ exhibition. It now resides in the National Gem Collection in the Smithsonian, where it is the Collection’s largest faceted gemstone. Harry Winston traded it to the museum in 1963 in exchange for a quantity of smaller stones. It is a very large diamond at 127.01 carats and has been cut into an unusual octagonal shape. It also displays strong fluorescence, glowing bright blue under an ultraviolet light. In daylight or normal artificial light the centre of the stone may look a bit hazy, but this is purely because it is so strongly fluorescent.
The Jonker Diamond – this was the seventh largest rough diamond ever known to have been found at 726 carats. It was acquired by Harry Winston in 1935 and he casually sent the huge stone back to the United States in the regular mail. Apparently the stamp cost him just 64 cents! The Jonker Diamond has the distinction of being the first major precious stone to be cleaved in America and it was cut into a 125.35 carat emerald cut oblong stone.
The Lesotho Diamond – this large precious stone was found only relatively recently in 1967. It was discovered by a South African woman in Lesotho, who was so fearful that she would be robbed or killed for her amazing find, that she walked for four days and four nights so that she could come under government protection and sell the diamond safely. Harry Winston bought the fabulous stone and it was cleaved during a live broadcast on television in 1968 into eighteen separate diamonds. The largest of these newly cut stones, which weighed in at 71.73 carats and was emerald cut, was christened Lesotho One. Another of the stones, Lesotho Three, was bought by Aristotle Onassis, who had it set in an engagement ring for his bride-to-be, Jacqueline Kennedy.
Harry Winston died in 1978, depriving the world of a highly successful, colourful character. He had been lucky enough to spend his entire career, working with the exquisite diamonds and jewelry that he so loved and being lucky enough to amass a vast fortune in the process.