“Jewels are more than my love and my life,” Harry Winston once said. “They are an insatiable obsession.” Born in 1896, the enterprising New Yorker became world-renowned for his love of exceptional stones and was inextricably entwined with the mid-20th Century definition of fabulous glamour.
The son of immigrants who grew up in his father’s modest jewellery shop, Winston’s innate talent for buying and selling precious gems developed early. When he was just 12 years old, he spotted a green piece of glass amidst a tray of costume jewels in a pawnshop and promptly bought it for 25 cents. But as he rightly guessed, the stone was actually a two-carat emerald, and he re-sold two days later for the princely sum of $800. The rest, as they say, is history – and the Harry Winston name later went on to become synonymous with some of the rarest and most celebrated gems in history, as well as some of the most iconic jewellery designs still being worn today.
Becoming the King of Diamonds
‘The King of Diamonds’, as one magazine editor dubbed Harry Winston in 1947, got his start at a young age. After following his family to Los Angeles, where they had reopened his father’s jewellery shop, Winston returned to New York and, in 1920, opened his first business, the Premier Diamond Company. Though just 24 years old, Winston quickly established a sterling reputation in the gem trade, buying up exquisite collections from auctions and estate sales and resetting their most beautiful stones into more contemporary settings.
Just twelve years later, amid increasing demand from his roster of high-profile clients, Winston founded his eponymous company and began selling pieces of his own design crafted in platinum. He also travelled the globe, buying and exhibiting headline-grabbing ‘legacy’ gemstones such as the 726-carat Jonker diamond, the Hope diamond (which was later rechristened the Taylor/Burton diamond, after Richard Burton purchased it for his then-wife, Elizabeth Taylor), and the Star of the East.
At the same time, Winston cemented his claim to being ‘the jeweller to the stars’, and revolutionised the course of red-carpet dressing, by being the first to lend diamonds to an actress to wear to the Academy Awards – he dressed Jennifer Jones in 1944, when she scooped the gong for Best Actress for her role as a sickly teenager in The Song of Bernadette. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Winston’s boutique became a magnet for luminaries such as Claudette Colbert, Shirley Temple, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who bought several jewels for their personal collection including a 31.26 cushion-shaped stone that once belonged to the American socialite, Evalyn Walsh McLean.
By 1952, Life Magazine would report that Winston had amassed the world’s second largest collection of historic jewels – with the largest being owned by the British royal family. The following year, the King of Diamond’s name would be forever immortalised on the big screen when Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The Winston Cluster Comes to Life
Harry Winston wasn’t simply a diamond enthusiast – he was also a creative spirit with an incurable romantic streak. One chilly December evening in the 1940s, as he approached his home in Scarsdale, Winston noticed the leaves of the holly wreath on his front door glistening with frost and was transfixed by the design they formed, with the rest of their branches seeming to disappear into the background. It occurred to him that his diamonds ought to dictate their settings, with minimal use of metal, and the concept of ‘clustering’ was born.
Under his supervision, Winston’s in-house team, including head designer Nevdon Koumrouyan, drafted a design with pear and marquise-cut diamonds laid at differing angles to each other, held by near-invisible prong settings to enhance their brilliance and sparkle from every direction. Three quarters of a century later, this timeless, sculptural formation is considered a signature house technique, with vibrant stones like sapphires, emeralds and rubies often added into the mix.
An A-list Favourite
Today, the Harry Winston Cluster remains one of the maison’s most sought-after motifs, especially amongst celebrity clients, as the setting never fails to deliver a dazzling, photo-ready sparkle.
Jennifer Lopez, Kerry Washington, Natalie Portman, Julie Andrews and Charlize Theron have all donned Winston clusters for red carpet appearances. In 1999, Gwyneth Paltrow famously won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Shakespeare in Love wearing Harry Winston cluster diamonds that she was lent for the occasion. After the event, Paltrow’s father, Bruce, bought her the pieces and presented them to her as a surprise. She wore them again at her 2018 wedding to Brad Falchuk as a way to remember her father, who sadly died in 2002, “as a way of keeping him there with us.”