Born in 1896, Harry Winston became one of the most well-known American jewelers. Known as a jeweler to the rich and famous, he was also an important donor of famous gems to museums. The company he founded continues to create sought after pieces.
Winston's career as a gem trader reputedly began in 1908 when as a twelve year old boy Harry noticed a plain ring with a green stone in a pawnshop window. The pawnbroker believed the stone to be about a quarter of a carat and so sold it for 25 cents. Harry took the ring to his father, Jacob, a small local jeweler, who was amazed to see an emerald weighing two carats. Two days later, Harry sold the stone for 800 dollars, and thus began a legendary jewelry empire.
Winston's first major jewel acquisition was the famous collection of Arabella Huntington, wife of railroad magnate Henry Huntington, who had amassed a famous collection of jewelry mainly from Paris houses such as Cartier. Winston showed his consummate skill at jewelry crafting by redesigning the old-fashioned pieces into modern styles, which were then eagerly purchased by the society ladies of the time. Winston was heard to boast that Arabella's famous pearl necklace now adorned the necks of at least two dozen different women.
Winston owned many famous jewels throughout his life, the most famous being the Hope Diamond, which he donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958. He later acquired and donated another famous jewel, the Portuguese Diamond. His company, Harry Winston, Inc., also made many famous sales including a 69 carat diamond which Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor, and some canary diamond earrings sold to the Duchess of Windsor.
Winston revolutionized jewelry fashion in the 1920's. Rather than the stiff traditional settings used at the time, he made settings from finely woven platinum which were so flexible that they shimmered and flowed in reflection of the wearer's movements, giving the stones a completely new look.
But perhaps the best way to get an idea of the colorful character of Harry Winston is through anecdotes about his life. He was notorious for flaunting usual security measures. It is said that he could be frequently found with a multi-million dollar diamond in his pocket, and that he once sent a 726-carat rough diamond, known as the Jonker, through ordinary mail.
One of his best known sayings was: "People will stare. Make it worth their while." And people are still staring at the amazing creations of the American jeweler whose name lives on today. Harry Winston died in 1978 at the age of 82.
- First Published: June-27-2008
- Last Updated: May-17-2013
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