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A sparkling legacy

The man credited with revolutionising luxury jewellery, Harry Winston’s legacy as the king of diamonds lives on

The jeweller to the stars, Harry Winston was widely regarded as the king of diamonds during his illustrious life. From the magical 69.42-carat pear-shaped diamond engagement ring worn by the legendary Elizabeth Taylor to the exquisite 40.42-carat marquise-cut diamond ring crafted for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his designs drew in the most prominent figures of the 20th century. Heads of state, royal dignitaries and stars of the silver screen were all dazzled by his creations. Such was his legacy that Winston’s design philosophy is perpetuated in every new collection that the house rolls out even today, more than four decades since his passing.

While he left no stone unturned to put his eponymous brand on the map, he also played a pivotal role in the history and development of luxury jewellery. During his career, Winston built a collection of some of the world’s most famous diamonds and rare gemstones, rivalling even those of royal houses. By the early 1950s, it was estimated that his personal collection was the second largest and most important in the world, after the British royal family. Some noteworthy stones that were part of his treasury included the Hope Diamond, the Star of the East, the Portuguese Diamond and the Indore Pears. 

But for his precocious talent, the man came from humble beginnings. Born a jeweller’s son in 1896, it is said that he had a keen eye for precious jewellery. When he was only 12 years old, he spotted a green stone from a local junk jewellery retailer and purchased it for just 25 cents (less than a dirham). Two days later, he sold it for US$800 (almost AED3,000), after identifying the stone as a two-carat emerald. At the age of 15, Winston quit school to work in the family business in Los Angeles, but he soon decided to strike out on his own. Much of his initial success stemmed from selling jewellery he purchased from estate auctions.

Several wealthy heiresses, including the likes of Rebecca Darlington Stoddard and Arabella Huntington, sold items deemed outdated from their personal collections, only for the talented craftsman to refashion and revive them with more modern, timeless settings. On the back of his successful start in the world of jewels, the house of Harry Winston was born in New York City in 1932. Under the new brand, he designed, manufactured and sold several collections, which have stood the test of time. Winston always believed that jewellery design should be dictated by the gemstones themselves, rather than their settings. It was this simple yet revolutionary philosophy that won him a high-profile and discerning clientele as well as an eternal place in the history of jewellery making. 

It’s thought that one-third of the world’s most famous diamonds and gemstones passed through Winston’s hands during his career. In 1935, he purchased his first history-making diamond – the Jonker. The 726-carat uncut stone made headlines across the globe when it was acquired by the New York jeweller. It was later cleaved into 12 individual pieces, the largest of which – an emerald cut – weighed a total of 125.35-carats. In 1949, he acquired the most famous stone of all, the 45.52-carat Hope Diamond. Originally mined in India, the heart-shaped blue diamond boasts a storied past.

In the 1600s, it was the centrepiece of the crown jewels of pre-revolutionary France, before appearing in the catalogue of a gem collection owned by a London banking family almost two centuries later. After its acquisition, Winston donated the diamond to the Smithsonian Institution as a gift, helping establish the museum’s National Gem Collection. Although the jeweller continued to contribute to the museum in the years that followed, the Hope Diamond still occupies pride of place and is now permanently on display. As a testament to his historic legacy, the institution opened The Harry Winston Gallery in 1997. Throughout his life, Winston used his wealth and influence to support worthy causes. Between 1949 and 1953, he took his most famous jewels on a cross-country exhibition called The Court of Jewels, raising funds over the four-year tour to benefit local charities. His philanthropic legacy continues to this day, with the Harry Winston Brilliant Futures Charitable Programme helping disadvantaged young people around the world, and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, which supports causes related to the AIDS epidemic. In spite of his resistance to fame, Winston’s prodigious talent made him a household name.

As his popularity grew, so did his list of appointments with the who’s who of society. British royals, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, always made requests to meet him on visits to New York. The royal couple even went on to purchase several pieces of the jewellery master’s collections, including the famed McLean Diamond. In his personal life, Winston maintained a fiercely private profile. But behind the scenes, he was changing history, making a mark which would endure long after his passing, paving the way for the future of jewellery design. Some of his techniques, including nature-inspired clustering and the sunflower motif, are widely used even today. Clearly, his legacy lives on, way beyond his first Manhattan Fifth Avenue boutique, with salons around the world, including London, Paris, Shanghai and Tokyo, proudly displaying the house’s collections.

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