Rapaport Magazine

Winston’s Diamond Romance

Harry Winston’s lifelong love affair with diamonds and colored gemstones produced a legacy of dazzling jewelry.

By Phyllis Schiller

Diamond and platinum Harry Winston garland necklace, 1959, of pear-shaped and round brilliant stones, can be broken apart into two bracelets. Courtesy J. & S.S. DeYoung Inc.

Harry Winston grew up surrounded by gems in his father’s jewelry shop. It was the start of a lifetime attraction to precious stones. Born in 1896,Winston apprenticed at the New York Diamond Exchange at the age of 18. By 1920, he founded the Premier Diamond Company. In June 1932, he opened Harry Winston, Inc. A new book, Harry Winston, published by Rizzoli, pays tribute to the man, who passed away at 82 in 1978, and the path he forged in the diamond industry, from buying some of the most important diamonds of the twentieth century to creating spectacular jewelry that graced socialites and red-carpet celebrities as he built a brand that became symbolic of American glamour.

The timeline of Winston’s career is punctuated by the acquisition of historic diamonds, including the 726-carat rough Jonker from South Africa, the President Vargas, a 726.60-carat stone from Brazil, the 601-carat rough Lesotho from South Africa and the legendary Hope Diamond, a 45.52-carat blue.

“Harry Winston had a passion for diamonds,” says Alan Levy, principal, J. & S.S. DeYoung Inc., New York City, “and when he set them, it looked like they were in free form — you didn’t see anything but the diamonds.They seemed to float. Winston had wonderful designers and he had the world’s best diamonds. The diamonds were cut so they were a little ‘fat,’ so they really had a sparkle to them. He wanted to get the most beautiful diamond possible.”

According to Peter Shemonsky, private jeweler and jewelry historian in San Francisco, California, “Harry Winston pioneered the idea that the shape of the diamond itself was the design. If you think about some of the Winston flower earrings or the big flower brooches with the big pear-shaped diamonds and clusters, he created visual rhythms by increasing the scale and focusing on the shape of the diamonds.”

Antique and period jewelry specialist Simon Teakle, Simon Teakle Fine Jewelry, Greenwich, Connecticut, cites the wreath necklace and the very light, open clusters as iconic Harry Winston. “The earlier pieces had a slightly ribbony motif on a more two-dimensional plane; over the years, the designs became more three-dimensional, with stones set at different heights. When you pick up a piece, you can see the flexibility, the way the stones were set where you have these clusters and almost floating stones.”

For Shemonsky, “when I think of Harry Winston, I think of high color, high-quality diamonds in interesting patterns that create the rhythm of the design, where all you see are diamonds and no metal.” With colored gemstones, too, Shemonsky points out, the Winston look is identifiable. “Typically, he kept a very purist attitude — whether all rubies, emeralds or sapphires — all the stones matched, accented by diamonds whose whiteness contrasted and helped bring the colors forward.”

“The architecture of the Winston jewelry was the best, second only to Van Cleef,” says Levy, who notes that the actual mechanics of the pieces are distinctive. “You can pick up a piece of Winston jewelry made in the 1950s, early ’60s, even ’70s and close your eyes and you can feel the difference. It’s not heavy; it fit like a glove.”

According to Shemonsky, a large number of the pieces done in the 1940s to ’60s used platinum and delicate platinum wirework “basket” construction, the mountings hand-built to fit each stone, “so you weren’t really aware of the metal itself. It was all about the stones.”

“Winston had a great sense of how to market to the public,” says Shemonsky. “His ads were very fashion forward. He became such a strong American icon that even top American luxury carmakers wanted their cars to be featured with Winston’s jewels. A Cadillac ad campaign in the 1950s featured V-shaped Harry Winston necklaces that echoed the V-shaped emblem of the automaker.”

Winston put his prized jewels on view to the public so that his name and the diamonds were at the forefront of consumers’ minds. In 1949, he toured his private gem collection as “The Court of Jewels.”

But his “masterstroke,” says Teakle, “was donating the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian in 1958. With the challenge of selling a supposedly cursed stone, not only was he able to achieve astonishing publicity in perpetuity, but probably with a very generous tax deduction. It was an incredibly shrewd marketing move.”

Winston’s handling and promotion of historical stones and his evolving a new style in jewelry created a new American dynamic, continues Teakle. “Up until then, the cultural headquarters of jewelry was always Paris, with the focus on everything coming out of the Parisian design houses. And Winston took a little bit of that away from them. He was more American in his approach, more brazen. The people who were buying Winston were new money from differentparts of America. Winston didn’t stand on any social ceremony. I think his commercial dynamic encapsulates America.”

Agrees Levy, “There were vast amounts of new wealth being made in America right after the war, when the soldiers came home and new homes had to be built, new cars made. Winston’s traveling show took the jewels to the public. No one ever had done that before. He would organize a publicity event at a charity so you’d come and see the Winston gems. He was master of ceremonies. He had that get and go.”

There seemed to be a transition, says Teakle, “where a celebrity culture became as intriguing in the public eye as the society culture. And Harry Winston had such clarity to see that.”

Winston had an incredible client list. It wasn’t only the jewelry but who was wearing the jewelry that gave the jewels a special appeal, notes Levy.

The celebrity connection, says Shemonsky, “definitely added provenance. He was one of the first to loan jewelry to actors and actresses to wear at the Academy Awards ceremony.”

Older pieces are around, says Teakle, “but like everything else, the nice things are hard to find.” “Most of the Winston jewels seem to get passed down to the next generation,” says Levy. “Anything that’s Winston, we’ll pay top dollar, much more than what, if you wanted to make it, the piece is worth.”

Says Shemonsky, “The more iconic a piece is, the greater the amount of gemstones, the higher price it will bring. With a single-stone solitaire, there might be a little premium on the Winston name, but not nearly as much as with an iconic piece. If you look at a lot of the auction catalogs, a fair amount of Winston pieces come up. He was the American jeweler that people went to.”

The soul of the Harry Winston brand, sums up Teakle, “was built by one man’s vision and one man’s passion for gems and jewelry.” 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - November 2012. To subscribe click here.

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