Harry Winston is responsible for a significant amount of Hollywood’s sparkle, having lent and sold millions of dollars worth of diamonds to celebrities to help them shine on the red carpet and the silver screen. But he came from less glamorous beginnings, born in New York to poor immigrants from Ukraine. With no formal education, he worked in his father’s jewellery shop and eventually established his own.
Winston began making a name for himself in 1926 when he acquired the famous jewellery collection of Arabella Huntington, wife of US railway magnate Henry Huntington. He is the subject of many colourful stories, including the tale of how he and his wife, Edna, saved millions of dollars worth of diamonds from the Nazis when they were in the south of France—edna hid them in her girdle.
In 1935, Winston purchased his first important stone, the Jonker, a 726-carat uncut rough diamond. Five years later, inspired by the geometry of nature, Winston and his designers pioneered the technique the company is most famous for—clustering, in which metal settings are minimised and the brilliance of each diamond is maximised. In 1949, Winston acquired the jewellery collection of American socialite Evalyn Walsh Mclean, which included the 84.8-carat Star of the East and the Hope Diamond.
Winston built a thriving company over 40 years, operating from a workshop above his store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, a corner building that remains the flagship store today. He was also known for his philanthropic work, and in 1958 donated his most famous gem, the Hope Diamond, to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, where it has since been seen by more than 100 million visitors.
After he died in 1978, elder son Ron took over the company, with younger son Bruce to share equally in its proceeds, but the brothers fell out after a decade. Years of wrangling ended with the controlling interest being bought in 2004 by Aber Diamond Corporation, followed in 2013 by the Swatch Group’s US$1 billion takeover.