Celebrity Deaths ›

Harry Winston, Jeweler to the Stars

Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Alfred Eisenstaedt

Legend has it that Harry Winston began his jewelry career at age 12 when he spent 25 cents on a ring he'd spied in a pawn shop window – a ring that was worth $800.

Legend has it that Harry Winston began his jewelry career at age 12 when he spent 25 cents on a ring he'd spied in a pawn shop window. It turned out to be worth $800. "And thus began a legendary jewelry empire," writes FashionModelDirectory.com.

Winston, jeweler to the stars, died in 1978, but the company that bears his name continues to thrive, in part because of his gift for self-promotion. In 1944, according to Vogue.com, Winston "made history when he cooked up a deal with the film producer David O. Selznick to provide diamonds to the starlet Jennifer Jones, who was attending the Oscars as a first-time nominee. Jones won the Academy Award for best actress for her role in 'The Song of Bernadette,' and Winston won an enduring relationship with Hollywood."

Almost 70 years later, Charlize Theron, Sandra Bullock, and Jessica Chastain wore Winston jewelry to the 2013 Oscars while Hugh Jackman sported Winston cufflinks. The brand remains high end, a popular choice of Hollywood and high society. According to a 2008 New York magazine article, "its most loyal clients are Arab oil princes who buy several baubles at a time for their wives to wear underneath their chadors."

Russell Shor, who covers the diamond industry for a trade publication, said, "Harry Winston associated himself with people of a certain class. He wasn't into pop culture. The intrinsic value at Winston is still from the gems, not the design or hipness. With Winston, you got rocks. And it's still that way."

Winston's father was a jeweler, and young Harry, born in 1896, worked in the family's store while growing up. He opened his first solo business, Premier Diamond Co., when he was 19. He frequented estate sales, finding gems "going for a song because of the old-fashioned settings they were placed in," StyleStudio360.com said. Winston purchased complete collections, including those of coal/iron heiress Rebecca Darlington Stoddard and Arabella Huntington, wife of a railroad magnate. "I bought everything ––crowns, dog collars,” he once said of his early years.

He then reset the stones in more modern settings. Speaking of the Huntington diamonds, Wikipedia says that Winston "frequently boasted that Arabella's famous necklace of pearls now adorned the necks of at least two dozen women around the world." That pearl necklace was more than 5 feet long, about equal to Winston in height.

In 1932, Winston opened his eponymous business on Fifth Avenue in New York. He continued to add to his gem collection, acquiring numerous renowned pieces, including the 45-carat Hope Diamond, which he later donated to the Smithsonian Institution. The donation transformed a "former crown jewel into a beloved public treasure that today receives more than 7 million annual visitors," according to HarryWinston.com.

Winston called his gems "my babies," Vogue.com said. “I love the diamond business,” he told the New Yorker in 1954. “It’s a Cinderella world. It has everything! People! Drama! Romance! Precious stones! Speculation! Excitement! What more could you want?”

"In the ’50s and ’60s, Harry Winston was the pre-eminent jeweler in the world," New York magazine said. Indeed, the name Harry Winston has become synonymous with expensive jewels. In Marilyn Monroe's performance of the song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in the 1953 musical film "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," she says, "Talk to me, Harry Winston, tell me all about it!"

In 2013, Harry Winston Inc. was purchased by watchmaker Swatch Group for $1 billion. A short time later, the company purchased a 101-carat, clear, pear-cut diamond the size of a small lime. The diamond was named "Winston's Legacy."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."