Remembering Harry Winston

Harry Winston’s opus project, a showcase for the watch world’s most avant-garde thinkers, is being exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery.

One of the most eagerly anticipated horological events in modern times, this New Watch Design Opus 14 was dreamed up by the extraordinary horological team of Frank Ormy and Johnny Girardin.

Harry Winston, the prolific diamond king, who died in 1978, was to a large extent my mentor in 1970s when I joined Asprey as a consultant before I become the CEO of the company.

Being often in Geneva John Asprey and I, an inseprerable team at the time, had the good fortune to meet the legendary Harry Winston, who was undoubtedly the most successful diamond dealer in the world. He maintained a large office in Switzerland to cater for wealthy clients who came to see him in search of important stones, unique for their size and colour. He had set up his own business, the Premier Diamond Company, on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1920 when he was only twenty-eight, and went on to become the most prolific gem salesman of his generation.

He revolutionised the way precious stones were set, shifting the emphasis on to the stones themselves and away from the ornate settings popular in the earlier twentieth century. Many of the most famous diamonds in history passed through his hands, including the Hope Diamond, which he donated to the Smithsonian Institution as a gift to the American people. On Oscar nights in Hollywood many of the sparkling diamonds worn by the stars had been loaned to them by Harry Winston. In 1958 his firm created the Nur Il Ain tiara for Queen Farah to wear at her wedding to the Shah of Iran. Among Harry’s royal clients were members of the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia.

The history of what became known as the Taylor-Burton Diamond turned into one of the most extraordinary episodes of Harry’s career. The original stone, of over 240 carats, had been found in 1966 and Harry bought it at once. He and his master cutter then studied it for six months before attempting the cleaving, which was successfully carried out live in front of television cameras. The largest piece eventually yielded a classic pear-shaped gem of 69.42 carats, which was sold to Harriet Annenberg Ames, the sister of Walter Annenberg, an American diplomat.

In 1969 it reappeared in the auction room after Mrs Ames tired of having to keep it always hidden in a bank vault. The actor  Richard Burton was well known for his habit of buying diamonds for his wife Elizabeth Taylor, and the Burtons certainly took an interest. The bidding started at two hundred thousand dollars and swiftly rose to a record price of over a million dollars; at which point Burton’s representative dropped out and the stone went to the chairman of the Cartier parent company in New York.

Richard Burton then became even more determined to acquire it and opened negotiations with the owner’s agent, saying, ‘I don’t care how much it costs – go and buy it.’ He got his way, for an undisclosed sum, but only on condition Cartier could first exhibit it in New York and Chicago and it would be named the Taylor-Burton Diamond.

The New York Times took a mordant view of this spectacular flaunting of wealth and commented: ‘The peasants have been lining up outside Cartier’s this week to gawk at a diamond as big as the Ritz that cost well over a million dollars. It is destined to hang around the neck of Mrs Richard Burton. As someone said, “It would have been nice to wear in the tumbrel on the way to the guillotine.”’

Miss Taylor wore it for the first time in public in Monaco at Princess Grace’s fortieth birthday party. After her divorce from Richard Burton, she resold it in 1979 for five million dollars, putting part of the proceeds towards building a hospital in Botswana. Harry, who died at the end of 1978, did not, alas, live to see this final act in the drama.

Harry had made it his speciality to purchase from governments and diamond corporations the largest uncut diamonds he could locate and then take the inherent risk of having them cut and polished. Whenever John and I visited him we heard stories of the millions of pounds’ worth of diamonds he had sold and of how he achieved this against odds that his competitors (who were few) would have considered unbeatable.

He was a rotund, jovial little man with boundless enthusiasm and unquenchable optimism, which had enabled him to do what most people would find impossible. He gave us an insight into the trade, emphasising above all the importance of perseverance when early signs are discouraging. He taught us a great deal and we looked upon him as our guru in the world of precious stones.

In 1972 Harry Winston had acquired the Star of Sierra Leone, which came from the largest raw diamond ever to be excavated from the Diminco mine in Sierra Leone. Originally it had weighed 968.80 carats and at that point was the third biggest raw diamond ever found. The largest single stone as Harry bought it was 143 carats, emerald cut, brilliant, yet ever so slightly flawed. It was then the largest diamond of his career to date. In what was a tricky operation, he cleaved away the imperfections, thus greatly reducing the size of the stone. Many in the trade called him mad even to consider it. However, the triumphant outcome was a 33-carat D-flawless stone alongside sixteen smaller stones, thirteen of which were flawless. Collectively they far surpassed the value of the original rough stone.

John and I had the privilege not only of seeing the Star of Sierra Leone but also of being responsible for the sale of some of the smaller gems to clients in the Middle East. Harry encouraged us to have faith in our ability to sell important stones by going about it the way he would himself. ‘If you have that measure of self-confidence,’ he said, ‘you’ll travel the path of success.’

He would insist we take a whole tray of diamonds worth millions on a sales trip. He would not have it otherwise, however much we protested that we could not possibly take the responsibility. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘it’s not your responsibility, it’s mine. I’m insured. If anything goes wrong, it’s my responsibility.’

To convince us further he would recall the time when he sold over twenty million dollars’ worth of gems to a single client, an absolute monarch who was on a visit to Geneva. The monarch’s personal secretary phoned Harry in New York telling him to come to Geneva and bring some diamonds with him. Harry called on all the dealers he knew in New York and collected from them on a consignment basis every available quality diamond. He ended by scooping the market in good stones, and when he told his fellow dealers why, they laughed and thought he’d gone crazy.

In Geneva he went to see his client with the stones in a black bag and was granted a single audience. The monarch asked him to turn the bag upside down and tip out its contents in the middle of the room. As soon as the glistening treasure lay on the carpet ten or so women appeared from adjoining rooms and fell on it. Within five minutes they had cleared the whole pile. ‘Send me the bill,’ said the client.

The lesson Harry learnt then was that nothing is ever impossible. It gave him great satisfaction to return to New York and tell his colleagues how he had sold the lot.

Faced with tales of such audacity, John and I could no longer refuse to do his bidding. We would take the tray of diamonds worth millions without even signing a receipt and venture forth in the footsteps of the master. To say we ever matched his level of success would be untrue, but we managed to make our mark and he was never disappointed.

Our close association with Harry Winston, the grand master of his trade, continued until his death. The last time we saw him was on a flight to New York on Concorde in the autumn of 1978 shortly before his death. He was seated not far from us, and throughout the flight we observed in amazement as he ordered from the stewardess vodka after vodka and never betrayed the faintest sign of
inebriation.

He was a most extraordinary man. He had a very expressive type of Semitic face and when he spoke about his diamonds his features seemed to become strangely illuminated. His love for and affinity with his stones instilled in us a lasting appreciation of the perfection and beauty that only nature can produce.

One response to “Remembering Harry Winston

  1. A superb story about a fascinating man. Thank you.

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