Harry Winston: a life devoted to legendary gemstones worn by legendary women

With his dedication to hunting down the most extraordinary gems, Harry Winston spent his life brushing shoulders with royalty, stars and first ladies.

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As a prolific collector of the finest gems in the world, Harry Winston's greatest legacy is the passion with which he pursued outstanding stones. Right from the start, Winston had an eye for the historic and rare. He founded the House of Harry Winston in 1932 with the acquisition of estate jewels, which, over the decades, he sold to royalty, film stars and one notoriously stylish president's wife known to us all as Jackie Kennedy. Beguiled by the stories attached to historical diamonds as much as the thrill that came with successfully cutting an exceptional gemstone from a rough diamond, Winston's reputation was built on his dedication to hunting down the most extraordinary gems.

Winston had great admiration for the women who wore these spectacular stones, and throughout his life he brushed shoulders with many legendary leading ladies - in person or via their jewels. I can imagine the deference with which he would have handled a pair of diamond earrings that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, which the elegant American socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post asked him to reset and are now on show at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. And how he must have felt when he laid eyes on two remarkable diamonds that once belonged to Evalyn Walsh McLean.

An American socialite with expensive tastes, Evalyn McLean's obsession with rare diamonds was akin with Winston's. Her collection of jewels included the deep blue 45.52ct Hope Diamond and the 94.80ct Star of the East, both of which were famous throughout the world for their extreme rarity. Pictured on the right wearing the Hope Diamond on a necklace and the Star of the East as a jewelled headband, Winston was so enamoured with McLean's jewelry estate that, after she passed away in 1947, he bought the entire 73-piece collection.

Before his high-profile acquisition of the Hope and Star of the East Diamonds, Winston's collection of important gemstones was already substantial. In 1947 he purchased the 17th-century emerald and diamond Inquisition Necklace, which had, over the centuries, been in the possession of Spanish royalty, the French Court and an Indian maharaja. The necklace joined other impressive and historic gems in Winston's famed exhibition The Court of Jewels, which he toured across America to raise money for local charities, enlisting the help of stars including the actress Katherine Hepburn to pose for promotional photos.

It was more than a decade prior to his purchase of the Inquisition Necklace that Winston had his first brush with fame, Hollywood style. In 1935, he acquired the 726ct Jonker rough diamond, which he spent 14 painstaking months splitting and cutting to produce a total of 12 diamonds. The largest, an emerald cut weighing 125.35ct, was the first important diamond that Winston had cut himself and the first major piece of rough diamond to be cut in America. It created such a furore that several Hollywood stars, including a young Shirley Temple, were photographed holding the uncut Jonker.

Winston continued to purchase impressive rough diamonds destined to be worn by very famous females. In the 1960s he cut a 69.42ct flawless pear-shaped from a 241ct piece of rough, which was bought by Richard Burton in 1969 for his wife, the Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor, who was famous for her love of jewels. In the same year, Winston took the brave decision of televising the splitting of a 601ct rough diamond discovered in the South African kingdom of Lesotho several years earlier. This huge rough was cut into 18 diamonds, the most famous of which, the 40.42ct marquise-cut Lesotho III, emerged on the ring finger of Jackie Kennedy following her engagement to Aristotle Onassis.

Alongside movie stars, Winston also attracted a royal following. Between 1946 and 1966, the Duchess of Windsor bought 15 jewels from Harry Winston, including the 31.26ct cushion-cut McLean diamond, which came from the estate of Evalyn Walsh McLean that Winston had bought in its entirety in 1949. On occasions such as these, sharing his most precious gems with women with a mutual appreciation for rare stones and precious gems - who also happened to be among the most famous Americans of their time - Winston must have pinched himself just a little. Doing what he loved best, his life until the end remained devoted to legendary gemstones worn by legendary women.

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