Back in 1938, when his company was six years old, Harry Winston came upon a newspaper article about a 726.6-carat diamond — nearly the size of a tennis ball — discovered in Brazil’s San Antonio River. He instantly gathered a few belongings and rushed to the airport to catch a flight to Rio de Janeiro.
By the time he arrived, the precious stone was already gone, en route to Belgium to be sold. Winston located a faster ship than the one carrying the diamond and arrived first, snapping it up just before the Belgian buyer had the chance. Winston had the stunner divided into 29 gems, one of which is the famous 48.26-carat, emerald-cut Vargas Diamond — named for Getúlio Dornelles Vargas, Brazil’s president at the time.
The vast archive of the New York–based house of Winston is filled with such evocative tales, not to mention more than 100,000 sketches of exquisite designs from the past 80 years. There’s the fabled Hope, a 45.52-carat dark blue diamond that once belonged to Louis XIV; Winston acquired it in 1949 and later donated it to the Smithsonian. As for the 601-carat Lesotho, Winston purchased it in 1968 and had it cut into 18 gems, one of which Aristotle Onassis bought for Jacqueline Kennedy’s engagement ring. There’s also a story from 1969, when Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor a Winston pear-shaped stunner, which, at 69.42 carats, came from a 241-carat rough stone and is now known as the Taylor-Burton.
It’s that kind of exclusivity that keeps the house of Winston aglow. At a time when other luxury jewelers are pushing to expand their market share in myriad ways, from aggressive retail expansion to widening their range of prices, Winston is taking a different tack. With sales of $430.8 million through the third quarter of fiscal 2012 (the year ended at Winston on Jan. 31, but the company doesn’t release figures until April), it’s projecting to reach sales of $1 billion in the next seven to nine years.
“Today, we are the most exclusive jewelry and watch brand in the world, and we intend to keep it like that,” says president and chief executive officer Frédéric de Narp, sitting at Winston’s corporate headquarters high above midtown Manhattan. He pointed to the house’s selective distribution — with 22 retail salons worldwide — as among the reasons for Winston’s ongoing exclusivity. He also cited the continued use of top-quality diamonds in D, E and F color, noting that 60 percent of what the house sold in 2010 had a ticket of more than $200,000 at retail. “We want to keep the uniqueness,” he says.
Enter Ultimate Adornments, the new collection of 40 one-of-a-kind diamond and platinum dazzlers, necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings. It’s the largest single line in Winston’s history and uses some of the highest-quality diamonds sourced from around the globe — with prices that range from $37,500 for a diamond ring from the Caftan group to $5.56 million for the 68-carat Mrs. Winston necklace. The lineup is based on the idea of dressing a woman entirely in diamonds, and stems from one of Harry Winston’s famous quotes: “If I could, I would attach the diamonds directly onto a woman’s skin.”
Art director Sandrine De Laage and her design team began the creative process more than a year ago. They studied numerous sketches from the late Ambaji Shinde, Harry Winston’s principal jewelry designer for more than four decades beginning in 1960. Shinde brought many ideas to the house from his native India. These prompted De Laage to consider a cultural journey as her lead inspiration, thus Ultimate Adornments’ seven motifs: Indian caftans; guipure lace; Point d’Alençon lace; qipao, the Chinese study of form; deel, the traditional structured Mongolian dress; the style of Harry Winston’s wife, Edna, and Old Hollywood glamour. The latter is a notion the house has known well, ever since best-actress-winner Jennifer Jones wore a
pair of Winston earrings on the 1943 Academy Awards red carpet. Fast-forward to February’s Academy Awards, where nominee Jessica Chastain donned more than $2 million worth of Winston jewels, including two yellow diamond bracelets and a yellow diamond ring.
In addition to ample bling, the new collection features intricate, extremely rare settings. The Caftan Tassel necklace, with its 222 diamonds that snake around the neck, has four different stone settings in one piece: channel, prong, bezel and pavé — an amazing feat of engineering, according to De Laage.
“Through the use of all of these varying settings, we’re able to capture the fluidity of silk ribbons,” she notes.
As for the most laborious piece, the Mrs. Winston necklace took about 1,000 hours to complete, 200 of which were spent just on the layout of the cascading diamond drops. But the pièce de résistance — at least when it comes to novelty — hails from the Guipure group, which, in a nod to haute couture, uses carefully selected feathers from such birds as the peacock, egret and emerald bird of paradise, set alongside diamonds. De Laage sourced the plumage, some more than 100 years old, in Paris, via a collector whose name she would not disclose.
“Feathers have been used forever by women, by men, and even by soldiers,” she says. “They were a real symbol of power. I liked the combination of two rare and beautiful natural materials, one very strong and very bright and the other very light, delicate and colorful….When we design a piece of jewelry with diamonds, we know how it has to be set; this was much more experimental.”
Such innovations are key to maintaining the house’s luxury status — as are the top prices the jewels command. In keeping with the theme of exclusivity, the house decided against launching the new collection with a splashy, celebrity-filled extravaganza. Instead, it hosted an intimate dinner for 25 couples — all fine jewelry connoisseurs — in Shanghai last October, followed by similar private affairs in Beverly Hills and New York in December. This year, the company is taking the collection to Europe.
By fiscal 2016, Winston plans to have 35 directly operated salons, 20 partner salons and 300 wholesale doors. “We have the ambition to keep the exclusivity of Harry Winston but are going to continue to countries where we don’t yet have a presence,” de Narp says, citing Russia, parts of the Middle East and China as particular opportunities. In fact, the house is adding two salons in Shanghai this April: a three-story pavilion, its largest in the world, in Xintiandi, as well as a smaller shop in the lobby of The Peninsula hotel. Both are being designed by Bill Sofield of Studio Sofield.
“China is very important,” de Narp notes. “We see it as the most exclusive market in world, with a huge appreciation for the ultimate luxury.”
—Styled by Roxanne Robinson-Escriout