Harry Winston is a luxury watchmaker and diamond-oriented jewelry house operating as part of Swatch Group since 2013.
Based in New York City since its founding, the company grew to be a huge name in the jewelry industry. Over the years, the jeweler acquired various famous gemstones, including some of the largest diamonds in history.
Although the watch division is more recent, it is no less spectacular. The brand’s lowest-end timepieces are opulent, while the highest end exhibits unrestrained engineering artistry, with improbably complex mechanisms working inside.
This company regularly works with expert watch designers to create these masterpieces.
The Winston family ran this prestigious jeweler until 2008, when Ronald Winston stepped down. A few years afterwards, in 2013, Nayla Hayek became CEO. Nayla is the daughter of Swatch Group co-founder Nicolas Hayek.
Images: Harry Winston
"Mechanical marvels!" Harry Winston's intricate complications are truly a sight to behold.
This company expanded into watches only after the death of Harry himself, but seeks to create timepieces befitting his legacy.
Naturally, diamonds appear in many of the brand’s watches, and refined metalworking pervades its cases and movements. Overall, however, the watchmaking division follows the company’s philosophy by finding the best of the best.
Rather than rare gems, this division seeks out the best minds in watchmaking, developing innovative and unprecedented complications and mechanisms.
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An Eye For Stones: Early Acquisitions
Harry Winston knew the jewelry business from an early age, because he worked in his father’s jewelry shop.
He started his own business in 1920, and later purchased Arabella Huntington’s world-class jewelry collection. Huntington was at one time known as the “richest woman in America,” therefore her collection was quite impressive.
However, for Harry, it was an opportunity to truly showcase his prowess. He dismantled the collection’s pieces in order to set the breathtaking gems and pearls into his own designs.
The collections of Winston and his company would indeed number among his defining achievements. Over the years, he and the company would acquire more than 30 other famous gems and jewelry pieces.
Four of these, the Hope Diamond, Blue Heart, Napoleon Diamond Necklace and the Oppenheimer, now reside with the Smithsonian Institution.
Harry passed away in 1978, and his sons Ron and Bruce would struggle over the company for decades afterwards.
Though the legendary jeweler’s will specified hawkish rocket scientist Ron to run the company, the sons would receive equal pay. This was a sore spot, which later became a point of legal contention between the two brothers.
Precious Time: Getting Into Watchmaking
Though haute horlogerie is now a major part of the company, its first watches did not come until 1989. The company hired horological virtuosos Jean-Marc Wiederrecht and Roger Dubuis so that they could create sophisticated complications.
Roger Dubuis worked with the brand in between his time at Patek Philippe and, later, starting his own company.
Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, on the other hand, designed for many watch houses over the years. At first, he freelanced, but later would start his own firm towards this end, Atelier Genevois d’Horlogerie.
Opus: Top Watchmaking Minds Come Together
As a jeweler, Harry Winston sought to find and showcase the world’s finest diamonds and precious stones. Therefore, his company’s watchmaking division follows in these footsteps.
In this case, the company finds the finest watchmakers to design the Opus series. Opus is a series of annual short-run limited editions where price is no object and masterful complication is key.
The Opus program was the brainchild of Max Büsser, director of Harry Winston horology from 1998 until 2005. Büsser came to the company after seven years at Jaeger-LeCoultre, devising Opus in order to build credibility for Winston watches.
Because the watch division was not yet a decade old at this time, this was a pressing necessity.
The jeweler certainly had the resources to fulfill this goal, and Büsser found the genius minds the series needed.
Opus Examples: Rising Stars
The first was François-Paul Journe, founder of Geneva-based watchmaker F.P. Journe. His Opus One used two independent movements to display two separate time-zones, but one crown set and wound both.
The company produced six variants of the Opus One, each with only six pieces.
In later models of the Opus series, a common theme is using individual mechanically-driven markers rather than traditional watch hands.
This can be seen, for example, in the Opus 12, with inwards-pointing hands at the peripheries of the face. These hands represent the hours and five-minute increments, turning over to reveal blue undersides which then indicate the time.
French watchmaker Emmanuel Bouchet designed the Opus 12, which was also his first widely publicized watch.
The Opus series has likewise served as an excellent launch pad for many other up-and-coming watchmakers. This is partly because, although Opus models are essentially concept pieces, they actually go on the market.
Therefore, Opus watches achieve wider exposure and also longer time in public awareness when they occupy the second-hand market. This improves name recognition for the designers and the series itself.
Harry Winston After The Winstons
Ron Winston stepped down as chairman in 2008; afterwards, CEO Tom O’Neill led the company through its next stages. O’Neill, a specialist in international markets, then expanded the firm’s presence worldwide.
In 2010, Frédéric de Narp, formerly of fellow jeweler-watchmaker Cartier, took O’Neill’s place, building the brand’s image during his tenure. On the watch front, he continued to promote the Opus series, ensuring each Opus release sold out immediately upon announcement.
Indeed, the increasing presence of the company in the watch world was drawing the attention of Swatch Group. Finally, in 2013, Swatch Group acquired the jewelry and watchmaking divisions of the company for $1 billion dollars. Meanwhile, the mining component continued on as Dominion Diamond Mines.
When Swatch Group acquired the company, Nayla Hayek, daughter of late Swatch Group chairman Nicolas Hayek, became CEO and chairman. Besides persevering to build the brand’s watch division, she continued founder Harry Winston’s pursuit of rare diamonds.
That same year, the firm would purchase a 101 carat flawless diamond it then named the “Winston Legacy.” Then, the next year, the company acquired a 13.22 carat flawless blue diamond, which took the name “The Winston Blue.”
Learn More About Harry Winston
Although only in the watch business since 1989, Harry Winston has admirably established itself as a watchmaker. Therefore, as part of Swatch Group, the brand serves as a centerpiece which showcases the group’s impressive watchmaking capabilities.
Finally, find more high-quality brand histories, guides, and reviews on watches in the links below: