A Fly on Harry Winston's Wall

A Fly on Harry Winston's Wall

Harry Winston“Your father understood what I was doing, and he respected it,” said Julius Cohen, and all at once, he knitted me up into the fabric of the jewelry business. It was December 1994, in my office at 50 Penn Place; he was to pass away the next summer, at the age of 81 -- a few days, his nephew later told me, after his final horseback ride. (“Poor horse!” someone who knew him said to me. Julius was a large man.)

I had left my family’s jewelry business only four years earlier to start my own company. Out of the nest that my grandfather Samuel started in 1904 and into the woods, which seemed on fire. I’d spent 14 years in the bosom of family. Would the jewelry industry still accept me? My father died in 1980, as the first oil boom got underway. Like Julius, he built a business on personal trade. Could I do the same? In his simple recognition of my father’s respect for him was something very personal. It was as though he’d thrown a blanket around my shoulders in the cold darkness and waited with me until dawn. The trade did know who I was, just because Julius was there, in my office, ready to do business. And maybe, somehow, he brought word from my dad as well.

I can only guess when or how they met. My father was born and raised here in Oklahoma City, the second youngest of four sons of a Lithuanian immigrant. Julius likewise grew up in the city of his birth, Manhattan. At the age of 16, he joined the workshop of his uncle, Oscar Heyman, widely known since the early days of Art Deco as “the Jeweler’s Jeweler” to such firms as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany. From the Old World, in what is now Latvia, Oscar and his brother Nathan began their apprenticeships in the workshop of an uncle who created pieces for Fabergé. These two eldest of the nine Heyman siblings had come to this country in 1906, founding their own company six years later.

I suspect the Heymans found out early on that the same playfulness that fed Julius’ whimsical design sense also gave him a pure, visceral joy in meeting with their customers. Don’t doubt it, Julius lit up any room he walked into. By the 1930s he was traveling all over the country as Oscar Heyman & Brothers’ representative. In this time, according to a short biography in Christie’s auction catalogs,  he “credits himself” with convincing Stanley Marcus of Neiman-Marcus to market fine jewelry in their Texas-based stores in 1938, “quite a feat during the troubled years of the Depression.”

Julius made good use of his connections, for in 1942 he joined the firm of the renowned Harry Winston to develop new markets, especially in Texas. Ten years earlier, Winston, who was of humble Ukrainian background, had opened his eponymous firm and set off on the course that was to make him the most influential jeweler in the world. He was the first one to loan jewels for stars to wear on Oscar night, becoming known as “Jeweler to the Stars.” He is believed to have owned one-third to one-half of all the famous diamonds in the world, including the legendary Hope Diamond, which he bought in 1949 at auction. Thus, he was called the King of Diamonds.

That was the same year that Winston started the traveling “Court of Jewels” collection of historic jewels, with the Hope as its centerpiece. Julius was appointed to accompany the tour, which ran until 1953. Was this how he met my father? Possibly, because the Court of Jewels visited retail jewelry stores all across the country, including Samuel Gordon & Co. during a Christmas season. Yet over the years I was told that different man represented the Winston firm when the collection came here.

In 1956, Julius left Harry Winston to found his own company, opening next door to the Stork Club in Manhattan. But he never stopped traveling to Texas and elsewhere, and Oklahoma was a natural stopover. I believe this is when they met, or at least became aware of each other. Julius did business with many long-time Oklahoma City residents, and also began to work with the high-end boutique Hightower department store in downtown Oklahoma City, where my father was practicing his own brand of personal trade and pursuing new ways of merchandising and marketing that he said made Samuel Gordon & Co. a “maverick” in the jewelry business.

In 1994, in my tiny office at 50 Penn Place, I found myself sitting face to face with the legend himself, large, bearded, somehow boisterous and refined at once, along with Jefferson, his assistant of many years. I was 44, and in awe. Julius had won Diamonds-International Awards for jewelry design, which were sponsored by DeBeers, for several years running in the 1950s. I had handled a few of his pieces, which had been sent on consignment for a Christmas season, a few years before at the family store. I knew he had an enviable appointment book of local customers. And I knew that he knew Dad, who had spoken of him to me with respect.

One might say that Julius was an early-day celebrity jewelry designer-manufacturer, creating beautiful jewelry in styles ranging from organic to classic, with opulent curves and deep textures like his signature “branch” brooches. Always superbly well-designed and well-made; his ingenious clasps, for instance. His sense of humor was always nearby: an 18-karat yellow gold dancing hippopotamus brooch, in tribute to Walt Disney’s “Fantasia,” set with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and a large yellow beryl. 

To the end, he marketed these things by going to the homes and offices of his customers. For those three or four days I was with him, one or two of his customers came to my office, but he was gone on appointments most of the time. I remember the glee in his whole body at the prospect, as he drew himself even taller, exclaiming through pursed lips, “Now let us go to meet our next pigeon!” On his last day, we made an unexpected sale to a total stranger who wandered by my showcase and saw an emerald and diamond ring. He was utterly calm, but transported. Later he sent me a copy of the note he wrote to that lady: “It was very good to meet you and I thank you for deciding to have our emerald ring. I value your trust and hope you will enjoy many years of pleasure in owning this ring.” So simply declarative, so measured out exactly right.

Sometime in the middle of the visit, we sat again, eye-to-eye. He said, “When I was working for Harry Winston, he once said to me – “ I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing up. He went on, “'when you’re making a sale, even a fly on the wall can affect the outcome.'” In an instant I understood that a fine attention to detail connects making jewelry with selling it, that each activity may produce its own kind of beauty and truly become art. With Julius, both were, and his very presence was a gift.

In the same way, whenever I notice a brilliant polish on the surface of the back of a piece of jewelry, I know the owner’s eyes will never notice it, but the reflections it makes behind stone settings may be seen every day. The smallest things, just the right word at the right moment, are important. Knowing that is what it means to possess what my fathers in the jewelry business have given me.

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