A Fly on Harry Winston’s Wall

Harry Winston

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 when I most needed it. 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 told me, after his final horseback ride. (“Poor horse!” someone who knew him said. Julius was a large man.)

I had left my family’s jewelry business 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. How would the jewelry industry accept me, all on my own? My father had died in 1980 as the first oil boom got underway. Like Julius, he built a business on personal trade. Now, fourteen years later, could I do that? In Julius' 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, because Julius was there, in my office, doing business. And maybe somehow he brought word from my dad.

I can only guess how they met. My father was born and raised in Oklahoma City, the second youngest of four sons of Samuel, a Lithuanian immigrant. Julius grew up in Manhattan, the city of his birth. At the age of 16, he joined the workshop of his uncle, Oscar Heyman, a pioneer of platinumsmithing in the U..S. and known as “the Jeweler’s Jeweler” to such firms as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Tiffany. In the Old World, in what is now Latvia, Oscar apprenticed in the workshop of an uncle who created pieces for Fabergé. He and a brother had come to this country in 1906, founding their own company six years later.

I imagine the Heymans saw early on that the same playfulness that fed Julius’ design sense came out as pure visceral joy in meeting with their customers. 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 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. 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 of his time. 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. He was called the King of Diamonds.

That was also the 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? The Court of Jewels visited retail jewelry stores all across the country, including Samuel Gordon & Co. during a Christmas season around 1951, the year I was born. But my father used to say that someone else 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. He never stopped traveling to Texas and elsewhere, fairly often Oklahoma. I believe this must have been when they met. 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. Meanwhile my father was practicing his own brand of personal trade and pursuing new ways of merchandising and marketing. He called us a “maverick” in the jewelry business.

so, in 1994, in my tiny office at 50 Penn Place, I found myself sitting face to face with the legend himself, large, bearded, boisterous, along with Jefferson, his assistant of many years. I was 44 years old and in awe of him. Julius had won Diamonds-International Awards for jewelry design, sponsored by DeBeers, for several years running in the 1950s. I had handled 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 indeed spoken of Julius 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 big yellow beryl in his tummy. 

To his very 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, he was gone on appointments most of the time. I remember the glee in his voice and whole body as he drew himself even taller, exclaiming through pursed lips, “Now let us go to meet our next pigeon!” On his last day in my office, we made an unexpected sale to a total stranger who wandered by my showcase and saw a ring he'd brought along. He was calm but transported. Later I saw the note of thanks 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.” A simple declaration, measured out exactly right.

In the middle of the visit, we sat eye-to-eye. He said, “When I was working for Harry Winston, he once said to me – “ (The hair on the back of my neck was at this moment standing up.) “'When you’re making a sale, even a fly on the wall makes a difference.'” And in an instant I understood that fine attention to detail connects making jewelry with selling it, produces its own kind of beauty and may become art. This was Julius' gift to me.

Whenever I see polish on the surface of bead settings on the back of a piece of jewelry, I appreciate the care taken for the hidden things and think of Julius. An owner may never notice the polish itself, but enjoys every day the additional little kick of brilliance of the stones thus enhanced by reflections it makes. The smallest things, the right word at the right moment, are important. Knowing that is what it means to receive what my fathers in the jewelry business have given me.

Posted on March 22, 2018 by Scott Gordon