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The Trouble with Harry Winston

When he died in 1978, Harry Winston left his two sons the most prestigious diamond emporium in the world. Now their decade-long battle has gotten so nasty that neither one may get the company. Nina Burleigh reports on the fight for the family jewels.

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"I probably should have become a chemist," says Ronald Winston. Deep sigh. It's hard not to feel a little sorry for him, even though he was born a millionaire and still is one. He certainly invites pity, sitting forlornly in his office above the famous Harry Winston flagship store on Fifth Avenue pondering his fate. In his late fifties, Winston has thinning gray hair, a perpetually pained expression, and the insistent but subtle charm of a man capable of selling a single piece of jewelry for several million dollars. A pair of gold-rimmed glasses, fortified with a few extra vertical and horizontal wires, are perched like pickup sticks on the bridge of his nose. They seem appropriately precarious for a man trapped between filial piety and sibling envy.

Downstairs, the diamond necklaces float like fish in the vitrines, priced to sell for more than it costs to buy a country estate. In the fifties and sixties, Harry Winston was the preeminent jeweler in the world: the destination of choice for both Hollywood and high society. These days, according to its chief designer, its most loyal clients are Arab oil princes who buy several baubles at a time for their wives to wear underneath their chadors. On the flagship's main floor, the scene is extravagant but strangely sterile; security is tense. During a guided tour, a guard accustomed to seeing women in sleek Chanel suits briskly ran his hand down the sides of my rumpled trench coat.

Ron Winston's private office is much more inviting -- a cozy jumble of clocks, paintings, photographs, and deluxe curiosities. Perched on a small pedestal is a lucite block with a current of electricity frozen inside it like a gold feather. A table packed with World War II model airplanes almost obscures a second table crammed with family photographs. Here's Ron Winston standing beside a grinning Nancy Reagan at the White House. There's Ron Winston nuzzling his beautiful young wife. A hipper Ron Winston, circa 1978, his longish hair still brown and still covering the top of his head, is pictured walking in a garden next to his dad. Ron's mother, Edna, a dark-haired woman in a red strapless evening gown and ruby necklace, smiles down from the wall behind Ron's desk. Only one family member is not represented: Ron's brother Bruce.

His absence is not accidental. For the past decade, Ron and Bruce Winston have been locked in an increasingly vituperative feud, one that has sapped the resources of the family-owned company and tarnished its image, culminating in its sale to the highest bidder.

Last month, as the brothers were accusing each other of fraud and worse, the last of the sealed bids for the company came trickling in from around the world. Once valued at $150 million, the company, by some estimates, is now worth a third of that amount. And while both Ron and Bruce have vowed to retain control of the store, many observers have watched in horror as their squabble has diminished a company their father painstakingly built over 40 years. "They are spoiled boys who didn't work hard and who didn't know what to do when they inherited the millions," says jeweler Bernard Hammerman, the president of Hammerman Brothers and a lifelong friend of Harry Winston's. The crack-up of the House of Winston, he says sadly, "is one of the big heartaches of the business."


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