As perhaps the 20th-century’s primary purveyor of exceptional gemstones, it was always going to be a challenge for Harry Winston to unshackle itself from an image that revolved solely around spectacular sparklers. When the brand entered the watch world in 1989, it was, therefore, a shrewd move to set course for the most serious end of watchmaking. Two series of watches came to embody the ambition, as well as the sincerity, with which Harry Winston diversified into haute horology.
The first, project Opus, launched in 2001, under the stewardship of then-managing director of rare timepieces Max Büsser (now of MB&F fame). Each year, said Harry Winston, an independent rock-star watchmaker would be given carte blanche to collaborate on a super-complicated, ultra-contemporary game changer of a timepiece.
Each spring, for 13 consecutive years – during which time Harry Winston established a state-of-the-art workshop in Geneva – journalists and watchmakers awaited the unveiling of Harry Winston’s latest piece of wizardry. Aesthetically, the results were varied and polarising. Mechanically, they were always astounding. On the dial of Opus 11, for example, four rotating jigsaw pieces would spring to life every hour, meeting at the centre of the dial to reveal the time. Elsewhere, Opus 8 displayed hours and minutes through a complex system of 59 pivoting hands and 11 rotating triangles.
In 2013, Harry Winston was acquired by Swatch Group, and mission Opus was suspended until 2015, when the jukebox-inspired Opus 14 was revealed by new CEO Nayla Hayek. Hayek has subsequently said that the Opus family will continue to be updated, but will follow no particular schedule.
Project Z, Harry Winston’s second series of world-first wristwatches, launched in 2004. The collection took its name from Zalium, a zirconium-based alloy developed by Ronald Winston, the son of Harry Winston and a talented chemical engineer more used to working with rocket propellers. Ronald realised that Zalium’s properties – it is extremely hard, strong and corrosion resistant – made the material perfect for watchmaking. He presented Zalium to the brand his father had founded, which chose to use it exclusively in a line of space-age sports watches, aka Project Z, the latest of which is this year’s Z11 (above). A skeletonised, matte-finish, twin-barrelled automatic, the openwork dial of the Z11 is intended to mirror the steel beams and superstructures of Harry Winston’s hometown, New York City.
From Manhattan, Harry Winston grew an empire that saw him become the ‘King of Diamonds’. From its watchmaking base in Geneva, the brand has become a leading light in the world of fine horology.