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Nayla Hayek on Guiding History into the Future

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

The legendary house of Harry Winston has been known as a leader in diamonds and jewelry ever since its founding in New York City in 1932. However Roberta Naas finds, under its current ownership, this luxury brand has also carved a strong leadership position for itself in the watch world, becoming a benchmark in haute horlogerie. Now, with a woman—Nayla Hayek—at the helm, the brand comes full circle. Four years ago, when the Swatch Group purchased Harry Winston, Nayla Hayek became CEO of the brand. No stranger to business — after all she is the daughter of the famed Nicolas G Hayek, who almost single-handedly saved the Swiss watch industry during the quartz crisis — Hayek set several goals as she planned a course to steer the brand to an all-new level of global recognition in both the watch and jewelry worlds.

Hayek had already served as chairwoman on the board of the Swatch Group (which her father founded and owns brands such as Breguet, Blancpain, Omega and Longines, among others) since 2010, and was highly familiar with the inner workings of the behemoth corporate structure. Harry Winston, however, was a particularly special brand requiring unique handling.

Before the purchase of Harry Winston by the Swatch Group, the brand was the subject of much conflict between the co-owner sons of Harry Winston. As they struggled to resolve issues and one brother finally sold to the other, Harry Winston’s presence waned and their feuding stilted the company’s growth.

So, when Nayla Hayek stepped in four years ago, there was a lot to be done. A horse-breeding expert who owns stables full of Arabian horses, Hayek took the helm with a firm hand, rolled up her sleeves and got to work. Hayek had a tall order in front of her: raise the profile of the brand globally while recalling its rich American past, and add strong product categories on the watch side in an effort to reach new customers without losing existing customers. The caveat: restoring the legend and legacy of Harry Winston to all-new glory while respecting its history.

“The most important thing with Harry Winston has always been to keep the DNA of the brand intact, even though we still need to move forward,” explains Hayek. “This involves a lot of discussions with the team, with the clients, and again with team to determine if something will work, and how it would fit in our collection. We scrap a lot of ideas because many times they are wonderful, but not feasible. Harry Winston is a jewel, and we need to keep true to the brand.”

Hayek admits that when one thinks of Harry Winston, one thinks first of diamonds, New York socialites and Hollywood actresses in Winston jewelry. Watch lovers think about the brand’s strong presence in men’s watches thanks to its bold, oversized Histoire de Tourbillon series, the pioneering Project Z watches made of proprietary Zalium, and the celebrated Opus series of timepieces made in collaboration with independent watchmakers.

At the time Swatch Group purchased the brand, the only real women’s watches made by Harry Winston were exactly what one would expect: high-diamond masterpieces that often came in the form of secret watches, convertible pendants or brooches, or wristwatches with mega-carat diamonds. This is one of the key aspects of the business that Hayek targeted.

“We needed to reach the women with our watches, too. They already know and love the brand, so it made the most sense to raise the profile of the women’s watches. By introducing new automatic watches in the Midnight and Avenue collections, we started in the right direction,” says Hayek about her strategy.

Further reinforcing the plan, Hayek moved full steam ahead with the launch last year of the new Emerald collection for women. The Emerald collection that made its debut at Baselworld was inspired by the brand’s logo and by the fact that Mr Winston loved the emerald cut in diamonds. The watch features an emerald-shaped case and single or double-wrap bracelet. The design was geared not only to reach women, but also to reach a younger female customer. According to Hayek, it was an immediate hit and is attracting new clientele globally.

“In a short time, we increased split on the women’s side to nearly 40/60,” says Hayek enthusiastically. “I don’t think we will add another women’s line like we did last year too soon, but we will grow what we have now, adding more complications for women.”

This year at Baselworld, the brand unveiled pieces that pay tribute to the Art Deco era, New York skyscrapers and the sophisticated nightlife that surrounded Harry Winston in the year of its founding. New watches include rectangular Avenue watches with blooming cherry blossoms, or in mini versions with moonphase indication or offering dual time functions. In its beloved round Midnight collection, the brand introduces a petite 29mm automatic watch with diamond drops on the dial.

In addition to growing the women’s watch business, Hayek set her sights on a new product category inspired by the brand’s history: Objects of Art. Also with the goal of raising the brand profile as a creator of unusual and special pieces — something Harry Winston regularly did in the 20th century — Hayek implemented a procession of stunning works of art, beginning last year with the unveiling of a one-of-a-kind bejeweled evening bag with a secret watch built into the diamond clasp.

This year, the brand releases several new objects of art. Among them, a superb small table clock made in the shape of the Emerald logo, created of rare and alluring aventurine with diamonds. The Emerald Time clock features the time and date on one side and a mirror on the reverse. It features overlapping octagonal shapes set with radiant diamonds for a dramatic architectural appeal.

Additionally, recalling the golden age of New York City and Broadway, Harry Winston unveils incredible gemstone-adorned binoculars with a clock atop them. The Broadway Glasses are actually a functioning pair of opera glasses set with diamonds and onyx.

“We won’t introduce an object that does not tie to the history of Harry Winston,” says Hayek, who seems to be a true perfectionist in all she does. “We must bring the DNA, the codes and style of Harry Winston forward. The binoculars were perfect because they are all about Broadway and New York. But it is always a delicate balance.”

Although a perfectionist, Hayek is also a great listener, has an easy, casual manner and a good sense of humor. And, while she is passionate about the equestrian field, she seems equally as enthusiastic about preserving the Harry Winston legacy. In fact, she has plans — already put into action — to renovate the New York flagship boutique and create a museum inside, so that visitors can get a true feel for Harry Winston.

“We have his office; we have his sketches; we have many vintage pieces he created,” says Hayek. “Now we need to showcase these for the public, so customers and lovers of Harry Winston can visit and see the beauty and history for themselves.”

Excited to be leading the Harry Winston brand on this journey, Hayek comments on what it’s like to be a woman executive in the predominantly male-dominated watch and jewelry world, and to be head of such an iconic brand. Having set extremely high standards for herself since she was young, Hayek says, “As a woman, if you want to have success, you have to prove yourself much more than a man does. But every woman who wants to achieve something can make it happen with hard work and perseverance.”