Oscar Heyman has been a driving force in the fine jewelry industry for over a century, but only in the past few decades has their work received significant notice from the general public. They are renowned for their use of the rarest and most brilliant gemstones, including Paraiba tourmalines, moonstones, colored sapphires and cat’s eye chrysoberyls, and their painstaking attention to detail and production. Please join us as we explore the fascinating history of this rare vintage jewelry and the celebrated work of the company that’s earned the distinction of being “The Jeweler’s Jeweler.”
Platinum and Promise: The Formative Years
Oscar Heyman was born in Latvia in 1888. In 1901 thirteen-year-old Oscar and his sixteen-year-old brother Nathan left home to work in their great uncle’s jewelry factory in the Ukraine, whose clients included the imperial jeweler Faberge. In 1906, the two immigrated to the United States and settled in New York, where their brother Harry later joined them in 1907. Oscar soon found work as a jeweler and, in fact, was the first non-French jeweler to be employed by Cartier. Nathan, a skilled tool and die maker, became a machinist with Western Electric. Both were adept in working with platinum, which was a relatively new material at the time. This combination of skills, along with their talent and industriousness, would be the foundation of one of the most renowned jewelry houses in history.
In 1912, the three brothers started their own jewelry company, Oscar Heyman & Brothers. Six more siblings joined them in New York, and all but one would work at the company at one time or another. The latter part of the decade would be a significant period of growth and innovation for the company. During this time, Oscar was granted the first of six patents, and their patriotic jewelry designs proved extremely popular with the country in the midst of World War I. Their first American Flag brooch, designed for Black, Starr & Frost was a big hit, and it remains a popular design even today.
The Art Deco Era: 1920s-30s
The early 1920s saw tremendous growth and significant changes for Oscar Heyman & Brothers. Their shop moved to 71 Nassau Street in 1920 and two years later relocated to 58 West 40th Street near 5th Avenue. Heyman produced a number of remarkable Art Deco creations during this era, one of the most famous and fabulous being a 60.00-carat carved emerald and diamond brooch for Marcus & Co., owned by Marjorie Merriweather Post, socialite and owner of General Foods. This remarkable brooch currently resides at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They patented their die-stamp machine process and also began to make inroads with sourcing high-quality gems when Nathan Heyman negotiated a deal with a Columbian emerald mine.
Towards the end of the decade, they were awarded another patent for a platinum bracelet link design, which incorporated the clasp into the last links of the bracelet instead of attaching it separately at the end of the bracelet, greatly increasing the strength of the clasp. Another notable innovation involved “invisibly set” jewelry, where stones are mounted on a metal track that cannot be seen from the top or sides.
In these early days, Oscar Heyman & Brothers did not manufacture jewelry for themselves or sell it directly to the public, but rather produced it for other high-profile firms, such as the above-mentioned brooch produced for Marcus & Co. They had no storefront and did not advertise to the public, but a glimpse into the extent of their scope, influence and importance came to light at the 1939 World’s Fair. The fair’s theme was “The World of Tomorrow” because, at the height of the Great Depression, people desperately needed a dose of hope and optimism. Five jewelers had wares displayed at the fairs’ “House of Jewels”: Cartier, Udall & Ballou, Tiffany & Co., Black, Starr & Frost-Gorham and Marcus & Co. Oscar Heyman & Brothers produced the jewelry on display for every company except Tiffany & Co. thereby earning them the designation of “The Jewelers’ Jeweler” which they continue to be known as today. Later that year, they began working with Van Cleef & Arpels.
Patriotic Jewelry for Patriotic Times: 1940s
As World War II progressed, the company pivoted to meet the needs of wartime production, offering its factory to companies such as General Electric and Kodak to ensure the country’s production needs were met. In addition to other restrictions, gems were difficult to source during this time, and platinum was reserved for military use. While still manufacturing jewelry, emphasizing patriotic and military designs, the factory’s primary output was devoted to the manufacture of jewel bearings to incorporate into watches, compasses and airplane instruments. Though these were difficult times, the company produced some of the finest patriotic jewelry of the era and began working with Neiman Marcus, who remains a partner to this day. Shortly after WWII, George Heyman started traveling the world looking for the rarest, most beautiful and colorful gemstones he could find, a process that continues for the company today.
Golden Age of Gemstones: 1950s-60s
Floral brooches were a consistent mainstay of the firm; in the 1950s, they added the “ballerina ring” to their repertoire, both have remained top sellers. The original ballerina ring is an 11.20-carat untreated round star sapphire surrounded by 28 tapered diamond baguettes that now resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In 1959, the firm saw their first collaboration with Hollywood, when through the company Leykin et Cie, they provided all the jewelry for the Lana Turner film Imitation of Life. The necklace worn by Lana Turner in the film was designed by longtime Heyman employee Henry Rogers, and it featured baguette, square, round, half-moon and marquise diamonds, as well as yellow and brown diamonds. This collaboration with Hollywood opened the door for many more throughout the years.
The 1960s brought many changes to the firm. George Heyman, the youngest brother, was appointed to succeed Oscar and the next generation took over the running of the firm. Though the 1964 World’s Fair did not have a dedicated jewelry pavilion as the Fair of 1939 did, Heyman partnered with the Linde Star Corporation to create a commemorative necklace for the event. Another big star, Elizabeth Taylor, had fine examples of Oscar Heyman & Bros. creations in her collection. Famously, in 1969, Cartier entrusted them with a commission to design and produce the setting for the legendary Taylor-Burton Diamond, an incredible 69.42-carat internally flawless diamond purchased by Taylor’s then-husband, film star Richard Burton. Heyman accomplished this project on an extremely tight deadline to great acclaim, creating a lavish pendant setting within one week’s time. Taylor debuted the stunning creation at Princess Grace of Monaco’s Scorpion Ball. Adam Heyman recalls that when creating the necklace, ideas were sketched in two hours, and “. . . working day and night, the jeweler found 62 perfectly-matched diamonds and finished the necklace. ‘On the seventh day, we rested.’”
Disco and Diamonds: 1970s-80s
Oscar Heyman passed away in 1970, and George Heyman became president of the firm. Accolades continued to mount for the company. A 1971 commission from the Society of the Cincinnati to create a replica of the badge of their historic Diamond Eagle insignia crafted in Paris in 1787 was judged to be equal to the original. The company also boldly went where no jeweler had gone before in 1972 when it was commissioned by the manufacturer of the Apollo 16’s command module to design medallions for the shuttle’s astronauts. The gold medallions were decorated with diamonds, enamel, a bald eagle and the Apollo 16 crest, and they were worn by the astronauts in space. Vintage Oscar Heyman & Brothers jewelry also began appearing at auctions during this time, increasing the company’s name recognition with the public.
The 1980s saw inroads into other markets, opening offices in Japan. Yellow gold and enamel jewelry surged in popularity, and Heyman rose to meet the demand, producing exquisite floral and animal motif jewelry. Throughout this period of growth and development, the company remained true to its roots, making every piece of jewelry in-house and by hand. Everything, including clasps and earring backs, was handmade. In addition to sourcing only the brightest, most colorful and exquisite gemstones from around the world. It was this fastidiousness, attention to detail and craftsmanship that set Oscar Heyman apart during this period, and this same diligence continues to this day.
The 1990s to today
Oscar Heyman jewelry continues to rise in popularity, leading the way with innovative, contemporary designs while still adhering to the same rigorous standards, painstaking precision and attention to detail they’ve maintained throughout their history. For their 100th anniversary in 2012, Oscar Heyman & Brothers changed its name to simply Oscar Heyman and a fancy intense pink diamond ring crafted by the firm and owned by the late philanthropist Evelyn Lauder sold for over 8 million dollars at Sotheby’s. Today, Oscar Heyman jewelry is worn by celebrities including Tina Fey and Billy Porter. Currently led by George Heyman’s son Adam, the company is in its third generation of family ownership and has built a beautiful legacy from the world’s most beautiful jewels.
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Markowitz, Yvonne J., Elizabeth Hamilton. Oscar Heyman - the Jewelers’ Jeweler. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2017.
Schupak, Hedda T. “’ The Jeweler’s Jeweler’ Turns 100.” Oscar Heyman celebrates 100th anniversary in 2012., 2012.