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“We want to sell jewellery the grandchildren fight over to keep, not pieces that heirs fight over to sell.” This sentiment, expressed by Tom Heyman, echoes the very ethos that his grandfather and great uncles built their business on in the early 20th Century.
Oscar Heyman & Brothers was founded in New York in 1912 by three brothers Oscar, Nathan and Harry Heyman who had emigrated from Latvia in 1906. Oscar and Nathan (the eldest of 9 children) had previously spent five years as apprentices at their great-uncles jewellery manufacturing workshop in Kharkov where clients are believed to have included the imperial jeweller Carl Fabergé. Whilst here they had learnt a variety of skills including design, production, metalsmithing techniques (in particular working with platinum), stone setting and tool making, all of which would contribute enormously to their future success.
Once settled in New York, Nathan began work as a tool maker for a large firm and Oscar found employment at the bench of a small manufacturing jeweller. When Cartier opened a branch in the city in 1909, Oscar became the first non-French jeweller to work for the firm, thereby beginning an association that would last for decades. Three years later the brothers felt the time was right to establish themselves independently and an advert was placed in the October 1912 issue of the Jeweler’s Circular trade magazine announcing the opening of ‘Oscar Heyman & Bros. Inc.’ located in the heart of the jewellery district at 49 Maiden Lane.
Before long they were joined by their brothers Louis, William and George as well as sisters Lena and Frances who ran the administrative side of the quickly growing business. Their broad range of skills and specialty in working with platinum meant they were sought after as manufacturers by many of the large retailers of the period. Their client list included Cartier, Tiffany, Black Star & Frost, J.E.Caldwell and Marcus & Co. to name a few and they became known as ‘the jeweler’s jeweler’, happy to stay in the background and manufacture beautiful jewels anonymously for their prestigious clients.
As well as exceptional craftsmanship, Heyman were renowned for their use of a wide and interesting range of gemstones and from early on they championed the use of pastel coloured multi-hued sapphires, cat’s eye chrysoberyls and moonstones alongside the usual rubies, blue sapphires and emeralds. They were also highly technically innovative and between 1916 and 1942 earned seven exclusive patents for advances in both jewellery design and manufacturing processes.
In 1939 New York played host to the World’s Fair and the striking House of Jewels showcased the latest creations of five of America’s top jewellery houses. All but one of these displayed jewels made by the Oscar Heyman workshop and so although they didn’t know it, the many millions of visitors to the fair were admiring the skill of a jeweller virtually unknown outside the trade. Marcus & Co. exhibited suites of Heyman jewels set with moonstones and Siberian amethysts alongside five stunning floral jewels including an orchid, lily-of-the-valley and pansy for which they won first prize. The pansy became synonymous with Oscar Heyman having been produced continuously since the 1930s in myriad different gems both for their clients as well as, in later years, under their own name.
At this same time, Van Cleef & Arpels opened their first branch in New York and Heyman was an obvious choice to manufacture for them in America. They were entrusted with the creation of the famous ‘Serti Mystérieux’ jewels for VCA NY, a design that was highly complex and labour intensive and which demanded great skill. The two firms enjoyed a longstanding relationship and almost all the VCA mystery set jewellery made in America came from the Heyman workshop, right up until the end of the 20th Century.
In 1969 the firm was presented with a huge challenge by Cartier who had recently sold a 69.42ct pear shaped diamond to Richard Burton as a gift for Elizabeth Taylor. However she was finding the ring it was currently set in somewhat unwieldy to wear and wanted it re-set into a show stopping necklace. This wasn’t a problem of course, except for the fact that she wanted it done within a week! Ideas were sketched and a design approved in just a couple of hours, Heyman craftsmen then worked around the clock for six days to find over 60 perfectly matched and graduated pear-shaped diamonds which were used to create the necklace from which this spectacular stone was suspended. “On the seventh day we rested” joked Adam Heyman of what must surely have been one of the most exciting commissions the workshop received that year.
Today the firm, which is one of only a very few family run American firms to have worked continuously for over 100 years, is run by second and third generation Heymans. Their vintage jewels are highly sought after guaranteeing as they do, the finest craftsmanship, wonderful gems and an enduring design appeal that transcends generations. Just as the founders hoped they would.