Born in Liège in Belgium in 1829, Oscar Massin was only twelve years old when he was apprenticed to the jeweller Charles Reintjens who specialised in gem-set pieces.
Massin had chosen his career path himself after being inspired by a simple horse shaped tie pin that one of his friends was wearing. He remained with Reintjens for nine years during which time he received training in a broad range of skills from designing through mounting and setting to polishing. In 1851 he set off for Paris to seek work in the centre of haute joaillerie manufacturing and found a bench jewellers position with the firm of Théodore Fester. Massin supplemented his salary by spending his evenings drawing up his own jewellery designs which he then sold to other firms. After three years he left Fester and joined Rouvenat as chef d’atelier but moved again after only a year when, despite having plans to travel to London, he was persuaded to join Viette in early 1855.
This firm of manufacturing jewellers had recently been commissioned by the Empress Eugenie to create a large diadem that she would wear to the opening of that years Exposition Universelle. M. Viette asked the young Massin, who had acquired quite a reputation by this point despite his relative youth, whether he would postpone his trip to help create a jewel ‘fit for a Queen’. Massin acquiesced and although he didn’t get to design the piece, he said he was “tempted by the opportunity” because the diadem would be set with the famous and spectacular Regent diamond from the French Crown Jewels. Once the diadem was finished, Massin made his way to London as previously arranged and spent the next year and a half working with the jeweller Boeck. Back in Paris he worked for Tottis, becoming partner in 1861, and it was during this time that his style really began to evolve. Tired of seeing generic and unrealistic flowers depicted in jewellery he focused on creating nature inspired jewels of a delicate and realistic quality. To do so he spent time carefully studying the intricate forms and structures of flowers in order to render them as accurately as possible in his creations.
In 1863 Massin set up his own workshop on the Rue des Moulins and was immediately commissioned by jewellery firms large and small to design and create beautiful naturalistic jewels for them. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Massin’s skill as a draughtsman was matched by his talent as a craftsman and he possessed a truly comprehensive understanding of both the art and practice of jewellery making. He prided himself on being able to single handedly take a jewel from the initial vision, through the design process and on to the realisation of the final piece. In March 1864 he created a spectacular parure for the firm of Lemonnier who had received the commission from the Royal Court of Spain, both the bold design and exquisite craftsmanship were noted and praised by all who saw it. However, it was the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867 that really brought international recognition for Massin who, as well as creating countless pieces for retail jewellers, also exhibited under his own name for the first time. His centrepiece was a stunning head ornament consisting of a diamond, ruby and emerald bandeau worn across the top of the head with a diamond-set feather curved up and over to one side embellished with gem-set chains to the reverse which were pinned into the hair and two more which hung down under the chin.
By 1869 his workshop was so busy that he needed more space and so the business moved into newly finished premises on the Avenue de l’Opéra, which at this time was only partly constructed. Over the next two decades he continued to design and create all manner of jewels both for other jewellers as well as directly for his own clients. He continued to exhibit his work and was awarded both a Grand Prix and the Légion d’Honneur at the 1878 Exposition in Paris. Amongst the exquisite creations he displayed were a three dimensional rose fully pavé-set with diamonds, a large and impressive diamond-set belt and a tiara set with diamond briolettes. For the occasion of King William III of the Netherlands’ marriage to Princess Emma in 1879, Massin created a medallion set with a rare portrait diamond which had been engraved with the King’s head in profile. The King gave it to his bride who wore it for the ceremony, pinned to her wedding dress.
Another significant jewel that can be attributed to Massin and which survives today is the majestic diamond tiara, now known as the Fife Tiara. It was given to Princess Louise (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) on her wedding day in 1889 by her groom, the 1st Duke of Fife, and having remained in the family until very recently, it is now on display at Kensington Palace. Massin retired in 1892 and passed away three years later leaving behind him an extraordinary collection of jewels. Whilst most will remain unattributed to him and his name is largely unknown today, he remains a highly important and influential figure in the history of 19th century French jewellery.