The story of one of the most prestigious American jewelry firms actually started in Latvia in 1888 when Oscar Heyman was born. One of nine children, Oscar along with his older brother Nathan, apprenticed in their great uncle’s jewelry workshop in Kharkov (Ukraine). The shop did work for the incomparable Fabergé and the brothers were trained in the finest jewelry making techniques.
In 1906, Oscar and Nathan made the trip across the Atlantic to New York City. A year later their brother Harry followed. Oscar had learned to work with platinum during his apprenticeship in his uncle’s shop and was well versed in using the new high-tech oxyhydrogen torch that made it possible to fashion the metal — which has an extremely high melting point — into jewelry. He soon landed a job with Cartier and was the firm’s first New York bench jeweler who was not French. Nathan worked for Western Electric in the tool and die shop. After leaving Western Electric Nathan continued to make tools and Oscar Heyman holds a dozen or so patents for jewelry making.
The Family Business
It didn’t take long for Oscar, Nathan and Harry to strike out on their own. In 1912 they opened their doors in downtown Manhattan at 47 Maiden Lane as Oscar Heyman & Brothers. Later that same year, six more siblings arrived in the City and through the years all but one spent their entire careers working in the business.
The firm was making jewelry for all the big-name jewelers of the day including Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Black, Starr & Frost, J.E. Caldwell and Van Cleef & Arpels among others. Currently, Oscar Heyman continues to produce jewelry for high-end jewelers but also brands its own collection.
Oscar Heyman was known for its high-quality manufacturing and jewlery design and today the company has an extensive archives of about 200,000 sketches. Color is at the core of the firm’s aesthetic, which is known for its exceptional gemstones.
“We look through the designs in our archives continually for inspiration and ideas,” comments Tom Heyman, co-president of the company and a third-generation family member. “We let the gems speak for themselves. That means that the design should show off the gem, not compete with it.”
The Jewelers’ Jeweler
The design talent and manufacturing skills of Oscar Heyman & Brothers was on full display at the New York 1939 World’s Fair House of Jewels where five luxury jewelers exhibited. It turns out that Oscar Heyman & Brothers had made the jewelry for four out of the five participating jewelers — Cartier, Marcus & Co., Udall & Ballou and Black, Starr & Frost-Gorham — leading to the firm being nicknamed “the jewelers’ jeweler”.
A couple of short years later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Oscar Heyman & Brothers got in touch with General Electric, Eastman Kodak and Bausch & Lomb, offering to adapt their factory to wartime use. A portion of the factory was set aside for jewelry making and the rest of the factory was making items needed for the war effort such as jeweled bearings which were used in airplane instruments, compasses and watches. Meanwhile, much of the jewelry being made at that time had a patriotic theme especially American flags and military motifs.
It is the ability to adapt to the times that has helped the firm — which rebranded to Oscar Heyman in 2012 when it turned 100 — stay in business. “We continue to make pieces that are very classic,” explains Heyman. “It starts with the stones. Our Boolean bracelet is a good example of how we change with the times. It is a two-row bracelet originally made in the 1950s comprised of baguette and round diamonds. For the first 40 years the bracelet was all diamonds. Then 15 or 20 years ago we began to make the bracelet with baguette diamonds and round sapphires, rubies or emeralds. Now, the bracelet is made using round multi-color gemstones for a more playful variation.”
The Taylor-Burton Diamond
Another big milestone for Oscar Heyman came in 1969 when Cartier asked the firm to design and manufacture a necklace for Elizabeth Taylor showcasing the 68-carat pear-shaped Taylor-Burton Diamond. The catch — there was just one week to make the necklace as Ms. Taylor wanted to wear it to a 40th birthday party for Princess Grace of Monaco. A few sketches were quickly rendered and one was selected — the diamond dropping from a dazzling necklace of pear-shaped diamonds. All other production that was happening in the Oscar Heyman workshop was put on hold and all hands were working feverishly on the necklace to meet the delivery date. It was delivered on schedule to Cartier and was flown directly to Monaco for the festivities.
Many celebrities and even royalty has worn jewelry made by Oscar Heyman including Queen Sirikit of Thailand. Most recently, actor Billy Porter created a sensation on the 2019 Academy Awards Red Carpet when he accessorized his Christian Siriano gown with jewels from the company worth $1.5 million.
So after 100 plus years in business how does Oscar Heyman continue to maintain its standards?
“We uphold three values,” concludes Heyman. “We use the best quality gems, best quality designs that showcases each gem simply and elegantly and we have the finest manufacturing in the world. We pay attention to details, we care about our jewelry and we want to be the best. We are consciously, continuously striving to do that.”
Authored by Amber Michelle