The Making of Oscar Heyman’s Book for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

It’s hard to believe that after 102 years in business, New York City–based Oscar Heyman—known in the trade as the jeweler’s jeweler—hasn’t got a book to document its illustrious jewelry history. That situation, however, is currently being rectified. Enter Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, a world-class museum, as well as one of few nationwide with its own jewelry curator. Plus, the Boston MFA has historical goals to accomplish, and it must publish its findings.

“The museum was looking for an area of the jewelry world that did not have scholarly works,” said Tom Heyman during my studio visit last Friday, explaining why his firm was selected. (That, and a longtime museum patron who admired Heyman jewels helped fuel the book project.) Heyman called me last week and asked if I’d like a peek at the book’s behind-the-scenes organization. A private tour of the Heyman studio, complete with dozens of vintage jewels? Yes, please!  

The project started in 2007, Heyman explained, when the museum and one of its longtime supporters approached the company with the idea of the book. When the recession hit, the company shelved the idea until it was ready to regroup and reinitiate the project, which took place about two years ago. Since then, a researcher in New York City has spent about three days a week poring over company archives, while one in Hollywood combed through old movies to dig up salient facts (Oscar Heyman made unsigned pieces for Tiffany & Co. and Black, Starr & Frost, among others) and juicy historical tidbits—Lana Turner wore $1 million of Oscar Heyman jewelry in Imitation of Life in 1959—for use in the book, slated for release sometime between 2015 and 2016.

But Heyman’s reason for the timing of my visit was deliberate: It was to see some of the 150 different jewels the firm persuaded private collectors and dealers to loan the company for book photography. The firm reached out to clients a few weeks before the Las Vegas shows, figuring they’d get about 60 pieces, and the final figure astounded all. “We told clients we were looking for old Oscar Heyman pieces,” Heyman said. “It was a nice way to connect with customers.”

Perhaps most interesting about all the pieces collected is that Heyman has sketches for each one. Its office and workshop, where all their jewelry is made, has never endured fire or flood, effectively safeguarding sketches of every single piece ever made—175,000 in all. (Mind boggling, I know.)

In-house sketches of Oscar Heyman jewelry

Oscar Heyman’s in-house inventory of original jewelry sketches total a mind-boggling sum of 175,000.

A sapphire ring from a private collection and its original sketch

A sapphire ring from a private collection and its original sketch

A diamond and sapphire pin from a private collection and its original sketch

A diamond and sapphire pin from a private collection and its original sketch

At the Heyman offices, a living room–size space has been dedicated for photography. About 60 borrowed pieces were in house during my visit, with more slated to be shot in August and September to accommodate all willing book participants. Photographer Allison Chipak of Still Photography methodically set jewels such as gem-encrusted fish pins from a dealer/collector into an airy light-box setup. Other pieces included 13 iconic Heyman jeweled pansy brooches, seven birds, a ruby flower pin used on a pre-1950 invitation for Marcus Co., a snake bracelet circa 1920 with a movable mouth, a martini-glass brooch made with rock crystal quartz, a suite of gold and garnet convertible jewels, a citrine collar made for Tiffany & Co., a tray of Deco-style diamond bracelets, and many more.

Photographer Allison Chipak of Still Photography is shooting the pieces in Oscar Heyman offices.

Photographer Allison Chipak of Still Photography shooting the pieces in the Oscar Heyman offices.

A trio of bird pins from private collections

A trio of bird pins from private collections

A suite of gold and garnet pieces made for a gallery's inventory

A suite of gold, diamond, and garnet pieces made for a gallery’s inventory

A suite of convertible gold and garnet pieces made for a gallery's inventory

The pieces convert into one massive necklace.

Martini glass brooch made with rock crystal quartz that was made for one gallery's inventory

Martini-glass brooch made with rock crystal quartz that was made for one gallery’s inventory

Diamond snake bracelet circa 1920 with a moveable mouth

Video of diamond snake bracelet circa 1920 with a movable mouth

Sadly, space constraints prohibit all 150 pieces from being featured, but the book will be available for purchase at the museum and select bookstores. Stay tuned for word of its publication date.

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