Shop Talk

Oscar Heyman Has Been Making Marvels Since 1912, Including Liz Taylor’s Most Famous Necklace

Elizabeth Taylor in the Taylor-Burton Diamond necklace
Jeweler Oscar Heyman has wrought countless beautiful objects, but the most legendary is the Taylor-Burton Diamond necklace, made for Cartier in 1969 and seen here on Elizabeth Taylor at the 1970 Academy Awards (photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images). Top: A finished bracelet is surrounded by loose stones and works in progress on a jeweler’s bench in the company’s Manhattan workshop (photo courtesy of Oscar Heyman).

In October 1969, the New York Daily News headline “Liz Gets That Peachy Pear” was one of many announcing that Richard Burton had purchased a 69.42-carat pear-shape diamond for Elizabeth Taylor from Cartier. At the time, the just-over-one-million-dollar price tag made the stone, which eventually became known as the Taylor-Burton Diamond, the most expensive in the world. 

One of the terms of the sale was that the gem would go on display at Cartier in New York for a week before it was sent to the celebrity couple. Three thousand people a day went to the jeweler’s flagship store on 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue to see it. 

While the media reported on the acquisition and exhibition, they didn’t know anything about the necklace being made for the gem by Oscar Heyman, a manufacturer hired by Cartier. In fact, a lot of Heyman’s illustrious history has been hidden behind the scenes.

Founded in 1912 by Latvian emigré Oscar Heyman, the company has long been known as “the jeweler’s jeweler” because of its superior workshop and its skill in 20th-century manufacturing techniques. These attributes are why jewelry experts and collectors seek out its work today, and they’re among the reasons that Cartier commissioned it to make the Taylor-Burton Diamond necklace. 

Another reason was the long relationship between the two firms. Shortly after Heyman immigrated to New York, in 1906, he went to work in-house as a master jeweler for Pierre Cartier, who ran the stateside operation of the French maison

Six years later, Heyman established his own workshop with his brothers Nathan and Harry. Cartier became a client, along with several other esteemed jewelers, including Tiffany, Theodore B. Starr and Black Starr & Frost.

Today, a tour through the Oscar Heyman studio and workshop in Midtown Manhattan is like a walk through the history of American jewelry over the past century. The company has file cabinets filled with around 200,000 meticulously organized designs in gouache on vellum and sketchbooks of ideas dating back to its beginnings. 

Oscar Heyman 9.01ct Unheated Ceylon Yellow Sapphire & Diamond Frame Ring
Oscar Heyman platinum, unheated yellow CEYLON sapphire and diamond frame ring, 2021

The workshop includes decades-old special equipment of all kinds, like the massive die-stamping device the firm used to create platinum settings for gem-set line bracelets during the 1920s. And craftsmen at benches in the shop practice time-honored techniques, such as wire pulling (easing gold through holes in a metal plate to transform it into wire) and thrumming (a traditional polishing method employed on every Oscar Heyman setting before the stones are mounted). 

Oscar Heyman became so well known for its manufacturing expertise that in the mid-20th century, by popular demand, the firm started producing jewels under its own name and selling them through smaller retailers across the country. At the same time, it continued to work on special projects for longtime clients like Cartier.

But although the company has made many stunning jewels over the years, none was as exciting to produce as the necklace for the Taylor-Burton Diamond. 

Oscar Heyman was given six days to make the piece, composed of pear-shape diamonds, each set at an angle. It was precisely measured to fit Taylor so that the large pear-shape pendant would nestle in her décolletage. The craftsmen worked day and night on the production. 

“We didn’t know why they needed the jewel so quickly, but we got the job done,” says Harry Heyman’s grandson Tom Heyman, who joined the family business in 1987. 

A pair of Oscar Heyman bracelets at the firm's tool-and-die shop
A pair of bracelets sits on a metal lathe from the 1890s in the firm’s tool-and-die shop. Photo courtesy of Oscar Heyman

“My first cousin once removed, Adam Heyman, met the Cartier salesman in a cab with the Taylor-Burton Diamond necklace,” he recounts. “We found out later the man from Cartier was en route to Europe to present the piece to Elizabeth Taylor.” The actress debuted the jewel at Princess Grace’s 40th birthday party in Monaco in November 1969, less than one month after the sale of the stone. 

Here, Introspective talks further with Tom Heyman, a principal of the firm, about the history of Oscar Heyman and the jewelry it makes today.

OSCAR HEYMAN PLATINUM, BURMESE RUBY AND DIAMOND ENTOURAGE EARRINGS, 2021
Oscar Heyman platinum, Burmese ruby and diamond Entourage earrings, 2021

How would you describe Oscar Heyman jewelry? 

Gems are the stars of the jewels. We deemphasize the metal. We want things to be pretty and have an heirloom quality. We want clients’ grandkids to fight over who gets to keep the jewels as opposed to who sells them. 

Sketch of how wax will be used to set gemstones
Here, gemstones are set in wax according to a gouache sketch. Photo courtesy of Oscar Heyman

What types of gems are Oscar Heyman signatures?

Emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds are staples in our work. We’ve always loved the star stones, such as alexandrites and cat’s-eye moonstones. We’re attracted to bright, feminine colors with an inner life, like Paraíba tourmalines, lagoon tourmalines and rubelites. Above all, the gems have to be gorgeous.  

Do you make new designs these days or rely on your archive or both?

We make new designs all the time and look into our archives for inspiration. We don’t make an exact copy of something from 1927. We’ll change the proportion or details to reflect twenty-first-century taste. 

What are some of your most popular designs today?

The item we make the most, with all sorts of variations, is the Entourage ring. The original design in our archives dates back to the nineteen forties. Entourage is derived from the French word for “surround,” and in the design, a center stone is encircled by diamonds in fancy shapes, like ovals. 

For the past twelve years or so, we’ve been making a lot of scatter bracelets. They’re about a half inch or an inch wide and set with randomly laid-out stones.

Actor Billy Porter wearing Oscar Heyman brooches
Three Oscar Heyman brooches complement actor Billy Porter’s ensemble for the 2019 Golden Globe Awards. Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

The company is known for designs that endure. Yet the way the actor Billy Porter styled three Oscar Heyman flower brooches at the 2019 Golden Globes put the firm and its style right on the cutting edge of fashion and the new wave of men wearing fine jewelry. Can you tell us how that moment happened?

We met Billy through a dress designer located in our building. The designer picked the flower brooches for him to wear because they matched the embroidery on his suit and cape. 

It was wonderful to work with him, and he looked like he was having so much fun. Truly, the situation was sort of like the Taylor-Burton Diamond necklace in that it happened through personal relationships. They were both wonderful, real moments in our history.

Tom Heyman’s Talking Points

Marquise-ruby scatter bracelet, 2021
Shop Now
Marquise-ruby scatter bracelet, 2021

“This type of bracelet, where the stones appear to be woven together, is a signature of ours. We go to great lengths in our workshop to ensure the flexibility of the finished piece so that it feels as good as it looks being worn.”

Ceylon sapphire frame earrings, 2021
Shop Now
Ceylon sapphire frame earrings, 2021

“Each of these exquisite Ceylon sapphires sits in a frame of diamonds cut specifically for it. The frame is an elegant and streamlined style that we offer with a variety of gemstones. We make frame rings as well.”

Gold, sapphire and diamond ring, 2019
Shop Now
Gold, sapphire and diamond ring, 2019

“Our band rings are made by hand in our New York City workshop using old-world techniques to ensure everlasting quality.”

Platinum American flag bow-tie brooch, 2019
Shop Now
Platinum American flag bow-tie brooch, 2019

“As an American jewelry house, we have a robust collection of patriotic jewelry, and this bow-tie brooch is a playful example.”

Gold and black-opal Snacking Fish brooch, 2019
Shop Now
Gold and black-opal Snacking Fish brooch, 2019

“The design for this whimsical brooch was conceived around the unique shape of this incredible Australian black opal. The engraving on the back is done entirely by hand and is artwork in itself.”

Platinum and gold baguette-emerald and -diamond ring, 2015
Shop Now
Platinum and gold baguette-emerald and -diamond ring, 2015

“Because of the way the emerald rough grows and the mining process, seeing long and narrow stones of this quality is rare. This Zambian stone is characteristically bright.”

Loading next story…

No more stories to load; check out The Study.

No more stories to load; check out The Study.