'The jeweler's jeweler' turns 100

By Hedda T. Schupak

The lobby of Oscar Heyman Brothers’ New York office, like many reception areas, isn’t lavish or ostentatious. But in this case, the lobby’s neat simplicity surprises visitors. After all, the Heyman family makes jewelry for houses like Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, as well as under their own name, and has created pieces for famous names like Elizabeth Taylor. The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2012.

Second- and third-generation cousins Adam and Tom Heyman run the business with Tom’s brother Lewis and another cousin, Marvin. Despite routinely dealing with the world’s rarest and costliest gems —and people who can afford to buy them—the Heymans are warm and unpretentious.

The roots of the business go back to the atelier of famous Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, where brothers Oscar and Nathan Heyman worked as teenagers. They were among dozens of youngsters learning the trade in the Fabergé shop at the turn of the 20th century. But the Heyman boys were different—Jewish—at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in Russia.

“They had to leave Russia. Their parents said, ‘Take your Fabergé skills to New York City,’” says Adam, 70. Oscar, then 13, and Nathan, 15, set out for America in 1901.

Within ten years, they would launch their own business, and the entire family—nine siblings, plus their parents—would come to New York. All but one sibling worked in the business at one time or another.

Amazingly, for a family that size, there was very little discord. “We’ve always had a culture of compromise and no egos,” says Tom Heyman, 52. “That’s not to say there weren’t arguments. There were six brothers, and each was a strong personality, so there were major arguments. But they were brief and quickly forgotten.”

Over time, various siblings were bought out, but most of their descendants spent at least some time in the business, even if it was just a summer job, says Tom.

David (Tom’s father) worked in the business from 1950-1994. David’s brother Marvin, now 82, joined in the 1950s and works primarily in production and finance. Adam joined in 1965 after earning his MBA from Columbia University. Tom joined in 1987, after spending five years working for IBM.

“I felt uncomfortable coming here without outside experience. I didn’t want to take advantage of the family connection,” he says. Adam, who came straight to Oscar Heyman from Columbia, later spent five years working for the Asscher diamond family, friends of the Heymans.

Lewis, 55, joined in 1997. He has an MBA in international affairs and a résumé that includes stints at non-profits and in the Peace Corps.

Each member has strengths in one area or another—gem acquisition, design, production, sales—but all roles overlap, says Tom. Adam, who traveled the world for years with his father buying gems, is passing his knowledge along to Lewis.

Among the family’s many stories is the tale of how the company created a necklace to hold the famous Taylor-Burton diamond—in only six days. Ideas were sketched in two hours for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s approval. Working day and night, the jeweler found 62 perfectly matched diamonds and finished the necklace. “On the seventh day we rested,” Adam jokes.

Will the fourth generation take over someday? The children of Marvin and Adam all chose other professions. Tom and Lewis’s children are still too young. If Tom has anything to say about it, the next generation will work somewhere else first, just as he did.

Every piece Oscar Heyman makes—whether for a famous jeweler or under its own name—is cataloged. That way, if it’s ever lost, it can be re-created.

Hedda T. Schupak, former editor-in-chief of Jewelers’ Circular Keystone magazine, is a retail analyst focusing on the fine jewelry, fashion and luxury markets.

 

 

 


 

 

 

Copyright 2012 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

 

 

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July/August 2012

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