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7 Things I Learned About Jewelry-Making From Oscar Heyman

April 25, 2018

JCK Magazine Editor Victoria Gomelsky visited our Madison Avenue Headquarters last Thursday. Below is an except from her account. To read about her complete journey in our workshop, click here.

7 Things I Learned About Jewelry-Making From Oscar Heyman

by Victoria Gomelsky

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of spending two hours at the Oscar Heyman workshop on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, learning how to make a simple 18k yellow gold pin.

It was not my first time in a jewelry-making arena. I’ve toured small ateliers in Los Angeles that consist of just a couple benches as well as enormous factories in Mumbai, where jewelry bound for America’s volume retailers is produced. But I had never actually participated in the act of making jewelry. The process of how molten metal transforms into a well-crafted, perfectly proportioned piece of jewelry remained, essentially, a mystery.

Until, that is, Tom Heyman, a third-generation member of the family business founded by brothers Oscar and Nathan Heyman in 1912, entrusted me with a torch.

Here are just a few of the things I learned during my master class at Oscar Heyman.

Jewelry-making is at once stealthy and loud.

Since 1969, Oscar Heyman has occupied two floors at 501 Madison Ave. (The same building where jewelers David Yurman, Jose Hess, and Kurt Wayne once worked). The floor where visitors enter houses the foyer, conference rooms, the administrative team, the stone-buying room, and file cabinets containing some 180,000 historic designs stored on yellowing cards. It was renovated about five years ago, when all the dark wood paneling was removed in favor of a lighter, more modern color scheme. “We wanted the space not to be looking backwards, but to be looking forwards,” Tom explained.

The first floor is so refined and elegant, you’d never guess there’s a full-fledged jewelry and tool-and-die workshop upstairs full of decades-old machines, including one date-stamped 1894! “We have CAD-CAM and laser welding machines, but a lot of the jewelry is still done the way it’s always been done,” Tom said.

The workshop hums with the sounds of jewelers alloying, rolling, stamping, hammering, drilling, and polishing metal. It’s not quite ear-splitting, but it certainly is loud, as befitting a bona fide factory. In 2017, Oscar Heyman was recognized with the “Made in NY” mark of distinction, a program administered by the New York City Economic Development Corp. And it’s on the second floor that all of the magic happens.

L: Two of the 180,000 archived designs.
C: All six Heyman brothers, ca 1950.
R: Victoria’s finished pin.

Gold melts at 2,000 degrees F.

The first step in the jewelry-making process is melting the metal. Tom had set aside a few pieces of scrap gold that I could use to make my piece. We gathered in the small furnace room, where Ray Pesantes, the shop’s toolmaker, handed me a torch with a hot blue flame that he’d set to about 2,000 degrees F.

(Oscar Heyman works exclusively in platinum and, to a lesser extent, 18k yellow gold. “We didn’t work in gold at all until WWII,” Tom said. “My grandfather Harry thought gold was inappropriate for fine jewelry.”)

I was instructed to keep the tip of the flame about 10 inches from the metal in the dish and wave it back and forth until the yellow hunks of metal liquefied into a silvery-looking gel. I passed the flame back to Ray, who poured the molten metal into a cast iron form, where it cooled.

Once it reconstituted, Ray removed the gold hunk, which looked like an oversize domino, and walked it over to “the pickle” (literally a Crock Pot full of sulfuric acid). He dropped it in and left it there for two or three minutes, as the acid removed impurities and oxidation. Once he removed it, my domino of gold was ready to be milled.

Jewelry-making is not for wimps.

The scariest machine in the room is the rolling mill, which transforms thick plates of gold into thinner plates or into wire that are easier to manipulate at the jeweler’s bench. It’s a big motorized machine (Oscar Heyman has a couple manually operated rolling mills, too), but all the action happens between two round rollers that are capable of exerting enough pressure to flatten metal. (Yikes!) With each successive roll, the idea is to tighten the wheels so the gold that you feed into one side of the rollers emerges thinner and longer on the other side. Our goal was to get my oversize domino down to 0.05 of an inch. “This machine will not stop no matter what’s in it,” Peter Olving, the shop manager, warned me. “Since I saw a pair of stainless steel tweezers get mangled, it’s one of the scariest ones to me. It does not stop.” I took my turn at the mill and gingerly fed it my gold domino. You’d have to be really careless to put your fingers (and, indeed, your whole hand and wrist) at risk, but it was a potent reminder of the dangers that lurk inside a factory. “Our torches are awfully hot,” Olving said. “Every jeweler here has scars. Setters’ tools are sharp pieces of steel with wooden handles. They put pressure on the handle. If a hand’s in the wrong place, it’ll go right through until it hits the bone. It’s just part of the trade.”

L: Victoria’s 18kt gold ‘bandaid.’
C: The workshop.
R: The steel die used to create Victoria’s pin.

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