Oscar Massin (1829 -1913) showed the heights to which the art of jewellery making can ascend. His mastery and understanding of the materials were total and deep, his brain artistic and intellectual, and his dedication to the profession intense, sincere and relevant. From age 11 he was trained in Liège as a jeweller and he was educated there at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1851 he moved to Paris, where in 1863 he established his own workshop under his own name.
From the start of his career, he formulated – in interaction with arts and science – his principles, which led him to develop new artistic languages, to apply a painter’s palette and to introduce many technical innovations which lifted the entire profession to higher grounds. For his art, Massin used mainly diamonds cut in Amsterdam. From the late 16th century up until World War II, especially during Massin’s time, Amsterdam was the international centre of diamond trade and cutting. Innovations from Amsterdam allowed Massin to be a light artist.
During the Universal Exhibitions in Paris in 1855, 1867, 1878 and 1889, Massin’s work took the prime position, although only in 1867 and 1878 he participated under his own name, earning him a gold medal and the ‘premier grand prix’ respectively. In 1889 he wrote an essay about the art of jewellery for the official report of the jewellery section of the Universal Exhibition, through which his artistic ideas are known. The Fine Arts jury of the exhibition awarded him a special gold medal for the ‘application of art to industry’. During this exhibition, jewellery in the ‘School of Massin’ was dominant, in the displays of Lalique, Vever, Boucheron and many others. Already during his lifetime, he was called ‘grand joaillier’. Because he created mainly for retail jewellers, he didn’t sign most of his work and until 1880 he hardly used his maker’s mark, so currently his body of work is largely unknown.
His influence on the profession is considerable but was never before researched. Erik Schoonhoven is working on a PhD about Oscar Massin, hopefully this will bring him the recognition he deserves so richly.
According to his friend and colleague Henri Vever, in his La Bijouterie Française au XIXe siècle (1906-1908), Massin was the first who – besides birds, feathers and other elements from nature – made insect jewels, which became a rage that lasted for decades and a motif that is still being used. His insect jewels have not yet been identified, but in the album with designs from 1867, which Massin donated to the Brussels Palais de l’Industrie, I did find this first evidence, from 1867/8. In 1862 Charles Darwin published his research showing that insects are responsible for the procreation of plants; up until then, it was generally assumed this happened without any form of sex. In France, this insight was protested against because it went against their national hero Lamarck, but in Belgium, the idea gained traction, especially in Liège, where Massin was born and raised. He remained in touch with Liège his entire life. Insect jewels were worn primarily on the bosom, gently vibrating with every breath and other movements, and each insect had its meaning.
The artistic language of Massin’s 1867 ‘diadème arceaux’ is completely new, futuristic even. Technically it is avant-garde: the round and oval brilliants are very early examples of the modern Amsterdam cuts. The large central diamond is a briolette: an expensive, advanced shape that causes the light to be absorbed and reflected from all sides. It is even possible that the unconventional bottom row catches the light and projects it into the tiara, which causes a phenomenal spectacle. The key to the interpretation is in ‘arceaux’, the arches at the bottom. Arches make the essence of gothic architecture possible: because of the thin walls with high windows, light is the central experience in gothic architecture, and in this tiara. Massin started with the upper part of the windows (the arches) and worked his way further up, where the light in the cathedral stops. Artistically this is a masterly design: neogothic was important in
‘bijouterie’ (metal with stones as accent), but not in ‘joaillerie’ (stones with metal as accent). Massin chose to work with the essence of gothic architecture – light – in a previously unknown manner. Massin’s tiara was internationally known through engravings in publications. The fact that the Rotterdam based jewellery designer and maker Jac. Vos chose this jewel as inspiration for a tiara for Queen Emma of the Netherlands in 1881, is telling of his ambition and level but also of his reference framework: he received his education in Paris. Massin’s original tiara does not exist anymore. Though the visual effect of the large central briolette diamond is gone in the copy by Jac. Vos, it still remains one of the most important and most popular tiaras ever made.
Work for Mellerio
Massin’s work is relatively unknown because he only had a workshop and not a shop, most of what he made was sold by others under their name, like Boucheron, Baugrand, Fontana, Sandoz and many others. Massin had a decades long partnership with the still existing Parisian jeweller Mellerio. For example the famous ‘shell tiara’ – still worn by the Queen of Spain and visible in the photo on the right (at the bottom of the middle row of tiara’s) – is a design by Massin and was made in his workshop.
Erik’s research uncovered that the 4 wreath tiara’s (2 on the left and 2 on the right) are all designs by Massin as well, as is evidenced by his 1867 design album previously mentioned. They are inspired by Etruscan funerary crowns from the famous Campana collection housed in the Louvre. The collection of Etruscan, Roman, Greek and Egyptian jewellery, did stimulate the ‘archaeological revival’ in bijouterie. For the first time, it is shown that Massin translated this into diamond set jewellery.
A royal commission
The Netherlands presented itself at the Universal Exhibition of 1878 in Paris as an advanced nation with the diamond industry as its flagship. In the Dutch diamond pavilion, the diamond with the portrait of King William III of the Netherlands engraved in it was hailed as a wonder of art and technique, also by the international press. The artistic engraver M.C. de Vries jr. had worked on it during his free time for 5 years, engraving it with a diamond tipped pen. In that year, the King was searching for a bride, because the royal dynasty was about to become extinct. In the fall of 1878 he found the 40 years younger Princess Emma of Waldeck-Pyrmont willing to marry him. For the King, it meant a change from a wild lifestyle in Paris to stable family life in the Netherlands. During the King’s years in Paris, the famous diamond dealer and owner of several diamond cutting factories (famous for recutting the Koh-i-Noor) Martin Coster was his consul general. He commissioned the engraved diamond portrait from De Vries. After its success at the exhibition, Coster asked Massin to create a medallion with the diamond, to give it as a wedding present to the King. The King applied the medallion to Emma’s wedding dress at the entrance of the church during their wedding. With Emma, the Dutch monarchy started a new phase in 1890, with only women as head of state. This period lasted until 2013, and it was marked by Massin’s jewel. For the design of the medallion, Massin chose the theme of ‘Dutch roses’, which was the international name of the cutting style that is flat on the bottom and has a faceted dome, which results in a softer, more grey light effect compared to brilliants. What you cannot see in this photo, is how in soft light the closed-set diamonds on metal create a subtle grey texture. It is by no means an exuberant jewel but focused on the engraving in the diamond.
New life for a necklace
Massin continued the design principle of the medallion in this necklace: the large diamonds are open-set, the roses closed-set, giving the impression the large diamonds are floating. After the auction of this necklace in 2018 by Sotheby’s London, who quoted my research in the lot description in the catalogue (left), New York jeweller Fred Leighton had it in its collection. A few months later, Dame Anna Wintour, chief editor of Vogue USA and Global Chief Con-tent Manager of Condé Nast wore the necklace at the Met Gala, as well as in 2021. In my opinion the necklace should be worn on its own, it is a statement piece without the need for more embellishment.
In 1870 the Second French Empire fell. The Universal Exhibition of 1878 in Paris was the first during the Third Republic, which changed Massin’s context: there was no glittering court anymore. There also was a long international economic crisis. Many people suffered, including Parisian jewellers. Also, the rich flow of Cape diamonds from South Africa dried up. This inspired Massin to introduce a new artistic vocabulary. His 2 patented innovations were imitation lace and embroidery, and diamonds set in thread work. The technical and visual emphasis is on the human scale, the origins of the profession: the application of jewels on fabrics, and on rich thread work that was common in many types of regional jewellery in Europe. A lack in wealth in gemstones was compensated with handwork (often done by children). Belgium, and especially Liège, was an important centre of lace production. Massin chose to work this theme out in his spectacularly detailed fashion, done with his mature hands. Lace was a luxury product and status symbol that had become accessible to more people because of the Industrial Revolution, which strengthens the impulse to present it as luxury product. Massin’s completely flexible lacework – a triumph of jewellery making – was copied quickly, but he chose not to employ his patents. He was happier being copied than to copy others. Also, the development of the profession was his prime motivator.
Only in 2018 I found out that Massin also made bijouterie, when this brooch ‘en tremblant’, trembling, appeared in an auction. Thanks to a photo of his display at the Universal Exhibition of 1878 in Paris, we know he had presented there the plaster cast model of this brooch. It does not show whether it is intended as a diamond set jewel or as bijou. Through a newspaper report, we know that this ‘couronne Pompadour’, as it is called, was exhibited even before it was finished, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, in a retrospect of the French participation in the Universal Exhibition of 1878.
Modelling and presenting designs in plaster cast is an innovation by Massin, one of his many contributions to the profession. His presentation at the International Exhibition of 1871 in London consisted only of plaster cast models and design drawings, there was no jewel to be seen. In 1875 Massin was a member of the committee of the French jeweller’s federation UFBJOP, which was tasked with inventing a regulation through which designers could register their plaster models, to protect their intellectual property. Massin was the author of the report. Diamond, jewel and silver museum DIVA Antwerp acquired this ‘couronne Pompadour’ aided by the King Baudouin Foundation. Since 2018 it forms part of their permanent presentation of Belgian makers. It is their first Massin.
The Fife Tiara
One of Massin’s highlights at the Universal Exhibition of 1878 in Paris was this architectural tiara in silver and diamonds. Only in 1889, 2 years before his retirement, he sold it to the Earl of Fife, who bought it as a wedding gift for his bride Princess Louise of Wales. For this reason, the jewel is known as the ‘Fife tiara’. Although the current large diamonds are different than those in 1878 (valuable elements often were temporary, or were replaced by less expensive stones), it is undeniably the same tiara. All suspended large diamonds gently rock in between the arches, which heightens the light effect. Lovers and connoisseurs of jewellery regard this tiara as one of the best in the world. Since the current Duke of Fife handed the tiara over to the British State in lieu of taxes, it is part of the permanent display in Kensington Palace in London, right beside other important historic tiaras. This increases Massin’s name recognition. Watch a video of the tiara: https://bit.ly/37r6tNs. For his jewels, Massin mostly used silver. This is because of the plasticity of the material, but also because of light: silver can be polished to such an extent that it shines a lot, which interacts with the diamonds. This tiara is made in silver. Also, the quality of diamonds is not the
absolute top, which nowadays is the norm (as ‘white’ as possible). It has a financial upside, but it is also an artistic choice: the brilliance of the most perfect, colourless diamonds can feel very cold, while lower-quality stones give more colour and nuance, more warmth and subtlety to the light experience.
An important historic document
4 tiaras in the Dutch Royal Collection are exclusively worn by the Queen. For over 100 years, these jewels are worn during inaugurations, royal weddings, state banquets and galas, in the Netherlands and abroad, during festivities of other monarchies, on state portraits and photos, coins and other objects. 2 of these tiaras are designs by Massin and also other jewels from his hand are worn during the State Opening of Parliament and other public events and shown in museums. This way his work belongs to the shared Dutch culture and his jewels interact with work by Dutch artists, such as couturiers Jan Taminiau (left) and Claes Iversen and photographer Erwin Olaf. Because of the small body of work by Massin that is currently known, and for historic reasons, the Dutch Royal Collection owns the most artworks by his hand.
Most prominent is this parure (set of jewels) in ruby and diamond, which was a Christmas present from King William III to his wife Queen Emma in 1888. He bought it from Mellerio, but Massin designed and made it. The Neo-Renaissance style is rare in Massin’s work, and also the rubies are extremely rare: the highest quality, pigeon blood red, that was only mined in Mogok, Myanmar. These mines are exhausted nowadays, which makes this parure an important historic document. According to experts, this parure has the highest number of carats in Mogok rubies, which makes it one of the most important parures in the world. The strings in the tiara move back and forth when worn, creating extra sparkle. Massin always sought to introduce as much movement as possible in his creations, which is necessary for the diamonds to do their brilliant work.
Massin retired from his studio in 1891. By then, young artists worked in the Art Nouveau style; they – and art critics – saw the diamond set jewel as old fashioned. They considered Massin one of the greatest, but belonging to another era. At the same time, Massin was also seen as the artist who opened up the way to Art Nouveau in jewellery, with his extreme naturalism. But it could go further. In 2022 a fan made by Massin was sold at auction. Its enamelling is part neo-Gothic and part Art Nouveau.
René Lalique is the best-known jewellery artist. Before he became famous for his Art Nouveau and glasswork, he worked as a jewellery maker in the School of Massin. Around 1900 Lalique was generally seen as Massin’s successor as the most important jewellery maker. In 1883 Lalique made an eglantine branch which was a copy of Massin’s much copied 1863 eglantine branch. And in 1889 Lalique made a branch with birds for Boucheron. It was Massin who introduced 3D birds in jewellery in the 1860s, and who invented the technique to make them.
The American jeweller Tiffany showed interest in Massin early on: they acquired his design drawings and pieces of jewellery, and they even asked him to become their head designer in New York, an offer which he refused. Young Paulding Farnham later became Tiffany’s most important designer; in his early years, he copied Massin.
Massin always showed more interest in making jewels than in selling them: he had no shop, only a studio where he created mostly for the most important jewellers of his time, such as Baugrand, Fontana, Sandoz and Rouvenat, and for jewellers that still belong to the international top: Boucheron, Mellerio, Chaumet and Tiffany. In the 20th century his style was still visible in the work of Italian makers like Della Valle, Verdura and Buccellati, but also Fabergé. Nowadays YAR, the best living jewellery artist, works with the same ‘Begeisterung’ and technical superiority as Massin.