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DIVA acquires Oscar Massin brooch

Flower brooch, Oscar Massin, c. 1878, copyright Guy Voet

Below text appeared as article in the magazine of the Society of Jewellery Historians, Jewellery History Today nr. 36, autumn 2019.

For the first time in history, a Belgian public collection has acquired a jewel by the Belgian born Parisian joaillier-fabricant Oscar Massin (1829-1913). The floral trembleuse brooch appeared at auction in Monte Carlo in December 2018 and was bought by the Christian Bauwens Fund on behalf of the King Baudoin Foundation. It has now entered the collection of DIVA, Antwerp’s museum for gold- and silversmithing, jewellery and diamonds.

The brooch, designed as sprays of wild roses, oak leaves and a daffodil tied together with a bow, is made of 18 carat gold, silver and metal worked using various techniques.

These elements can also be attached to two hairpins, and the set survives today with its original box that identifies Massin as the maker. As with many of Massin’s jewels, the brooch and pins lack his maker’s mark, even though he had registered one in 1863. His reasons for not marking his pieces have still to be understood. Despite this, it is possible to identify and date the brooch quite precisely, because the album Massin published of the work he showed at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris includes an image of what must be the prototype for this piece.

The brooch has all the characteristics of a Massin jewel – superior design and superior use of techniques –, but in the context of his oeuvre known to survive today it is akin to a unicorn. Massin has not hitherto been associated with the production of jewellery that did not include precious gems, and without this brooch, jewellery historians might have inferred that the prototype in the photograph was for a jewel set entirely with diamonds. The symbolism of the brooch is also ambiguous.

The bow and the wild roses make it a love jewel, but the daffodil is a symbol not only of hope but also of death, and the oak leaves also introduce connotations of death and mourning. This sombre imagery is reinforced by Massin’s exclusive use of metal for a wreath-like design in which the markedly different lengths of ribbon that hang from the bow indicate the death of a beloved husband or wife. A second image of the prototype brooch in the album, grouped with other examples of Massin’s work, tantalizingly suggests further clues were once available. The brooch is photographed with a descriptive plaque above, and what appear to be a signature and date below. Unfortunately, the picture is too blurred here to enable the words to be deciphered.

Oscar Massin’s visionary designs and technical artistry brought him many followers and his enormous contribution to the field included the technique of illusion setting, which made diamonds appear larger than they were. 


Plaster prototype of the brooch, 1878
Massin's display at Universal Exhibition 1878 Paris

Given this, a piece in the form of a plant or flower, set with diamonds and jewelled insects, would be more representative of Massin’s work than this outlier, and be more fitting in the collection of DIVA Antwerp. Yet as a Belgian museum, DIVA’s collecting policy naturally focusses on Belgian makers. Although Massin lived and worked in Paris his entire adult life, he was born and raised in Liège, and was just a year old when Belgium emerged as an independent kingdom in 1830. It was in Liège where Massin’s love for jewellery was first kindled, set alight by the horse-shaped stamped gold tie-pin he saw a family friend wear. More importantly for the range of goldsmithing skills he was to develop, it was in Liège that he started his apprenticeship, aged 12, with the jeweller Charles Reintjes. Being apprenticed to a provincial Belgian jeweller allowed him to learn all aspects of jewellery making and not just one specialism, as he would have done had he trained in cosmopolitan Paris. It was in Reintjes’ workshop where he learned to draw, mount, set, polish and engrave. 

Massin prided himself on being able to conceive and finish a jewel entirely on his own, and the skills he learned at the bench of his Belgian master are clearly visible in this atypical brooch that can now be admired in Antwerp.