The maser—the microwave progenitor of the optical laser—has been confined to relative obscurity owing to its reliance on cryogenic refrigeration and high-vacuum systems. Despite this, it has found application in deep-space communications and radio astronomy owing to its unparalleled performance as a low-noise amplifier and oscillator. The recent demonstration of a room-temperature solid-state maser that utilizes polarized electron populations within the triplet states of photo-excited pentacene molecules in a p-terphenyl host paves the way for a new class of maser. However, p-terphenyl has poor thermal and mechanical properties, and the decay rates of the triplet sublevel of pentacene mean that only pulsed maser operation has been observed in this system. Alternative materials are therefore required to achieve continuous emission: inorganic materials that contain spin defects, such as diamond and silicon carbide, have been proposed. Here we report a continuous-wave room-temperature maser oscillator using optically pumped nitrogen–vacancy defect centres in diamond. This demonstration highlights the potential of room-temperature solid-state masers for use in a new generation of microwave devices that could find application in medicine, security, sensing and quantum technologies.