Breathing New Life into Heirloom Pieces

The upsides of upcycling: Repurposing vintage bridal jewels keeps them fresh while preserving their sentimental value.

September 20, 2023  |  Phyllis Schiller

Whether it’s revamping an inherited engagement ring or upcycling a bridal jewel, adding a modern aesthetic to vintage pieces lets designers creatively customize them while still retaining the emotional connection.

Most of the time, customers appreciate the overall design of an older jewel but want to update it, says Peter Manka Jr., co-owner of Ben Garelick Jewelers in Buffalo, New York. One recent client “had a simple vintage-style engagement ring with a large center stone and round, prong-set side diamonds with milgrain detailing,” he recalls. “After consulting with her, we reset her diamonds in a similar fashion to her original inherited ring, but kept the focus on the center diamond with an elaborate head.”

L. Priori Jewelry in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, specializes in custom work, so “our requests for redesigning heirloom engagement rings run the gamut,” says founder and owner Lauren Priori.

“We have a lot of requests to incorporate diamonds from several pieces of jewelry, often from both sides of the couple. We’ll use the center stone from her grandmother, for example, and add a pavé band using his mom’s old wedding band. We also do a lot of simple solitaire remounts in yellow gold, often with secret details like a hidden halo — [aka] diamonds on the rail — or the couple’s birthstones set into the inner part of the band. Often, our clients request to keep some detail of the original ring, like an engraving, but just as often, they want a full modernization.”

Antique stones in, heavy rings out

The stones themselves often have their own appeal. “Heirloom diamonds always have a story,” says Ari Madilian, cofounder of Los Angeles-based jeweler Single Stone, which specializes in crafting pieces with vintage cuts. His clients “love the old European-cut diamonds and the very rare elongated old mine-cut diamonds — also known as vintage cushion cuts. Antique pear shapes, movals and the super-rare vintage step cuts are also consistently in demand.”

Chunky, heavier pieces — usually invisible-set or pavé-set rings — seem to be the most out of favor, says Manka, with customers frequently bringing such items in for reworking. “Also rings from the 1980s with a lot of small prong-set melee, mainly round-cut diamonds.”

While rings are the most common repurposing requests he sees, pendants are “our go-to option when the piece to be upcycled has many gemstones of different sizes.” Unlike a ring, pendants — especially free-form or asymmetrical styles — “allow more room to play with the design because you can make them as large as you need to accommodate the number of gemstones,” he explains. And since a pendant rests on the neck, it’s “not subject to a lot of abuse during daily wear” the way a ring would be.

To change or not to change?

There are many reasons for repurposing bridal jewelry, notes Madilian, including “a breakup, change of finances, change in taste, or change in lifestyle. I would say the most common reason for upcycling at Single Stone is a client wanting to redesign their engagement ring into a style that better fits their current lifestyle and taste — for instance, wanting a ring that sits lower on the hand with a wider, more comfortable shank.”

However, he often encourages clients to keep pieces with special significance intact, such as rare, signed or engraved jewels, or ones that represent a specific era. In some cases, he believes, educating the customer on the design history can help them gain a new appreciation for the piece. Other times, he suggests that they might one day prefer “to have the family heirloom to pass down to the next generation, over the value that the loose components might provide in the short term.”

Manka tends to see younger clients who appreciate the craftsmanship of the vintage pieces they’ve inherited but want to put their own touches on the design. Most recently, he relates, “we had a same-sex couple melt their vintage wedding bands from both sides of the family into two new, high-polished gold bands — each of different millimeter widths — with diamonds set in each band.”

Getting past the wear and tear

Of course, repurposing older pieces can come with challenges.

“Gemstones and even diamonds can be chipped and nicked beyond the point of being reusable,” says Priori. “We try to be realistic with clients while also giving them options. Can we buff out a few chips? Or make a large oval into a smaller round stone? Maybe, but the stone may not survive recutting or may be much, much smaller than anticipated. We also see a lot of settings that are incredibly worn down and can’t be reset. The shank may be paper-thin, or the prongs may be completely worn. In that case, if the ring is meaningful, we’ll recreate it [with computer-aided design (CAD) tools] and possibly incorporate the metal into a new casting.”

When a client knows they’re “wearing the same diamond their grandmother wore,” says Madilian, it “brings them sentimental value and personal meaning.”

An out-of-state client of ours had recently upgraded her engagement ring to something larger but still wanted to wear her original diamond for sentimental reasons. She has many pieces from our collection and wanted something she could wear every day. We had her ship us her ring so we could see exactly what we would be working with.

Next, we met virtually to discuss how she wanted to wear the piece. After reviewing options, she selected our Summer necklace. Since she loves our yellow gold, we customized the piece by making it in all 18-karat yellow gold rather than a champagne-gold setting and yellow-gold chain.

Ari Madilian

Cofounder, Single Stone

A customer wanted to repurpose her mom’s wedding band and her mother-in-law’s band that she inherited and that she felt looked outdated. She wanted one ring with more sparkle. She told us to keep it simple; she wanted to keep the look and hold the memory of her mom’s bands, but updated for today’s style.

After inspecting her pieces to make sure the diamonds were okay to reset, we consulted with our designer and suggested making a thinner shank with additional diamonds from the channel-set band­­, which added sparkle. We suggested making it in white gold to match her engagement ring.

She okayed the design concept, and we moved on to a CAD rendering, which was immediately approved. We then made the band.

Peter Manka, Jr.

Co-owner, Ben Garelick Jewelers

The first step in any redesign is our initial design consultation. Our sales consultants will measure the existing stones and determine if they’re suitable for reuse. Ideally, the client has sent inspiration photos, so we’ll have a few designs mocked up and can tweak them when we review options with the client.

If they are ready to move forward, we’ll take a deposit to get started. Our bench jewelers pull the stones, and our gemologist will grade and measure them, sending the details to our in-house CAD designer, who makes renderings for the client and — once these are approved — prints a wax. Sometimes a client needs to see more than one version of a wax, but usually the first round gets approval. 

We then submit the file to our casting house. Once we receive the casting, we set all center stones in-house and finish the appraisal.

Lauren Priori

Founder and owner, L. Priori Jewelry

Main image: Diamond and yellow gold ring, remounted by Single Stone. (Single Stone)

This article is from the September-October 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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Breathing New Life into Heirloom Pieces

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