Sunday, April 28, 2013

Making New Out of Old: Restoring Antique Jewelry

I’ve been infatuated with antique jewelry lately.  It has a delicacy and detail that you don’t find very much in the mass produced styles of today.  Last fall I started collecting and converting antique stick pins, and a month or so ago I began looking at rings.  But working with antique jewelry can be challenging.  Here’s an example of how I refurbished an old Victorian ring.

Finding antique pieces that are nice, interesting, and reasonably priced, is difficult.  Good antique dealers, especially the ones on 47th street, often know what they have and price accordingly.  Auction houses can be the same.  So I went to eBay instead.  After much sifting, I found a dealer who was selling off a bunch of busted up 1890s rings, and the one in this photo caught my eye.  I like how the cluster creates the layer of color.  This style is different from the current trend towards micro pave setting, which can only be done with diamonds anyway (other gems break and are rarely cut in that size anyway).  It’s also not like halo rings, which simply surround a (cheap) center stone with a lot of tiny diamonds.  Cluster rings are a nice “middle of the road” style that allow you to use more expensive gems in smaller sizes, but large enough not to require hours of setting labor – a reason why so much micro pave setting is done in India.

Anyway, this little ring, although dinged up and with missing stones, had a lot of presence.  It’s only 9 kt gold, which is very common for that era, but still, bidding went to over $100 before I managed to grab it.

Original Victorian Ring
When I got the ring, the first thing I did was loupe it very carefully.  After some thinking, I determined that all the stones had to come out. I know that antique pieces have the most value when they are left untouched, but obviously this wasn't an option. All the rubies were scratched, one was busted, one missing altogether.  Some pearls were missing also and the rest were scraped. Since pearls darken with age, finding the perfect color to match those was out of the question. The pearls didn’t appear to be glued, and they seemed genuine, which was too bad, but the gems I used instead made the ring look even nicer.

The setter almost had a heart attack when I showed him the ring and asked him to remove the gems, but insisted that the ring be left unharmed.  He had to drill out the pearls for the most part, and move the prongs that held the center cluster very carefully so they wouldn’t break off.

After that, I had the ring re-polished very lightly.  Polishing removes the outer layer of gold, and in the worst case scenario can decrease the weight of the ring.  This ring was so light that a serious polishing job was going to make it too thin.

I then began to search for replacement stones.  The settings for the pearls did not have prongs and no opening in the back, so any faceted stone was out of the question.  It would just fall out, or the setter would have had to drill holes into the ring to set them.  The tiny Burma ruby cabs that I found – which are also several decades old, did the trick, and they fit perfectly.  My setter carefully pushed the remaining gold over the cabs to hold them down, and he managed the feat without using any glue.

The center stones match the tone of the outer ones.  They are faceted, about 2.5 or 3mm, old mine cuts, which means fewer facets.  They have less brilliance but more of a glow.  Together with the outer row of rubies, they create a sea of color and make the ring look bigger than the initial ruby-pearl combo.  The result is extremely eye catching. The setting job, again, was a major challenge, because there was not much prong left in the original setting, but re-tipping them would have been visible because the gold is a funny color and 9 Kt is pretty much unavailable on the market.

Refurbished Ring

From the point of view of antique value, the ring probably has less than it did before.  It just has to be seen as its own thing.  Antiques are considered the most valuable when they are intact, and this piece has had a complete makeover.  On the other hand, it’s now a one of a kind, nearly impossible to replicate.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Outsourcing: What you Can – and Shouldn’t Do at Home

I produce an average of 20 items of jewelry per week, and if you assume that one item takes an hour, you can do the math of how long it takes to make everything from scratch.  If you then add the time to make listings, photos, convos, pack orders, shop for gems and supplies, it adds up to this: not gonna happen.  Not even if I quit my full time job.  Which I love.

So I do what most people do who have opportunity: I outsource.  Not to China or India, but to NY, where you can find professional casting and polishing services, as well as excellent setters and jewelers.  (And sometimes I outsource to friends and family who like beading…)

Let’s look at outsourcing in the order in which you might use it.

Casting:  When you have items that you want to reproduce in exactly that form, you can have them cast.  I cast my stacking rings and some of my filigree items, for example.  But you have to pay for a mold first, and there is a casting fee, so casting makes sense only when you want to sell the same thing more than once, and maybe also in different metals.  The downside to casting is some loss of detail – and of course there can be no variations.  My casting service, Taba Casting, is certified green, and they also take mail orders, so casting is an option even if you live in the boonies.

Pre-polish: All castings have to be “cleaned” – the sprue is cut, areas that didn’t come out well are polished, and the piece is tumbled.  I use a polishing service for this because they have a better tumbler, large polishing wheels and they can offer other services, i.e. steaming, ultrasonic, gold and rhodium plating.  My polisher also does minor soldering work: adding jump rings, bails and posts to earrings.  By using him I can do many pieces in one wash, which saves time.  Soldering also requires pickling and further tumbling or another round of pre-polish, so it’s a very good idea to do several pieces together.  Some casting services actually offer pre-polish, or polish, you might check into it.

SettingI utilize many different setting techniques in my jewelry line: my pieces are prong set, hammer set, burnished, pave set, bead set, etc.  Prong setting is the easiest – I can do it a little – but most of the rest, especially hammer setting and the fine pave and bead work, require lots of practice and training.  After inspecting my pre-polished items and making any necessary adjustments, I take them to the setter together with my stone.  Fitting a stone to the right setting it itself a work of art, but I am very good at that.  Plus I love my gems and I select well.  Most of my customers come to me because of my gems I think, not so much for the jewelry itself (I don’t want to put myself down but I think what I offer design wise is not that out of the ordinary.)

Final Polish: After setting, most items have to be polished again.  Setters often bend the metal, especially silver (which is soft), and their tools leave marks around and inside the bezel wall.  Many a prong or ear wire is bent as well.  Final polish can also involve sandblasting or satin finishes, all of which are done at this point.  So is rhodium and other plating.  This means that after setting, I inspect again, looking for nicks in the stone that the setter might have missed (that would spell a do-over), spots on the jewelry that need extra TLC, and take my stuff back the polisher for final polish. 

I also outsource my CAD designs to Belenki Girl Designs (Brandy lives nearby), and my fine jewelry work to Goldmaster on 47th Street.  Vasken from Goldmaster does all my lazer settings and anything that requires fine jewelry work and gold soldering, where no mistakes can happen – he has nearly 40 years of experience, he’s worked all over the world, and he’s a great guy as well.  Both fine jewelry work and CAD work are expensive though.  Prices are fixed per piece but they are calculated by the hour, and a $100 per hour fee is not a-typical.  Fine jewelers have to pay for their shops, tools, and they have to take out extra time to discuss designs for you, all of which has to be rolled into their fee, or they can’t survive.  Just consider what you pay a plumber to come to your house for an hour or two, and you get the idea.

Casting and polishing work is the least expensive to outsource, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  Setting is tricky, setters can charge anywhere from $2-$200 for a job, depending also on difficulty, stone size, and their own degree of expertise.  Expensive diamonds for expensive stores (like Tiffany's) can cost a couple hundred to set and not every setter is cut out for it, but if you want a quick prong set job with a replaceable stone, it should only be a few dollars.  The main reason I can offer such variety in my shop is because I have a couple of setters that are very reasonable in price, are willing to work in silver (many aren’t because there’s less money to be made) and who are very skilled.  Much of my appreciation for what I can do goes to them.  When you set as many unusual stones as I do, your relationship with your setter becomes essential, because I often ask them to do risky stuff for a low price (i.e. setting a large tanzanite in sterling silver).  The risk is one we have to share, and a broken stone can cause money but also heartache with the customer when it’s a custom order.  My setter needs me as much as I need him – when you do many pieces they count on the income from you and possibly turn down other orders because they know they need to set time aside for you.  Broken stones and botched orders strain the relationship and cost money.  Gold is replaceable and can be melted down, gems are often one of a kind.  Especially mine.