How to redesign and regenerate old heirlooms
We will never know how Kate Middleton really felt when William presented her with Diana’s old engagement ring. But actually, for many women the prospect of wearing another’s most personal piece of jewellery has a certain appeal; and Kate is by no means the only beautiful, stylish girl around town sporting a hand-me-down engagement ring.
She’s not even the only beautiful, stylish Kate rocking this trend: witness the pictures of a beaming Miss Moss wearing the dazzling 1920s vintage diamond recently presented to her by her musician fiancé Jamie Hince.
‘It’s an emotional thing,’ explains Stephen Webster, creative director of Garrard, the oldest jewellery company in the world and supplier of baubles to generations of British royals (including Diana). ‘People get really chuffed about the fact this is a ring that was once really important to someone else.’ Webster oversees the bespoke design team at Garrard (see the rings on the opposite page), who will redesign or recreate an heirloom as long as the stones are of a high enough quality. ‘The more I know about a person, especially when it comes to engagement rings, the better,’ he says. ‘It’s such a personal thing.’
‘Sentiment is massively important in jewellery,’ agrees Robert Ogden, of Richard Ogden in Burlington Arcade. His family has been in the antique jewellery business since 1893. ‘I’m all for recycling, for regenerating the use and value of something.’ While an emotional connection often adds to this value, many people just prefer the old to the new. The journalist Rebecca Newman was proposed to by her boyfriend with a ring discovered at Gray’s Antiques Market in London. ‘There is an inscription inside from 1936,’ she tells me. ‘Knowing that it has been loved by someone else, for all that time, only adds to its charm. I don’t wish to know about their life, but I hope we can be married as long as they were.’
The recession and increased eco-awareness have encouraged the trend for ‘recycling’ heirlooms. There is also a sense that the mass-producing giants are a little impersonal. ‘I think Tiffany’s is a bit of a machine,’ suggests interior designer Kate Harris, 31, who wears a ‘repurposed’ engagement ring from the American jeweller Monique Péan’s Atelier line. ‘I had thought I wanted all that, so my fiance and I took a trip to Bond Street. They take you into a private room, they give you champagne; it’s all very luxurious, but you feel like you’re being bought. Deep down you know that, for all their glossy PR, those rings are being mass-produced in China or somewhere.’
Péan, whose philosophy of elegance and ecological sustainability has won her industry awards (and Michelle Obama as a customer), chooses only to work with vintage stones (see an example on the facing page) and recycled metals in a bid to lessen the demand for ‘dirty gold’ and ‘blood diamonds’. ‘Gold-mining is one of the world’s dirtiest industries,’ she tells me. ‘The production of one gold ring generates about 20 tons of waste.’ But using recycled materials is not simply about sustainability. As Péan reminds us, ‘these diamonds were hand-cut in the 1800s and have a brilliancy and beauty that is incomparable to modern cuts’.
For would-be bridegrooms with an heirloom in their possession but whose budget might not run to private consultations with Stephen Webster, there are some compelling alternatives. James Knight, for example, formerly of the boutique jewellers Wint & Kidd, runs a bespoke private service that offers complete design flexibility and as many free consultations as necessary. ‘Some of my most rewarding jobs have been men who start off, clueless, with their great-grandmother’s old ring,’ he says, ‘then end up really getting into the creative process. That’s always going to make the giving of the ring so much more special.’
‘Getting engaged is a huge, sentimental moment for a couple,’ says Ogden. ‘Whatever the piece, it’s going to hold that moment for the rest of their lives.’ And beyond. As Webster says: ‘one of the great things about a good piece of jewellery is that it doesn’t just die with the person. It tends to get handed on. Unlike their shoes, say. Or trousers.’