Jewelry: Vintage Vanguard

  • Jill Newman

Jewelry designer Renee Lewis offers a simple explanation for why she appoints her elaborate designs with only antique diamonds, most of which were cut prior to the invention of the light bulb. “I abhor new diamonds,” she declares. While her insistence on working with vintage stones exclusively can pose challenges because of their limited availability, she nevertheless adheres to her rule. “Newly mined diamonds are often altered through heat treatment or laser-filling, and they radiate an intense sparkle that can seem artificial,” says the 56-year-old Lewis, whose Bohemian appearance is amplified by her long, slightly graying dark hair, rings on nearly every finger, and layers of taut necklaces shimmering with large diamonds. “I like diamonds the way God grew them, natural and unaltered by technology.”

Each week, Lewis procures about 50 vintage diamond rings, dating primarily to the Georgian and Victorian eras, and uses their subtly glowing stones as centerpieces for her contemporary creations. She and her staff of five jewelers produce the unique, handmade pieces in her Manhattan studio. “I will never cast my jewelry,” she says. “I never want to repeat the exact same thing.”

Lewis repeatedly uses the word “sensual” to describe her designs. “I use as little metal as possible; it’s cold,” she says. “I want the stones to illuminate the flesh. They are the power.” Given her perspective on diamonds, it is not surprising that Lewis has earned a following among those who believe in the healing nature of gemstones. Especially popular are Lewis’ diamond Shake necklaces, which have pendants made of antique glass that are filled with numerous loose diamonds in myriad shapes and sizes. The treatment releases the stones’ healing properties, she says. “The diamonds radiate the sun’s energy, which is magnified through the crystal vessel,” she explains, “and the light releases a powerful energy from the stones.”

Rather than using a Midtown boutique to showcase her jewelry—which also includes bold earrings and delicate, intricate necklaces featuring vintage rubies and sapphires—Lewis operates her business in a brownstone on the far West Side. Her cluttered apartment and office are packed from floor to ceiling with flea market finds: kitschy art and an eclectic assortment of furnishings that includes colorful lamps dripping with clusters of glass grapes. Intent on becoming a New York City artist, Lewis moved into the building 25 years ago from Ohio. She painted, sculpted, and even built furniture before she began working with antique glass beads. Using strands of the beads, Lewis created curtains and chandeliers that would prove to be precursors to her jewelry designs. “I collected jewelry, glass, and beads as a child,” Lewis recalls. “I was always fascinated with anything that played with light.”

Renee Lewis
212.580.3971

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