Precious gems are beautiful, durable and rare, but even more exceptional is the fact that, unlike fashion, technology and almost all other consumer goods, they are endlessly reusable.
That’s one way to explain why more and more people are repurposing their heirloom jewelry—say, a grandmother’s engagement ring—into new, more wearable styles.
But there’s another timelier explanation: “The whole heirloom resetting trend—I think Covid really kicked that into gear,” LA-based designer Jenna Katz tells Robb Report. “People were at home, looking at what they don’t wear.
“That’s the beauty of gemstones,” she adds. “They don’t have to sit in that setting forever.”
Katz is one of a trio of jewelers based in Southern California who specialize in custom work with a heavy emphasis on resettings. How does the process work? Read on for a look at three different approaches that all strive for the same effect: “We’re trying,” says Jillian Sassone, founder of Marrow Fine Jewelry, “to create future heirlooms.”
A sculptor by training, Christen DeLaney of CAM Jewelry is a bench jeweler focused on making pieces that are not only durable enough to wear in the great outdoors but also seem indistinguishable from it.
“The goal is to make them look like they’ve come from nature,” she says. “I’m wearing a ring now that literally looks like a gold nugget on a band. I wanted to echo the beauty of untampered-with organic form. That lends itself to wearability—it’s not so delicate.”
From her artist residence on the border of LA’s Venice and Mar Vista neighborhoods, the Minnesota native hand-makes a ready-to-wear collection of fine jewels made of Fairmined gold and organic elements, such as river and beach pebbles she and her two young daughters have collected on camping trips.
Over the years, however, DeLaney has also become a specialist in repurposing heirloom jewels into styles bearing her signature organic touch. “I didn’t intend for my business to be that, but it goes hand in hand with our focus on sustainability,” she says. “Over the years, I have gotten a lot of requests for resets.”
The process begins with a careful assessment of the client’s heirloom. “The first step for me is always sussing out what parts of the piece have sentimental value,” she says. “If the setting is sentimental, then I have to take that into account. If there’s no sentimental value to the gold, let’s sell that back or melt it and use recycled gold.”
DeLaney sculpts many of her designs in clay before moving on to the wax-casting stage. “There’s no reason for me to form things in clay prior to wax, except that I like the experience of process,” she says. “I want my finished pieces to evoke curiosity. How does it look like the gold is enveloping the stones in such a soft way?”
After providing her clients with renderings of six to eight options, she invites them to pick and choose the design elements they favor. “They’ll tell me, ‘I like the band on No. 3, the prongs on No. 6,’ and I can combine those,” DeLaney says. “Then, once we agree, I’ll submit the design for 3-D render. We can still make changes at this point, but we’re not changing full design elements, rather smaller things like the thickness of band and the size of the accent stones.”
From start to finish, the custom reset process, which starts around $3,000 for a simple redesign, often moves quickly, depending on the client. “If they have a good idea of what they want, it can go pretty fast,” she says. “For things that are more organic, I like to allow a month.”
Regardless of how simple or intricate a client wants a design to be, DeLaney does not insist on her vision. “I have always been fully in partnership with my clients,” she says. “They are involved every step of the way.” cam-jewelry.com
Designer Jenna Katz is no stranger to custom work. The category accounts for almost 90 percent of her business. “And 50 to 60 percent of that custom work is bridal,” says Katz, who worked in sales for Polly Wales, an LA-based British designer, before founding her eponymous collection in 2019. “I’ve been doing a lot of engagement rings and wedding bands, involving a mix of stone sourcing but also using people’s heirlooms.”
For a recent redesign project, Katz paid a house call to a woman “who had tons of jewelry but didn’t like the settings,” she says, “so we selected a few pieces to break apart.” The gems included a 10-carat yellow sapphire, loose diamonds and the woman’s original engagement ring, a small pear-shaped diamond from 20 years ago that she’d long ago upgraded.
“I reset the 10-carat sapphire into a hand-fabricated 22-karat gold ring, and I took her original engagement ring — it was very sentimental to her, but she didn’t wear it anymore — and set it in this shield style, kind of funky,” Katz recalls. “And all her loose diamonds I set into a pipe band — a chunky eternity band with a lot of gold with flush-set diamonds spaced out along interior of the band.”
Clients often find Katz, who works out of a studio in Downtown L.A., through Instagram. “I typically start by asking what their budget is, what their timeline is and if they have a family stone,” she says. “If they’re in LA, I usually like them to come to my studio so I can meet them and see the stone, or I ask them to send me photos.”
While she designs using CAD software, Katz begins by showing her clients hand-drawn sketches to help them visualize the design. “I’ll give them sketches, a few reference images and some keywords that describe the vibe of the ring,” she says. “Usually, that gives people a good idea.”
Once a design is agreed upon, Katz creates a 3-D-printed model in wax, which allows clients to see how a stone fits into the piece. “I refine and refine until we’re all happy with it,” she says. “Then I drop it off with my caster. It gets cast in gold, I clean it up and set the stone.”
Most of Katz’s custom reworks are finished within six to eight weeks, and start around $2,500 to $3,500, though if a client desires a chunky gold band—a style that Katz says is especially popular—the price of the extra metal will be factored in.
Clients are drawn to Katz’s work for her signature satin-finished gold. “Mainstream jewelry is really high polish and flashy,” she says. “My style is not overly complicated, but it does have a fun, interesting element. Subtle details—that’s what I like. I’m very design oriented, but at end of the day I still really like classic.” jennakatz.co
When Jillian Sassone’s grandmother passed away in 2015, she inherited some of her heirloom jewels, including a pair of opal earrings, that she wanted to “reimagine.”
“I wanted to add some diamonds from my mom, I had turquoise and I sourced some black diamonds,” Sassone, who is based in northern San Diego County, recalls. “I took it to local jewelers and showed them my sketch for a ring. They wanted to put a gallery in there, but I wanted a low-profile ring. I kept getting pooh-poohed.”
Eventually, Sassone found a wholesale jeweler who built a CAD design for her. The resulting ring turned out exactly like she’d hoped. The experience formed the seeds of her jewelry business, Marrow Fine, which she founded in 2016 partly to help other people have a similarly rewarding experience.
“When we were doing it seven years ago, a lot of designers wouldn’t touch people’s heirlooms,” Sassone tells Robb Report. “Maybe the quality wasn’t up to their standards or they didn’t want to deal with the liability. For us, our motto is, ‘If it means something to you, it means something to us.’”
Since its founding, Marrow Fine, which stages pop-ups around the country and operates two SoCal retail showrooms at the One Paseo retail complex near Del Mar and at Lido Village in Newport Beach, has created more than 20,000 rings, many of them custom designs and heirloom resettings.
“All those clients see a CAD, so there are no surprises at the end,” Sassone says. “We never get a client who says, ‘This isn’t what I wanted.’ We hit the pause button really quickly if there’s anything the client wants to change because once you cast it, the toothpaste is out of the tube, and it’s harder to go back. The CAD is a key element to the process.”
A simple re-set solitaire will start around $2,000; the cost goes up with the number of stones that require resetting. The process usually takes between eight and 12 weeks, but Sassone says that it varies depending on the client and the number of people who have to weigh in on the design.
At Marrow Fine, the majority of heirloom reworks are rings, but Sassone also sees a fair amount of women who are divorced and want to repurpose their old engagement rings. “There’s an alchemy that comes with adding new metal, creating a new design, making it your own,” she says. “It’s whole new chapter.”
“People are really leaning into the sentimental nature of things and the pandemic really brought that out,” Sassone adds. “They’re leaning into family and the stories behind it.”
For example, she recently worked with two sisters who lost both of their parents in a car accident and had their ashes transformed into diamonds. “They brought them to me so I designed matching rings for each girl with heirloom diamonds from mom and one diamond from each parent,” Sassone says. “I didn’t let those diamonds out of my sight! A lot of times, these heirloom reworks can be really therapeutic.” marrowfine.com