‘This guy came to see me with this seven-carat, pear-cut, cognac diamond. It was a rare colour, full of greens and yellows. He clearly treasured this stone and it was beautiful. But the setting was this really clumsy square mount, a big signet style that totally smothered the organic line and shape of this extraordinary stone embedded in it.’
The great London-based jeweller Shaun Leane, who collaborated with Alexander McQueen for 17 years, is remembering an elegant, sophisticated man who came to him with a revolting ring containing a beautiful stone. Leane, known for exquisite craftsmanship paired with distinct creativity, is a go-to for bespoke pieces. He designed and made Princess Beatrice’s diamond engagement ring, estimated at anything from £100,000 to £300,000, depending on which magazines you read. Cognoscenti know him as one of the most interesting jewellery designer/makers working today.
In its most superlative form, remodelling can create a piece that digs deep into your style and history, while having the very best distinction of a fine bespoke piece. The frumpy brooch that barely leaves the safe, the inherited stash that feels stuck in a land that time and taste forgot, an engagement ring that has always felt – whisper it – a bit basic, can find new life.
Joanna Hardy, veteran jewellery expert and Omnēque’s fine and antique jewellery curator, says it is essential to ensure any remodelling work is done by someone with impeccable craftsmanship skills and not just a reputation for designing. ‘Going to someone you know and trust is so important, but they must be sufficiently knowledgeable and reputable to know what they’re looking at. They will need to help you make the call: does the piece hold value as it is, or is it, as we say in the trade, “a breaker”? If you look at the skilled craftspeople in the Goldsmiths’ Fair, most are unknowns with no media presence, but they will have the requisite skills.’ Any jeweller worthy of the name will turn away anyone bringing a piece with a design of inherent value, no matter how ugly the owner may think it. 'If the piece is signed or hallmarked, you don’t break it up,' says Hardy.
"Any jeweller worthy of the name will turn away anyone bringing a piece with a design of inherent value, no matter how ugly the owner may think it"
This doesn’t have to be the end of the line, though. Mayfair-based Jessica McCormack will take an existing period piece, such as a ring, and build a secondary – and striking – wrap for it, which she calls a ‘party jacket’. ‘A great way to add your own style without offending your mother-in-law or your husband,’ she says.
McCormack’s style is often one of less is more. ‘Tiny tweaks – like blackening the gold – can totally change the look.’ She recalls a client who came with lovely stones mounted in an ugly way, ‘clawy’ and ‘big baskets’, which she took apart and rebuilt in a similar mode, ‘but more refined craftsmanship in a softer Georgian style. I basically remade it, but better.’ Another client, who loves Indian stones and jewellery, comes to her to have some of the bold, gaudy look toned down. McCormack’s favourite recent reworking was a pair of old-fashioned, 1950s, dangly emerald earrings, which she rebuilt to go up the ear like one of her signature wing designs.
But don’t think remodelling is a cheap way to get new jewellery. ‘Usually,’ says McCormack, ‘the craftsmanship costs more than the stones you’re working with.’ Her favourite way to work with a client is to have a decent-sized cache to remodel slowly: ‘People come with a collection, and we have an evolving relationship, when I can see what works for that person over time. We break everything up, melt the gold and get cash for that while keeping the stones and the pavé for future pieces.’
Remodelling was pretty common until the 20th century when, as McCormack says, ‘The jewellery business became much more commercial and people just bought everything. The Victorians were far more savvy at recycling. A tiara was never just a tiara, it could break down into dress clips and necklaces.’
For Leane, remodelling should fold ‘past, present and future hopes together’. ‘When you are working with an inherited piece, those early meetings about remodelling are like a therapy session,’ says Leane. ‘Reworking is like a rebirth, a new energy, it can be emotional and clients really embrace that process. I’m good at absorbing someone’s style, emotions and way of life. I hear the story and we go on a journey. Often, I can design a piece that captures the emotion stored in the original and we can honour the past with a lock of hair, engraving or enamel detail.’
Choose your remodeller wisely, however. A jeweller such as Leane has a strong and unique aesthetic, and no matter his immense skill, there’s no working with someone who doesn’t fit your style 100 per cent. ‘Once you’ve shared your thoughts,’ says Hardy, ‘then you have to hand it over to the creative.’
Solange Azagury-Partridge agrees: ‘Yes, jewellery has its own soul or story, but it must sit well and blend with the wearer.’
If you need your rocks to semaphore status and wealth, probably best to avoid the jewel-like salon of the irreverent west London jeweller. Her signature style is colourful, joyful pieces that play fast and loose with fancy stones; her remodelling skills include making very valuable pieces look less eminently muggable, if you will forgive such an ugly word.
‘I like things to be worn all the time,’ she says. ‘I like to minimise the formality, take the occasion out of a piece and make it wearable, fun and for every day. I’ve set stones that if you wore them in a Graff necklace you’d get mugged, but the way I set them takes away all the fear. I don’t mind if people think a piece is costume and have no idea it’s set with a f***-off diamond.
"I don’t mind if people think a piece is costume and have no idea it’s set with a f***-off diamond"
'I never tamper with the stones, and I never destroy the setting – those pieces are too valuable. But,’ she admits, ‘it gives me a thrill taking a lovely diamond out of some of these valuable pieces from the big houses and popping something else in – an aquamarine, say.’
Through lockdown, jewellers reported getting more remodelling and reimagining commissions as people had time to take stock of what they own. ‘You look at any auction catalogue,’ says Azagury-Partridge, ‘and you can see all these precious materials turned into terrible things. There’s a tsunami of pig-ugly jewellery out there using beautiful natural resources. Why not create something that resonates deeply with the wearer. Forget the intrinsic value. Do you actually love it?’
But perhaps one word of caution if you’re considering getting that sensible brooch turned into an enviable ear cuff: don’t approach a designer if you’re going to be proscriptive. ‘I can turn it into something that makes you happy but if you just say, “Oh, I just want it to look a bit Cartier” then I’m not interested,’ says Azagury-Partridge. ‘My remodelling clients know my thing, and they let me get on with it.’
One of Leane’s fondest remodelling memories is of a 22-carat gold, St George sovereign ring – given to the client by a beloved grandmother – which he transformed into a pendant. ‘It was in a bad 1980s mount,’ he recalls – a look more commonly seen in Bethnal Green pawn-shop windows than about a person of style and taste. Leane created a perfect solution that heightened both the aesthetic and the emotional. On one side, he created a rich blue enamelled dome front to the pendant, with a ‘beautifully sentimental depiction of the star alignment of the month her grandmother was born, highlighted with diamond accents. And the sovereign coin, I set secretly into the reverse of the pendant so that it remains forever close to the client’s heart’.
And what of the elegant gentleman’s cognac diamond in the spivvy signet ring? ‘Oh! It was so ugly,’ Leane laughs. ‘Like something a South American drug baron would wear. He said, “I hate this ring, but I love the stone.” So, we created a setting, pavé set in black diamonds and masculine moody colours, but the shape of the setting was soft. It was a mount that celebrated the person first. He absolutely loved it and now he wears it every day.’
For any jeweller with a heart, this is the goal: wearable, soulful, beautiful and loved. ‘Because,’ as Leane says, ‘living with jewellery you hate? That’s like a bad marriage.’
"Living with jewellery you hate? That’s like a bad marriage"