When my second daughter Beatrice was born a year ago, I wanted to find a trinket, an amulet, to celebrate her birth. I have always loved the life-affirming, resourceful bee, so with this in mind, I set off to find a bejewelled striped insect to herald the arrival of new baby Beatrice. I found a beautiful little brooch, a perfect diamond bee emblazoned with startling ruby eyes; perfect in every sense… except it was a brooch, and I wanted a pendant. I immediately sought the counsel of the wonderful Ming Lampson in her atelier in Notting Hill, with whom I’ve entrusted my most precious gems. She worked her magic on diamond bee, shortening the legs and attaching a small loop to the top so that it could fit on a chain. This was a piece transformed, from 1950s brooch – quite out of fashion these days – to a dear sparkling pendant that I wear day and night. The transformation cost me as little as £300 – that’s the labour only, by the way.
Lampson often gets requests to turn these pumpkin pieces into princess sparkle, from dust-covered antique pearls to ’70s gem-emblazoned heirlooms that speak of another era.
Also giving granny’s hidden gems a new lease of life is Theo Fennell, who crafts all manner of pieces, from the humorous to the serious, from his Chelsea atelier. “Over the years we have done many, many projects and produced all sorts of clasps, rings and brooches,” he says. “One of my favourites was taking the somewhat eclectic contents of the bottom of a lady’s jewellery case, single earrings, ill-fitting rings, pendants and charms all given by various friends and lovers over the years and, keeping them as near to their original state as possible, mounting them on a pair of wide gold cuffs so that they became like a bejewelled scrapbook of her life. They looked incredibly impressive and intriguing, making the most of a hotch-potch of odds and ends. However, reworking my great-grandmother’s engagement ring for my wife had as much emotional power to it as anything I have done.”
For Fennell, the cost of redesigning and remaking a piece is most often dictated by what it is worth spending on the piece and what the client wants to spend. “The important criteria are whether the stones or raw materials justify being reworked if the consideration is purely to get an attractive, wearable piece of jewellery from them,” says Fennell. “Then you obviously need to decide whether the reworking is going to damage its worth. If, and this is often the most important factor, it is about the sentimental attachment, it is a decision only the customer can make. I believe that sentiment and artistry are much more important than bling and fashion; it really is worth becoming involved and spending a reasonable sum as the unique piece of jewellery you will get is priceless.
“We have altered pieces for a few hundred pounds and redesigned and reworked pieces for many tens of thousands; the spectrum really is that broad.”
He warns, however, that not all things can be transformed: “There is no point in remodelling pieces that have a value as they are – it is better to sell and rebuy – but good stones in dowdy settings are the easiest to lift up into wearability. It is always a mistake to try and use up all the stones in a piece as the designs get ever more constricted as you reach the last stones. It is often worth having stones repolished also as, like restoring a picture, the result can be dazzling.”
‘Good stones in dowdy settings are the easiest to lift up into wearability’
For Vanessa Chilton, co-founder of Robinson Pelham, remodelling a past treasure is a cherished part of her trade. “When we first started 25 years ago, breathing life into old unworn jewels was a huge part of our business. Where many jewellers preferred to work with new stock, we still to this day relish turning an old piece into something that will be loved and becomes an heirloom with an intricate history.”
Her revamps start from about £3,000.
Chilton loves to “informalize” jewellery: “…this can be Victorian jewellery or something from the 1980s or anywhere in between. Some pieces, especially rings, are described by their owners as ‘Princessy’, that’s why they don’t wear them. But life is about being in a mixture of environments and no one wants to have to change their jewellery throughout the day, so we ‘informalise’ pieces, letting the ingredients shine but not shout.”
She gets a particular thrill from items with stories and emotions attached to them and treads carefully around them. “We are currently making cufflinks from a customer’s old gold, some of which was smuggled out of Germany during WW2 by their grandparents under extreme circumstances. This kind of emotion and story gets fed through the whole production process so that each piece is treated with extra reverence.” Her view is that nearly everything can be revamped. The question is, should it be? “If it is a signed piece or a collector’s item you should think carefully, as often the value will be in its entirety.”
‘With gold prices being so high now, if you can remodel something or melt down a few things and make a wonderful new piece then it’s a wonderful process’
Over at Minka jewellery, Lucy Crowther counts 20% of her work as remodelling, with some heartfelt recent projects. “There was an engagement ring of a lovely client of mine – it had not been worn for many years; we redesigned it together into something of a statement yet practical and now she wears it all the time. There was also an old gold chain necklace that was really dated, it was a rope design that had around 55 grams of 18-carat gold. We were able to melt this all down and make a few pieces for this client – we sourced the stones and used their gold. With gold prices being so high now, if you can remodel something or melt down a few things and make a wonderful new piece then it’s a wonderful process. The most special piece was an engagement ring I redesigned for a lady in her 80s who had not worn her ring for nearly 40 years. We remodelled it into a fabulous statement piece, a sort of gypsy ring set with her existing diamonds. She was very pleased, and I felt so honoured to be trusted to do this for her.”
If there is an old stone that could be polished up maybe even reshaped, Crowther finds this particularly interesting. “I work with a brilliant stone cutter so it’s always fun thinking if we can change it slightly.” Stones are the most exciting part for her. “I love working with sapphires, they are a great hardness and come in so many colours.”
All these designers agree that the past few years have created a rediscovered yearning for tactility and craft. “I think the last two years have given people time to get involved in having things crafted for them and to revive the days of personal rather than mass-produced jewellery,” says Fennell. “Getting involved in reviving a piece that often has a sentimental attraction and giving it a new look and a new lease of life is very enjoyable and creative and produces a piece that both harks back to its past and takes it on a new journey with its new owner.”
Vanessa Chilton concurs. “We have seen a renewed vigour for revamping old pieces. We think Covid has played a huge part in this. Perhaps it’s the feeling of wearing something that belonged to a loved one but now has your unique stamp on it, and perhaps it’s partly to do with being responsible, sustainable.” She thinks that the endless months of lockdown gave people the time to see what they had and whether it was right for them. “Strangely, the last two Christmases have been incredibly busy,” she adds. “All those people who had planned holidays and had to cancel them, or planned parties and had to cancel them, and wanted to mark a birthday or an exceptional event mostly turned to jewellery to replace other treats.”