Old and New

Though no ceremony is so steeped in mythology, tradition or superstition as a wedding, and no wedding-related accoutrement has the particular significance of a ring, I had to wrack my brain for pertinent references to wedding rings.

The examples I came up with at first were clever but withering–they deflated, negated and detracted from all the whimsy and sentimentality and charm, all the romance of weddings and wedding rings.

There’s Philip Larkin’s mention of a “wrangle for the ring” in his ode to secularism and no-strings-attached sex, “Annus Mirabilis.” And Morrissey, unsurprisingly, only sings about returning rings (he knows so much about these things).

Then I remembered an anecdote from a much-loved series of girls’ books, the Emily series. Authored by Lucy Maud Montgomery in the early twentieth century, the novels are sentimental but charming–much like the best of weddings. Their eponymous heroine, whose life is marked by various uncanny and fortuitous, coincidences, listens to family legends about an ancestress, a belle of Prince Edward Island, who received a ring with a huge diamond from her betrothed. She lost the diamond, and though her family searched every inch of its property, it was never recovered—until Emily, in her own teens, finds it on a dairy floor, three-quarters of a century after its loss. It’s a flawless stone, all the more compelling because it is so storied–and of course, it’s eventually incorporated into Emily’s own wedding band (and of course, after substantial adversity and near-misses, Emily marries the right man).

Found and heirloom stones like Emily’s—with their accompanying legends—figured into many area jewelers’ accounts of the current market. In fact, the Emily story bears a striking resemblance to Easthampton-based artisan Carol Joannides’ anecdote about her own wedding band (currently a work in progress). Years ago, by happy accident, Joannides found a huge, very valuable black diamond on a bathroom floor. She’s currently designing and casting a setting to enhance the stone for her own upcoming wedding.

Though Joannides’ wedding-gem story could have been taken straight from a turn-of-the-century novel, her aesthetic is modern and fairly stark. Joannides represents a slightly left-of-center niche in the wedding jewelry market—much of her clientele is interested in rings and accompanying pieces that are innovative or slightly subversive. She recalls making a number of sinuous gold bands for customers who wanted something unusual but not overt or ostentatious. She also often works with slightly less conventional materials, making some bands (including her own) in silver instead of more obvious choices like gold, palladium or platinum. And she incorporates semi-precious stones instead of, or in addition to, the perennial wedding-band favorites: diamonds.

When I spoke to Joannides, she mentioned working with a couple who elected not to exchange rings, noting that she made the bride a subtle necklace and matching earrings as alternative wedding jewelry. On another occasion she sold a matching green necklace and earrings to the mother of a bride and was surprised when the bride chose to wear the vibrantly colored pieces during her ceremony.

Joannides also recalled making punk-rock rings covered in x’s for two friends to complement their lifestyle. She noted that all of her pieces are carefully considered and one of a kind—she always designs with a particular customer in mind, and tries to integrate his or her aesthetic and to make jewelry that’s uniquely flattering. She reported a particularly fey and unusual wedding jewelry endeavor as well: “I had a friend who made bouquets out of vintage buttons for all her bridesmaids to carry at her wedding, so we scoured second-hand stores for vintage buttons and I made her a matching necklace and cuff bracelet out of them. It was her ‘something old.’ Also, each of her bridesmaids wore a single vintage button on a chain as an accessory.” Joannides also noted making numerous pieces for bridal attendants—often simple but striking accessories, incorporating a different stone for each bridesmaid.
Nanami Shiika, manager and spokesperson for Northampton’s Silverscape Jewelers, also spoke of catering to customers who want unique or custom-made jewelry. She mentioned incorporating a couple’s birthstones into many rings, and described a recent renewal in interest in vintage and art deco-inspired accessories, especially pieces with floral motifs. Lately, she said, men have been taking a previously unprecedented interest in unique or ornate ring designs. She also spoke of a large clientele that requests inscriptions, many traditional, some less so; one couple wanted an engraving of Egyptian hieroglyphs. (Interestingly enough, the custom of exchanging wedding rings is said to date back to ancient Egypt, where it was thought that the fourth finger of the left hand contained a special “love vein.”)

Shiika referred me to an experienced local jeweler, Constance Gildea, whose designs retail at Silverscape but who also does custom work for clients all over the country. Gildea specializes in making bridal jewelry, and she reported recent interest in white metals like platinum and palladium, as well as the popularity of art deco and vintage-inspired pieces. She noted that recently, many clients have requested unusually tinted diamonds, “teal, blue pink, and even black, which has a particular luster, intensity and depth.” Asked about idiosyncratic purchases, she said that certain customers request such lengthy inscriptions that the lettering on their rings has to be virtually microscopic. Sentimental engravings seem to be popular as well, she said; two local twentysomethings who owned a sugar shack requested maple leaves as ring motifs.

Gildea also had a couple of wedding-jewelry yarns worth anthologizing. In one particularly remarkable instance, a bride came to her with diamonds from an engagement brooch owned by her grandmother. The unusual thing about these stones was they had ever so narrowly avoided being lost in one of most publicized disasters of the early 20th century: the bride’s grandmother and grandfather had boarded the Titanic for their honeymoon cruise and were spared when the ship sank because rescue parties gave priority to newlyweds. Gildea carefully reset the diamonds in a band engraved with a sea grass pattern.

Margie Sneideman, a diamond specialist and representative for Hartford’s Becker’s Jewelers, echoed Gildea and Nanami Shiika on the recent popularity of heirloom stones and ring designs. She pointed out that Becker’s has a custom jeweler on staff, and that many of his assignments involve the recreation or resetting of family rings and gems. She also agreed with Gildea about the demand for vintage and art deco wedding rings, and named Henri Daussi and Martin Flyer as eminent vintage jewelry-inspired designers. Sneideman mentioned the recent popularity of platinum and the similar but “softer-price point” option, palladium.

Interestingly, Sneideman, like Nanami Shiika, emphasized recent interest in slightly more decadent men’s rings with more and finer diamonds. (Sneideman emphasized that Becker’s only retails rings made with high-end “Hearts of Fire” diamonds, which are especially lustrous and are cut using state-of-the-art technology.) She added that satin and hammered-finish bands are currently in vogue.

Though the jewelers interviewed for this article had fairly disparate aesthetics, the common thread in each of their accounts is couples’ desire to integrate and personalize age-old traditions. In an era of cynicism—post-modern, post-9/11, post-sexual liberation and Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis,” post-industrialized, even, arguably, post-Morrissey—weddings are uniquely optimistic and nostalgic. And so are their trappings, especially the symbolic and significant ring. Rings—whether they’re platinum or palladium, diamond-laden, art deco-inspired, custom-crafted to enhance storied gems, or covered in x’s—manage to embody that unavoidable wedding proverb; to be simultaneously something old and something new.

Author: Sarah Feldberg

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