Unlike store-bought jewellery, where the identity of diamonds or gemstones and nature of the materials used in construction are well-known, items presented to jewellers for repair offer considerable challenges.
It is prudent when working on older and emotionally valuable pieces to undertake a thorough assessment of the item prior to any work, including cleaning. A repair plan should then be developed to give the highest probability of a satisfactory result and limit the potential for risk and liability.
The purpose of this approach is to identify the method of construction, the metals and gemstones involved and the overall condition of the piece. Given that many jewellery items are still being worn and valued decades after their construction, it is amazing what this examination may reveal.
Gemstones may be original, partially original, replaced by a ‘best fit’ alternative or degraded by a lifetime of appreciative wear. Similarly, metals may be original, partially replaced or deteriorated by mechanical stress and wear. Lead solder, adhesives, shellac, wax or fillers may be present. Also look out for brooches, lockets and rings as they may have organic keepsakes such as photos, hair, paper or perishable items inside.
By identifying and communicating to the customer any pre-existent wear or damage, the responsibility transfers to the customer for much of the repair risks. It is good defence against the perpetual myth that the jeweller might ‘swap a stone’.
Once cleaned, it is remarkable how gemstones that were thought to be pristine reveal evidence of their owners’ lifestyles. Facet-wear, edge-chipping and girdle damage can be found in a majority of facetted gemstones. This is particularly true for rings and bracelets where materials with a hardness lower than quartz – 7 on Mohs scale – are especially vulnerable.
Gemstone damage can be understood in several ways – abrasion, pressure and impact are the most common forces that apply to jewellery that is worn regularly.
In many cases, older pieces include gemstones that are no longer easily obtained from traditional suppliers. Even if a piece is suited to more aggressive repair techniques, the impracticality of replacing a damaged/lost gemstone should be given consideration.
Natural ruby, synthetic ruby, natural garnet, garnet-topped doublet, spinel, paste (glass), diamond, white sapphire, zircon, natural pearl, emerald (natural unoiled), synthetic emerald, soude emerald and demantoid garnet may all be found in antique or vintage rings.
This is in no way a comprehensive list and it’s worth bearing in mind that many gemstones such as garnet-topped doublets are unavailable in today’s market. With more readily-available gemstones, it also may be difficult to find gemstones of suitable sizes for use as repair replacements. Even diamond, the most available stone to replace, can be difficult to find in old-cut variants.
However, don’t lose heart as once a jeweller has worked on a piece to enable its wearer to enjoy it for longer or to pass it on to a new owner, they have given it an extended life. If that’s not possible, the good-quality materials can be recycled and returned to life in a new piece for future generations to enjoy.