Just Like New

Time takes its toll on jewelry. Worn ring shanks, paper-thin pendant bails, and snapped prongs are familiar sights. Most are easy to fix. But when a customer presents a beloved old platinum filigree ring that has taken a spin through the garbage disposal, or an art deco bracelet stiffened by repair work, many jewelers shrug helplessly. Pull the stones, they may say, scrap the metal. If you have a stiff bracelet, well, learn to live with it.

Not so fast. Depending on a piece’s value—sentimental or monetary—it may be a candidate for restoration.

Restoration is not a euphemism for repair. Repair is a finger in the dike—it simply makes a piece of jewelry wearable again. Restoration rebuilds the dike. It removes the signs of previous repair work, replaces worn and damaged sections, and refurbishes the entire piece so it looks like new. “Restoration is more respectful of the original,” says Los Angeles jewelry manufacturer and restorer Rick Basta Eichberg, who for the last 20 years has exercised restoration skills he learned from his father. “Instead of putting in a full-cut [diamond], you put in the original old miner. You respect the antique finish.”

Why restore? Restoration can be time-consuming and expensive. So why advise customers to restore damaged pieces when they can have new ones?

For one thing, each discarded piece of antique, period, or ancient jewelry is something beautiful lost, says Neil Lane of Neil Lane Estate Jewelry, Los Angeles, who specializes in platinum Edwardian and art deco pieces. He believes that reproductions, often copied from photographs and using today’s production techniques, can never duplicate the feel of Edwardian platinum or give a bracelet the same fluidity that riveting can. “There is an element of tactility in art deco pieces. It’s silky,” says Lane. “Good jewelry was designed to flow on the body.”

When old pieces are converted or scrapped, not only beauty but also history is lost, says David Humphrey of David Humphrey Fine Jewels in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “Jewelry is a way of keeping in touch with one’s past, one’s roots, one’s history,” he says. He laments that people today often are more interested in what happens in the future than what happened in the past. They have forgotten the concept of “heirloom,” he says. “They don’t have a need for their great-grandmother’s bracelet. They don’t have a place to wear it, and they don’t think about how wonderful it would be to pass it on.”

For those who sell estate jewelry, there are sound financial reasons to consider restoration: It can make a substantial difference in the salability and monetary value of a piece. When Humphrey acquired some gold Chinese hair ornaments from the Ming Dynasty, they “looked like a smashed piece of very blackened gold … what one would have looked at and passed over.” In that condition, the ornaments would have been worth a few hundred dollars as a “curiosity and an antique object.” But with the work of a restorer, they are now in pristine condition and selling for $10,000. (To make sure that restoration is worth the effort and expense, dealers check the auction prices netted for comparable pieces from the same period.)

Martin Stuart of Lakeview Terrace, Calif., who specializes in platinum restoration, finds that it’s almost always worthwhile for a retailer to restore a platinum piece. Stuart deletes previous repairs with a process that strips away gold and platinum solders, then uses a laser to reconstruct delicate platinum structures. Because the value of platinum pieces is high, his fee becomes “an acceptable fraction” of the sale price. “This makes for a higher profit margin for my customers,” he says.

In some cases, restoration may be necessary to ensure the continued wearability of a piece. A customer recently returned to Lane a pair of 19th-century diamond earrings he sold her four years ago. She had worn them every day until one fell off. “There are some things you can’t expect from jewelry that is already 100 years old,” says Lane. In earlier eras, certain pieces of fine jewelry were made to be worn for special occasions, not every day. Restoration can give them the durability needed to stand up to modern patterns of wear.

Time and money. Because restorations are expensive, jewelers who do not handle them on a regular basis are often embarrassed by the cost, says C. Thomas Hunt in San Francisco. They may charge less and give the job to the people who handle their day-to-day bench work rather than give it to an expert in restoration. “They don’t have the confidence to say, ‘This is what it will cost to do properly,’ ” he says.

An inexperienced jeweler can do more harm than good to old pieces, restorers warn. “The main problem is that people have no clue how to make a piece and so cannot repair it,” says Eichberg. “Most of the damage I encounter is not because the piece broke, but because it was repaired by someone who didn’t know what he was doing.”

Nor does a retail jeweler or dealer save money by going to a traditional bench jeweler. “If you take a platinum, diamond, and emerald art deco bracelet to the guy who does cheap sizing, it’s not going to be an inexpensive repair,” says Hunt. Sending a botched job to an expert to redo means paying for it twice.

Jewelers and clients must be aware that restoration is a “painstaking, time-consuming pursuit,” says Stuart. “Nothing happens fast.” Stuart estimates that 85% of his restorations take one to three weeks. The more difficult ones can take six weeks to six months. “Miracles take about two years,” he says.

Hunt was asked to copy a silver overlay brooch from the 1830s or 1840s to make a set of earrings. It took a year to find rose-cut diamonds and metal from the same era to match the original. Throughout the project, he kept the client informed. “The most important thing is staying in touch with the client all the way through the job. The client knows you haven’t forgotten about her,” he says.

“I’m the slowest person you’ll ever find, and I’m also the most expensive,” Hunt tells clients. “If they truly want to [go forward with the repair] after that, you know they’re serious. If the person wants you to hurry, you shouldn’t touch the piece. If you have to cut corners, it will show.”

The art of restoration. The quality of the work done depends a great deal on the intelligence of the restorer and how he uses his skill, not on clever tools and equipment. For example, people make much of the laser, an amazing tool that allows repairs that otherwise couldn’t be done. “With the use of the laser, you can get the fluidity of a piece again, while heavy solder would run and the [bracelet] links would stiffen up,” says Lane.

But the laser is not a miracle tool that solves every problem, say restorers. Though Eichberg uses a laser, he leans on older techniques. “I specialize in restoring the old-fashioned way, with acids and chemicals,” he says. Even Stuart, known for his laser work, realizes its limitations. “Too much of anything, especially laser energy,” he says, “and you have done more damage in a few thousandths of a second than [occurred over] one or more centuries.”

Restorers must be aware of the variety of metals and solders used in different periods as well as the methods of plating and alloying. They often need to find stones that match the others in a piece or have stones cut to match. Millgraining must be hand-sawn, granulation beads re-created.

There are no books or schools to which a jeweler can turn to discover what alloys, overlays, and techniques an Etruscan artist used 3,000 years ago, and there is no single way to approach a piece. Jewelers who specialize in restoration must learn from every piece they touch. They take photos before, during, and after the process, building their own reference library restoration by restoration.

Good restoration is rooted in respect for the work of the original jewelry artist, says Eichberg. “If you can’t appreciate the work, you can’t really repair it the way it should be.” Eichberg looks closely at every aspect of the piece. “Every detail has a bearing on the way you’re going to repair it,” he says.

Respect for the work means the restoration should be virtually indistinguishable from the original. While jewelry restorers have every right to be proud of their work, they take every care to efface themselves and signs of their hand from the restoration. “Attention to detail is what makes a job a successful restoration or a repair,” says Stuart.

Restoration is not done in an attempt to conceal the previous condition of the piece, so disclosure is not an issue with antique jewelry dealers. “I actually enjoy disclosing to people what processes I’ve gone through to bring a piece to pristine condition,” says Humphrey. If someone were to completely disassemble an art deco bracelet and restore it, says Lane, “that wouldn’t bother me. That would be great. It’s not like you’ve faked something. All you’ve done is removed years of solder to get the bracelet to flow.” Besides, adds Lane, “If you reveal the truth to a client, you never have a problem. It’s concealment that creates the problem.”

Most restorers also have thriving design, repair, or manufacturing businesses, and most have more restoration work than they can handle. Eichberg has a team of several jewelers adept at restoration; Stuart is training an apprentice. But restorers don’t do the work for the money—fees rarely cover the time, cost, and risk. “I do it for love, not the hourly rate,” says Hunt. The challenge of trying to determine the techniques and identify the materials used in centuries-old pieces—then duplicating them—motivates restorers, as well.

It’s also gratifying to do work so skillfully that even the original jeweler wouldn’t spot the restoration. When Hunt handed his customer the earring made as a match for the silver overlay and diamond brooch, the customer asked, “Which is the new one?”

“If someone had brought it to me, I don’t think I could have told the difference at first, not unless I was looking for it,” says Hunt with a little more than a touch of pride.

Sharon Elaine Thompson, a freelance writer in Salem, Ore., writes frequently for JCK.