Thursday, November 7, 2013

An answer to Susan's question, or A Restoration

Last weekend, I photographed my friend Cristin's family in their gorgeous back yard.  I'm still culling through the 180-or-so shots that I took, but you'll see some of the good ones later.  Before I left, I noticed that Cristin's sister was staring pretty intently at my right hand before she finally asked, "Where did you get this?" and pointed at my ring.  I told her it was a long story, and here it is:

Not-so-long-ago (I'm not that old) in the not-so-faraway land of West Chester, my parents were finally executing their plans to re-do the landscaping of their new home.  While standing on the front porch and looking at the yard in front of her, my mom noticed something in the dirt near the front step--it turned out to be a ring.  It was badly beat up and looked like junk, and it later wound up on my dad's bureau with his spare change and over-accumulation of receipts and scrap paper.  When I was a kid, I would try it on even though it was so bent up it didn't fit on my little kid fingers.  I liked it because "it had a pony on it" and even some sparkles along its sides, but eventually we all forgot about it.

Or at least we all forgot about it until this past February.  For whatever reason--I have no idea--it crossed my mind, and I began to wonder if it had been lost or if my parents had trashed it long ago.  I asked them to dig it up, and sure enough my dad had hung onto it all these years.  They weren't interested in it and didn't feel like doing anything with it, so I asked if I could go look for someone to restore it.  At the time, I didn't know ANYTHING about it--I really thought the ring was junk, and I was totally prepared for the average jeweler to be like, "Look kid, this is JUNK and not worth my time to work on it.  Throw it out and move on with your life."

I picked three places to visit.  The first place knew as little about the ring as me.  They offered to clean it up a little, bend the ring back to shape, size it to my finger and scrape off some of the green-blue mold around the horse's face.  Their price wasn't too high, although it was on the higher end of what I wanted to spend.  After they outlined everything for me, I walked down the street to the second place to see what they would say.

I walked in and handed it to the woman who owned the place and described what I was hoping to do with it--I just wanted it to be wearable. I didn't need perfection or anything.

She held the ring in her palm and stared at it silently for what seemed like ten minutes. "Where did you find this?" she asked.

"Believe it or not, my parents found it in their yard nearly thirty years ago."

"Really. Your parents found it? In their yard?"  Looking at me from over the top of her jeweler's eye piece, it was clear that she didn't really believe me.

I explained that they had torn up their yard and everything, and one day it was just there clearly unearthed after many years of being hidden underground.

"Wow," she said.

More silence.

"Wow, this is a heartbreaker. My goodness."

"What do you mean?" I asked, totally convinced that she thought I had stolen it or something.

"This piece is probably forty years old.  It definitely didn't exist prior to the 1960s.  It was a custom-made piece, definitely for a man.  Most likely, it was a gift.  Can you imagine being given a gift like this and losing it?"  She paused and asked, "How old is your parent's house?  What was there before their house was built?"

"Nothing--woods and trees.  Typical Chester County landscape.  There was a farm on at least one side of their neighborhood until twenty years ago."

"Here's my guess," she offered.  "Decades ago, somebody crossed the land--probably on horseback--that eventually became your yard.  I wonder if they took the ring off while riding and put it in a pocket or something, and the ring slipped out.  Many years later, your parents found the ring that slipped out of the pocket.  How did the band get so bent, though?"

"Who knows," I said. "There's nearly a hundred houses in that neighborhood. Construction equipment probably rolled over it.  Between that and the mold, it's pretty bad."

"Oh no!" she corrected me. "That's not mold around the horse's face.  That's enameling."

"What? How do you know that?"

 "It's glass--not mold.  Enameling is melted glass.  That's what I mean--this piece has been traumatized.  Whatever it went through, it was enough to scrape melted glass off the surface of the ring. Enameling isn't easy to remove."

"What color was--"

"Blue. Lapis colored.  Blue is the color of winners--first place.  What other color would a real equestrian want?  It was blue.  And something scraped it off ... I really cannot imagine how that happened.  So what do you want to do?  You have some options: I can get the ring cleaned up and sized properly, or I can do that and send it out to restore the enameling too.  There's only one person in Philadelphia who I trust with enameling work, and her work alone has a three week turnaround time."

(You can see a good example of blue enameling here.  It's really shimmery and gorgeous.)

I was so overwhelmed by all of these details.  And the price.  It turned out to be a real treasure--not junk.  I couldn't believe it.  I told her I needed to think about, and I took the ring home with me.  I never made it to the third jeweler.

A few days later, I returned to her with my mind made up: Restore the ring but not the enameling.  Enameling doubled the cost of the whole thing, and it could always been done years later if I changed my mind.  I wasn't so sure that I wanted so much bright blue at the center of the piece anyway--I thought the textures on the surface of the ring were more interesting than adding color anyway.

It took two or three weeks, and it was the beginning of April when I walked back to the store that did the work.  When I came through the front door, the owner said to me, "YOU'RE HERE!  I honestly can't believe the final result.  Really: brace yourself.  No one at the store can believe it.  Ready??  Really, I should offer you a chair or something."  She literally held her breath as I held out my palm and she placed the ring in my hand.

Love love love that brushed texture all along the sides and back.

She had given it to another colleague who specializes in this kind of work, and apparently it required so many different techniques that he used it as a demo to teach students who are learning jewelry construction and restoration.  Typically, she told me, it takes this person 90 minutes to fix the average piece.  My piece required four hours of time to get it right.  There was so much wrong with it--if you look at the Before pictures, part of the horseshoe frame (the upper right corner) had collapsed and needed to be straightened out (it's still slightly bent if you look at the After pictures--it was too damaged to get totally right).  Each surface had to be polished and the correct texture added--shiny textures, brushed textures, sculpted textures, rough textures. The horse's whole face and mane needed to be re-carved.  All of the stones had to be removed during the process and then later put back in--there were a million steps to getting it right.

Holding it in my hands, I was totally speechless. I couldn't believe the effort that had gone into it and I couldn't believe the effect of that effort.  Speechless.

Speechless speechless speechless.

And we all know that THAT never happens.  This was a big deal--in a world of overwhelming half-assed MEDIOCRITY, here was a gem.  The Real Thing.  A Real Work of Art.  A Labor of Love.

I didn't know what to say.

In such a tiny little nugget, so much work and energy and effort permanently captured.  Who knows how many years ago, some woman (I like to think) sat down with an exclusive jeweler, maybe in Philadelphia, with an image in her head and a blank check in her designer wallet.  She has on a perfectly tailored suit--exactly like the one Jackie Kennedy had on in that magazine last year--and she takes off her gloves as she walks through the front doors of the store.  She explains exactly what she wants for the man she has in mind--maybe for an anniversary gift? or maybe a birthday?  Maybe to celebrate a major win on the national show circuit?  She sketched the design out--even labeling which colored stones go where--on a monogrammed note she pulled out of her top desk drawer.  She says,  "Don't worry about the cost.  Can you have it done in six weeks?  I know he'll love it."

Imagine the panic a few years (God forbid, weeks) after she gives him the final product:  He just had the ring on his hand ... didn't he?  Oh no no no ... he didn't lose the ring she had made for him ... Standing next to the stall of his favorite horse on a gorgeous fall day--that sick, sinking feeling in his stomach as he frantically pats all the pockets in his jacket and pants.  "It was right here. I know I put it right here.  It was right here! Wasn't it?  Maybe it was this jacket?  Maybe it's next to the sink in the tack room?  No, I never take it off at the sink.  If it's not in one of these pockets ... where would it be?  I'll retrace my steps.  Maybe it's in the car! Maybe it rolled under my seat ..."  only to give up weeks or months later when he knows for sure that it's gone for good.

Twenty-some years later, it's found battered and nearly broken by a women in her early thirties who just finished planting some new trees and laying out her new walkway.  She brings it inside the new house because it's time to make dinner anyway, and later the ring finds itself forgotten--again--for another twenty years.

Standing in the middle of the jewelry store that day, my jaw slipping and sliding all over the floor as I chased it around trying to pick it up, I found myself fervently wishing in my head, "Talk to me! Tell me everything you know!" as I stared at the new old ring in my palm. "We're making a thousand guesses about you, and where you came from, and who thought you up in the first place.  Just tell us the truth!"

But only silence for now.

There is a little part of me that feels guilty when I slip the ring on--it wasn't made for me, and it technically belongs to someone else or to that person's child or grandchild.  A part of me wonders, "How does a person lose something like this, though?  How did they get so distracted that they didn't notice it was gone?" (Although I'm not projecting judgement with this statement.  I still cringe that I lost my mom's opal ring in 8th grade--I don't need anyone making me feel additionally guilty for that ... another  story for another time.)

I try to make that twinge go away by thinking, "Whoever lost this is so lucky it eventually made its way to me ... now it has a new life." I can't help but think that another person really would've thrown it away or let their kids play with it and eventually ruin or lose it.  Even when I five or six years old, a part of me was determined to wear that "pony ring" one day--maybe I could even bend the band myself?  (In my little kid mind, all I needed was the right tool out of my dad's tool box and some extra elbow grease.) My imagined woman who came up with this custom-made gift forty years ago can breathe a sigh of relief--her effort wasn't a total, sickening waste--there's another woman out there across time and space who gets a thrill every time she puts this artwork on her finger.  And, this jewelry-freak-complete-sucker-for-a-sparkle-woman can't help but think she appreciates this tiny work of art a thousand times more than any guy possibly could!


Laurie said...

So cool! It's beautiful.

Susan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Susan said...

I am such a sucker for vintage jewelry. Even more so if it involves a love story. Sorry for staring:)