Cover Much of Elizabeth Taylor’s private jewellery collection has been bought back by Bulgari (Photo: Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Everything old is new again, thanks to a set of sophisticated jewellers who are upcycling family heirlooms and heritage pieces

Repurposing old jewellery has been the bread and butter of goldsmiths and gem dealers for centuries, but it’s fast becoming a growing trend with a new spin. As consumers grow more conscious about the environmental and ethical impact of their purchases, a practice that may have existed for centuries is now more sought-after than ever. From the simple resizing of an engagement ring to the resetting of gems from a Georgian hairpin, the range of possibilities is endless. And as sustainability becomes a way of life, we’re seeing designers rescue unloved sparklers from dusty draws and seldom-visited vaults.

It’s possible to breathe new life into old pieces by recasting gems into new settings, says Hong Kong-based jewellery designer Sarah Zhuang. This involves melting down and reshaping precious metals into stylish silhouettes that are often bespoke. “People tend to own heritage jewellery that’s been passed down to them from previous generations,” Zhuang tells me. “These pieces can be very simple and traditional and often end up in a safe.” Diamonds, she says, are meant to be worn, not locked away. “It’s such a waste.”

Alisa Moussaieff, who is head of the family gem and jewellery business Moussaieff Jewellers, recalls redesigning a classical jewellery suite. “A client came to us with earrings and bracelets that she no longer wore, so we took the gemstones and used them to create one powerful necklace.” On that necklace, numerous strands of Burmese rubies pop against white diamonds that flash with a searing sparkle. Another woman asked for help with a piece she wanted to give as a gift to her future daughter-in-law. “It was a very high-profile wedding,” the jeweller recalls, “with numerous high-profile personalities, including eastern royalty and dignitaries.”

New Lease On Life

“It seems to me that wanting to recycle, to give things a longer life and to move away from disposable culture plays a part in this move towards remodelled jewellery,” says Josina von dem Bussche-Kessell, Fabergé's global sales director. The process, however, isn’t always smooth sailing. Problems can be uncovered, like a crack that was hidden until the gem was removed from its setting. “When we make a new piece from scratch, we know exactly where the components come from. When we take in pieces which we have no knowledge of, we are essentially dealing with an unknown and this can unnerve our craftsmen and women.” But why should this put us off? “People want something that’s unique and different,” says Zhuang.

“Remodelling heritage jewellery is special because it has meaning that’s understood only by the wearer.” She has noticed an increased interest in transformable designs. “People want to make their jewellery more versatile and functional. They want a ring that can also be transformed into a necklace, or a pendant that can be worn as a brooch. They want to make the most out of their jewellery and be able to wear it to many different occasions.”

See also: These Gorgeous Jewellery Pieces Are Perfect For Everyday Wear

And for good reason. Not only can jewellery be expensive, many of its materials are simply not sustainable, which is one reason why lab-grown diamonds are a rapidly growing trend in the industry. Chemically, physically and optically identical to mined diamonds, they are also created using extreme pressure and heat, but inside a machine rather than Earth. And while traditionalists tell us it’s impossible to beat the real thing—natural diamonds do, after all, take millions of years to develop—there’s little point waiting around for the next batch: Mother Earth has passed her sell-by date. Our planet’s composition, seismic waves and other bits and bobs simply don’t perform like they used to.

I’m happy, however, to report that it’s not all doom and gloom. Gemstone deposits are still being discovered. In 2018, geologists reported discovering a quadrillion tons of diamonds beneath Earth’s surface, although they’ve yet to find a way to mine them. Located between 150 and 240 kms below ground, they’re evading capture while we create a machine that can drill to that never-before-seen depth.

Jewels With History

In the meantime, we’ll have to make do with what we already have, and this is far from meagre. While some won’t settle for anything less than brand new, there’s something unique about knowing that your Colombian emerald was once a part of a socialite’s tiara. “As part of our high jewellery Cinemagia collection, we revisited a celebrated sapphire sautoir that belonged to Elizabeth Taylor,” says Lucia Silvestri, Bulgari's creative director. While on location in Italy in 1962, Taylor famously quipped that “undeniably one of the biggest advantages to filming Cleopatra in Rome was Bulgari’s shop”.

It was around this time that Taylor and her then-married co-star, Richard Burton, started their love affair. Burton gave Taylor numerous jewellery pieces from Bulgari and, at the 2011 Christie’s auction The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor, the maison bought back several pieces owned by the actress. “We redesigned this legendary Bulgari creation and replicated it with emeralds. We also played with the piece’s elegant silhouette so that it looks more contemporary,” Silvestri says.

As a general rule, she likes to incorporate coloured gemstones into redesigned jewellery. “Wearabilty and versatility are key,” she says, “so adding multicoloured gems like rubellites, garnets and peridots to a warm pink gold, for example, allows clients to experiment with a wide range of trends.”

See also: The Rise Of Coloured Gemstones And How To Wear Them

When my own mother replaced her engagement ring with a stunning emerald-set band several years ago, I thought about what to do with the comparatively modest diamond she’d discarded. The setting is rather humdrum but I couldn’t bear to part with it—its sentimental value goes beyond any built-in preciousness of the raw material. I’ll certainly be getting it remodelled, now knowing how it can act as a lasting union of the past, present and future. So, what’s lurking in your jewellery box?

See also: July 2020: What's New In Jewellery

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