Just what you want

Part 3: That bling-bling thing

Custom jewelry has always been popular, especially wedding rings. But these days, people are commissioning artisans to make rings, necklaces, earrings and brooches to mark all types of major life events, even the passing of loved ones. “If somebody has an idea, they have to have it custom-made,” says James Morton, a designer in Toronto. “They want something one of a kind, something that really reflects them.”

In his 30 years as a metalsmith, Morton has filled his share of demanding requests. A few years ago, a man came to him with rope and asked him to replicate it in gold with a diamond nestled in a knot as an engagement ring for his mountain-climbing girlfriend. Another woman asked Morton to craft a six-inch silver paddle leaning against a rock. She had met her husband at summer camp, where she was accused of stealing his paddle. The commissioned piece was her way of giving her spouse back his paddle on their 50th anniversary.

Even if your needs aren’t quite so specific, buying custom can be a good deal. The markup on most mass-produced jewelry is easily 10 times the wholesale cost, says Morton, and by going to a custom jeweler, consumers can avoid the middleman and get more for their money. Morton has made rings for as little as $100; he’s also made pieces worth thousands of dollars. As with all jewelry, there’s no limit on how high you can go to get exactly what you want.

Especially at more expensive levels, an increasing number of the most eager customers are working women. They have the money and the urge to buy exactly what they want. While men once purchased most jewelry as gifts for wives and girlfriends, it’s now women who are powering the market.

Consider Karen Shatz, a family therapist living in Florida. About 15 years ago, she read a newspaper article about Gloria Bass, a jewelry maker in Westmount, Que. Shatz visited Bass’s boutique, fell in love with her unique designs, and has commissioned several pieces from her.

One of Bass’s signatures is jewelry with removable elements that allow for different looks. When Shatz brought her a long strand of pearls she had received as a gift years ago, Bass created the “Swiss army knife of necklaces.” She restrung the pearls into two strands that can be worn separately or together. They are fastened with a big gold clasp that is inset with diamonds and can be worn on its own as a brooch.

Shatz has also turned to Bass for a gold necklace and dangling earrings (the studs are pearls, and the detachable droplets contain diamonds that belonged to her late mother). In fact, her entire family has become so comfortable with Bass’s designs that her son called from Paris to order his engagement and wedding rings over the telephone, sight unseen.

You can begin your own search for a jeweler by trawling the Internet and looking at the designs of custom jewelers in your area. But before you place an order, meet the jeweler in person and inspect his or her work first-hand. You’re seeking someone who possesses not only the right design sense, but also a high level of craftsmanship that may not be apparent from a photograph. To gauge the level of craft, Shatz recommends picking up sample pieces and turning them over. The metal should feel smooth, and the back should be as beautiful as the front. “I’m stopped whenever I’m wearing a piece of Gloria’s jewelry, which is all the time,” says Shatz. “People are always asking me to see it, to touch it and to feel it, because her workmanship is so extraordinary.”

Have it your way — these tips can help you get the custom product you want.

Part 1: Introduction Part 2: Furniture Part 3: Jewelry Part 4: Clothes

From the September/October 2004 issue.

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