RESTORING ANTIQUE JEWELERY

 

When fine old jewelry needs restoration, your goal should be to preserve all the work that is good and repair or restore what is missing or broken so it blends seamlessly with the original.

Jewelry is worn and exposed to such extreme physical stress and abuse that it’s amazing any ancient pieces still exist.

If not destroyed by the wear and tear of day-to-day use and the ravages of time and the elements, jewelry can fall victim to the shifting whims of fashion.

But when you do acquire a fine old piece that needs restoration, weigh the merits carefully.  The piece has lasted this long; the choices you make will determine how it fares in the future.

Determine your goal for the piece and deliberate which course of action you will take to meet that goal.  Each piece presents a series of questions.  To find the answers, you need to understand a few things first.  Here’s a guide.

The definitions: How does restoration differ from repair, renovation and rehabilitation?  What is conservation and how does it apply?  How do you go about getting the work done, and how can it be done better?

Conservation is a careful preservation and protection of an object and is the approach most often favored by museums for collections that are not intended to be worn.  The work is stabilized and then stored or displayed to minimize future deterioration.  Any restoration is minimal to avoid clouding the view of the original work, which would damage its historical significance.

Historical restoration involves using authentic period details, materials, tools and techniques.  It often involves extensive research.  Historic restoration also involves many aspects of conservation.  The goal is to preserve all the work that is good, repair or restore what is missing or broken so it blends seamlessly with the original and re-create the appropriate patinas and surfaces so the new work is difficult to detect.

To repair is to restore by replacing a missing part or putting together what is torn or broken.  Repair places more emphasis on mending than on returning to an original form.  Repair is carried out in the most direct manner, often with no effort to match style or even hide the repair.

Renovation and rehabilitation involve making something new or restoring its vigor, to make it live again, and are terms  more commonly applied to architecture.  However, both terms can be relevant to jewelry when an old piece is changed in order to create a new one.  Examples: converting tiaras to necklaces or brooches, making stickpin heads into slides for slide bracelets and altering earrings from wire backs to screw backs or posts.  Renovations often result in a drastic – if not total – reduction in the value of antique jewelry to collectors.

Combination of approaches: Repair and renovation are the most common approaches in the jewelry industry, though any work on antique or old jewelry will likely involve a combination of approaches.

The merits of each approach depend on the ultimate use of the piece, its value, historical significance, age and current condition.

The first step in a restoration assessment is to determine what is at fault.  The extent and location of damage will dictate what must be done.  Careful examination will reveal the piece’s secrets.  How much was it worn?  Was it damaged and repaired before?  How well were the repairs done?  Has anything been added?  What is now broken?  What are the stones and are they original?  Are any of the stones damaged?

Actually, a lot of restoration involves the correction of poorly done repairs.

Examine the piece carefully, then, examine it again.  Look for stylistic differences between sections of the work.  Find any small cracks or stress points and seek out any sign of hidden damages.  It’s very easy to focus on an area in obvious need of repair and overlook something else that may be quite important.

To ultimately determine the fullest extent of damage, you may need the help of a restoration craftsperson or group of craftspeople (the discipline of more than one may be needed) to provide estimates.

Decision time: After pinpointing the problems, seek theories and encourage opinions.  Find out best- and worst-case scenarios in the pending restoration.  What are the risks, and what troubles may lie ahead?  How long will this take?  Will the results be good?

Decide whether it’s worth the risk.

We document fully the estimates and time factors in fullest detail and  make notes and sketches of what is to be done.  We maintain records on each piece.  Write detailed information on the envelope the piece is in, and make sure it’s legible to the craftsperson.  Many retailers use an envelope – designed for jewelry repair – that produces carbon copies.  Often, however, the carbon copy left on the envelope is unreadable.

Restoration always takes longer than you imagine; restorers are notoriously optimistic in their estimations of how long they will need to complete a project.  When you have restorations done for customers, give them a much later date than the restorer gave you.  In the meantime, keep in contact with both parties and update them as to the progress.

Before any work begins, conservators of antiques should plan to document work on exceptional pieces with before and after photographs.  These could prove useful in determining authenticity and provenance.  If an item is lost or damaged later, the photographs can be used to establish the historical baseline.

The dangers: Restoration is not for the weak of heart.  Most jewelry processes have inherent dangers.  The delicate nature of antique jewelry makes it even more susceptible to damage.

While today’s consumers relate weight with value in fine jewelry, lighter jewelry used to be favored  because it was more comfortable to wear and gave evidence of a maker’s virtuosity in creating a complex piece that was both visually and physically light.  To express themselves and display their prowess and technical skill, goldsmiths would create incredibly difficult designs.

These legacies of an era of good craftsmanship for its own sake are difficult and dangerous to repair.  A second’s lapse in concentration can destroy many days of work.  Remember that even the best restorers have reversals of fortune, though they can fix mistakes while their less-skilled colleagues are likely to return the piece in desperate condition.  This alone might make it worthwhile to engage the best person available.

Jewelry is constructed in an order that eases construction difficulties and places delicate materials at minimum risk.  Hair, emeralds, pearls and other delicate materials are all installed or set after all soldering has been completed.  This is not usually an option with restoration, so the dangers are greater than when manufacturing new jewelry.  Some esoteric materials found in antique jewelry have little intrinsic value, but are very difficult to replace.  And some gemstones are cut in ways that are no longer widely available and must be custom-cut at great expense.

Patinas and the signs of age that are found on antiques are one of the very reasons collectors seek them.  They reflect a connection to the past.  Patinas can be developed artificially to replicate those produced naturally through time, but they are never the same.  Any work done on an antique can destroy something of value that is of a highly subjective nature.  Age changes objects not only physically but also psychologically for owners, and it adds another level or risk to antique restoration.

Family heirlooms, jewelry with sentimental value and antique or old jewelry of unusual (and often dubious) provenance also have high risk factors.  Family heirlooms cannot be replaced.  Jewelry that supposedly once belonged to a famous person – Edwardian jewelry that purportedly belonged to Marie Antoinette, for example – is especially dangerous because the owners have unrealistic expectations.

Further risks: The dangers of restoring a piece of jewelry go beyond simple risk to the materials.  A restorer also must not damage or erase the characteristics that distinguish the period in which the jewelry was designed or the individual characteristics of the designer.

All jewelry is a product of the era into which it was born.  It’s connected to fashion, economics, politics and social consciousness.  For this reason, it’s important for a jewelry restorer to understand the zeitgeist – or general intellectual, moral and cultural climate – of the era in which it was created.

This understanding can bring the restorer into harmony with the period, but it’s more difficult to match the form and expression of a particular artist.  A variation in the depth and angle of a cut, the size of grooves and how the cutter was sharpened will change the finished effect of an engraved piece, for example.  This can be a daunting task because other examples of an artist’s work often aren’t available for comparison.

Many of today’s restorers make the mistake of applying a 21st century aesthetic to the redesign of elements missing from antique jewelry.  Examples include huge replacement prongs on Georgian period jewelry, fat shanks replacing narrow ones on Victorian rings and high polish on all surfaces – regardless of whether that was the original design.  This is why so many forgeries are easy to detect – most forgers don’t learn enough about the period to do an accurate representation.

Often, a piece fails and is weak structurally because the material is flawed, or because of an engineering error.  If merely soldered, the joints could break again.  The challenge is not only to repair the break but also to correct the original problem in a manner that’s in keeping with the original style and technique.

(Note: Advances in restoration technology were made in in the early 1990s when the Crafford Precision Products Co.  pioneered and patented the use of Laser Spot Welding Systems to repair precious metal fractures in extremely close proximity to heat sensitive materials, without the thermal damage associated with traditional soldering techniques. These advances have now become part of the industry standard and allow for a wide range of possibilities. Unfortunately, these new possibilities come with a new set of risks.)

Finding a restorer: As you may have guessed, it takes years to develop a level of expertise and sophistication in restoring jewelry.  Most goldsmiths don’t have the inclination to immerse themselves so thoroughly in the subject.

In addition, the field of antique jewelry restoration is so wide that it’s impossible to acquire proficiency in all areas.  While one craftsperson may be excellent at fine platinum wire work or engraving, he or she may know nothing of repoussé and chasing.

To find good craftspeople:

  • Seek the recommendations of those who are respected in the field of antique jewelry.
  • Strive to find a dependable all-around craftsperson (or shop) who have love and enthusiasm for antique jewelry.
  • Choose a craftsperson with good communication skills.  Long-distance relationships can be difficult, so communication is a key ingredient
  • Once you choose a craftsperson, work to establish good communications and a good working relationship.  And remember that the very qualities that make craftspeople good often make them difficult to deal with.

The jewelry industry relies heavily on trade shops to perform most jewelry repairs.  A trade shop comprises a group of craftspeople, each specializing in a different area and range of skills.  Many shops have at least on highly skilled craftsperson, and many more think they do.

Ideally, simple tasks are assigned to apprentices while those requiring more intricate work are handed over to more skilled employees.  Realistically, work tends to ebb and flow, so when specialists are over burdened, jewelry that requires their skill might be given to someone with less skill.  Because repair doesn’t generate as much money as manufacturing, it’s relegated to a lower level in terms of importance in the trade shop.

Trade shops also have been conditioned to take a quick fix or patchwork approach.  That’s because many people shop primarily for price and  sticker shock often occurs when a shop gives an estimate for extensive restoration of an antique.  The retailer responds with “can’t you just…?” and goes on to suggest an inferior alternative in order to get the job. The retailer must avoid this “can’t you just” approach for several reasons:

  • If the repairs are not done correctly, the piece may be at risk structurally.  Stones may be lost or the piece may fall apart again, exposing the restorer to everything from embarrassment in the industry to a lawsuit by the client.
  • Clients will be horribly disappointed look elsewhere the next time if they perceive poor-quality work. Inferior work is not a solid foundation for the building of relationships.
  • It is a wast of money.
  • It is unfair to the client to not offer and do the best work possible.

ANTIQUE DIVERSITY

The wondrous thing about antique jewelry is the great diversity of materials and techniques used to create it.  Here are some of the materials commonly found and how they may be treated:

  • Enamel.  This is a challenge to restore because modern enamels don’t match older ones.  The major differences arise in the coefficiencies of thermal expansion between enamel formulas and variations in firing temperatures.  In addition, some effects are created by firing different enamels over each other, and some cannot be refired without losing color or darkening.  It’s possible to analyze an enamel and through experimentation approximate the effects, but information gained through chemical analysis is useless because the material changes upon firing.  Epoxy resins can be used to create a faux-enamel finish, but they can look like plastic.
  • Gold or silver that appears to have a very high karat gold surface.  This jewelry may have been gilded with mercury, which is highly toxic and will effuse into the atmosphere when heated.  Ventilate when soldering.
  • Hair.  When used in jewelry, hair was coated with shellac, braided, woven and worked into shape, then soaked in alcohol to remove the shellac.  Hair is too fragile to repeat the process in a restoration.  It’s also irreplaceable in heirloom jewelry.
  • Lead.  The use of lead is a shoddy way to fix jewelry because it is weak and toxic to the worker and the wearer.  Even small amounts of lead will make gold brittle.  It’s also difficult and dangerous to remove from jewelry, requiring the use of powerful acids.
  • Micromosaics.  Tissue lost from micromosaics can be replaced with good results.  But they shouldn’t be subjected to heat or moisture and should not be un-mounted.
  • Painted miniatures.  These should be removed from their mountings if possible.  The paintings can be cleaned and restored, but this must be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
  • Pietra dura.  This can be repaired but must be removed from the mounting.  It’s sometimes difficult to match the original inlays, but results are often good.
  • Plastics.  Celluloid plastic was invented around the time of the Civil War and was used widely as a substitute for ivory and amber.  It’s sensitive to heat and chemicals.
  • Tortoise shell.  This comes from the now-endangered Hawksbill turtle and, according to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, is the most costly organic material in the sea.  Non-Hawksbill turtle shell was popular in Egyptian jewelry from predynastic times onward.  Tortoise shell and horn become brittle and deteriorate with exposure to the elements.  They can be fused together, but this is rarely possible when attempting to restore a cracked finished piece.  Because trading in new shell is banned, old pieces from damaged work must be recycled or horn must be substituted.

What not to do: Here are some practices to avoid:

  • Lead solder is a short-term solution to a long term problem.  It isn’t as strong as gold and will ultimately break.  Its presence then may preclude a proper repair.
  • Don’t rely on glue because it will break down in time.  Create a bond using tension and use glue only as a back-up – if at all.
  • Don’t destroy good old work.
  • Don’t try to improve upon a piece stylistically; stick to original lines.

Why restore? There are advantages to undertaking restoration.  You can learn from and be influenced by artists who are no longer alive.  You also can expose yourself to a wide range of materials and techniques.

As a retailer or private dealer, you can use the knowledge you gain to increase the value of your stock, create new business and expand on existing business.

As a collector, restoration offers you the chance to fine-tune and maximize the pieces in your collections.  And restoration provides everyone with a chance to see pieces as they were originally intended to look and, thereby, come to appreciate them.