How to commission a bespoke piece of jewellery
Perhaps you like the stones of a piece you have bought at auction, but not the setting? Or you want to create something uniquely meaningful? We asked specialists and designers how to go about having that extra-special piece of jewellery made
In a sense, no jewellery is new: the stones and precious metals that go into any piece are unimaginably ancient, formed below ground millions of years ago. But commissioning a newly minted piece is a wonderful way to create something with a personal meaning.
We asked some experts how best to go about it: Christie’s jewellery specialists Henry Bailey in London, Marie-Cécile Cisamolo in Geneva and Claibourne Poindexter in New York; jewellery designers James de Givenchy and Bear Brooksbank; and jewellery historian Levi Higgs.
First, visit your designer
‘I would always want to meet the person who is commissioning,’ says James de Givenchy, owner of Taffin in Manhattan. ‘If it is a surprise piece for a spouse, then I would at least like to see a photograph. That gives me an idea of the person I am designing for.’
Bear Brooksbank agrees: ‘In normal times, you would come to the studio for a chat and a cup of tea. This past year, while that hasn’t been possible, I have got eerily good at guessing finger sizes by looking at photographs.
‘I am always interested in the shape of the finger: some rings suit some finger shapes better than others. And I’ve learned that the chemistry between me and the client is vital. It’s really important that someone who comes to me has a lovely experience.’
Suit yourself, but be prepared to pay
‘Commissioning jewellery is like having Chanel make you an evening gown,’ says Claibourne Poindexter. ‘You incur all the cost of producing the piece, so it can get incredibly expensive very quickly. But at the end of the day you have a one-off jewel that is yours alone.’
Henry Bailey is in total agreement, right down to the haute-couture comparison: ‘The material that goes into a bespoke jacket might be very similar to something off the peg, but you pay more for something that is tailored to your requirements.’
Aim as high as you dare
‘Go for the best of the best,’ says Levi Higgs, a historian of jewellery and archivist at David Webb. He commissioned a ‘lover’s eye’ brooch from Australian designers David Michael to mark both his 30th birthday and the year of Covid.
‘The lover’s eye has a long history,’ says Higgs. ‘It is the perfect quarantine jewel, because it symbolises love from afar. I approached David Michael because they have amazing skill in hand-painting.
‘I wanted my piece to be foresty and autumnal, because my birthday is in September, but I wasn’t hands-on. I seeded ideas to see what they would come up with.
‘The finished piece has a leaf motif. One side has a cabochon cat’s-eye tourmaline and the other has a hand-painted eye under rock crystal.’
Rules of engagement
‘Engagement rings are the number-one request in jewellery commissioning,’ says Henry Bailey. ‘And people spend a lot of time trying to get it right.’
Bear Brooksbank notes that engagement rings are the lifeblood of her design business. They are also a common topic of enquiry for Marie-Cécile Cisamolo at Christie’s in Geneva.
‘The first thing I ask is: what gemstones would you like?’ says the specialist. ‘Diamonds? Sapphires? Those are two completely different conversations, but the gemstones are something that Christie’s can help you acquire.’
Match stone to setting
Think of the stone as an oil painting, and the setting as its frame — and frames can be changed. ‘I know people who have updated their engagement rings as time has gone by,’ says Claibourne Poindexter.
‘They might decide that the classic single stone is not what they want any more and they’d rather put that stone into something bolder, something unique.’
It is perfectly acceptable to buy a piece at auction just for the stone, says Henry Bailey: ‘If there is a characterful diamond in a setting that is not so brilliantly crafted, then there is a case for repurposing the gem, so long as you are not spoiling something special.’
Poindexter adds that there is rich historical precedent for this kind of upcycling: ‘The Duchess of Windsor, or Daisy Fellowes, or Mona von Bismarck had no problem refashioning jewellery in a way that made it more contemporary and avant-garde.’
Vintage or new?
Be aware that not all designers work with vintage gems. ‘I would make a call just to check,’ says Poindexter. Some designers are wary of old or acquired stones, but others specialise in exactly that.
‘If you want to have family diamonds reset, then go to someone like Jessica McCormack, who is known for it,’ says Levi Higgs.
Bear Brooksbank also relishes this kind of challenge: ‘Some don’t like it, but I really enjoy reworking old stones. I find it very satisfying.’
Look to your own style
‘When will the piece be worn — day or night?’ asks James de Givenchy. ‘If it is a brooch, say, then I would ask the client if she collects brooches, and if this the first time she has had one made specially. That gives me a sense of direction.’
Marie-Cécile Cisamolo advises taking a hint from history: ‘Why is Art Deco the golden age of jewellery? Because women had just got rid of the corset and adopted low-waisted skirts, so they needed jewellery that matched the look.
‘And they cut their hair short, so suddenly there was a demand for dangling earrings: ears were now on show.’
There are also practical considerations. ‘I always ask what people do for a living, how they spend their weekends, what their friends do,’ says Bear Brooksbank.
‘If a client loves horse-riding, then I’d advise against a delicate target ring: that person needs something that can take a hammering.’
Dive into Instagram
Social media can provide endless inspiration — and also save you time — when you are thinking about the jewel you want.
‘Instagram has become enormously useful, because you can look at anyone’s portfolio,’ says Henry Bailey.
‘The Goldsmiths’ Fair, for example, hosts a platform where they showcase up-and-coming British craftsmen. It’s one great source of inspiration.’
In this way, clients can build up a mood board of ideas, which Brooksbank says can be helpful: ‘Carte blanche is a kind of fake freedom unless you have a really trusting client. It’s better to know what a client thinks, so I say bring as many suggestions as you want. It will all come out in the wash.’
‘Modern mediums and materials have allowed jewellery design to move forward,’ says James de Givenchy.
‘When we started making pieces with coloured ceramics, we used a machine that was designed for watchmakers. No one was using ceramics in jewellery then, but that kind of innovation has become a driver of ideas.
‘The laser machine has also been a tremendous boon, because we can join metals in ways that were previously impossible. New tools like these allow lots of fresh ideas to come to mind.’
Give it time
‘People often don’t have any idea how long the process takes,’ says Bear Brooksbank.
‘If there are stones to source and view, and multiple rounds of design, then three months is comfortable. The actual making of an engagement ring takes about six weeks of that.
‘And I have to be stricter about lead times just now, because Covid has wrought havoc in the gem trade. So best not to book a romantic mariachi band for next Saturday night and tell me that’s my deadline.’
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Take the long view
‘Most people who commission jewels are thinking long-term,’ says Poindexter. ‘Do it because you will have something that you can wear for the rest of your life — and perhaps pass on to the next generation.
‘You can’t think of it in terms of making a return down the road, and I would never advise a client to think that way, even when buying vintage.
‘Commission what you love, something you want to wear, a piece that will live with you for decades to come.’
Above all, be bold
Commissioning a piece of jewellery is an opportunity to take a risk, says Bear Brooksbank. ‘So forget tradition and the usual frames of reference such as your mother’s ring or your grandmother’s ring. If you are certain that you want a bespoke piece, then go for it, do it — and don’t play it safe.’