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Requiem: Memorializing loved ones with jewellery

Peering into a life

A client's wish for reliquary jewellery resulted in this pendant, which holds her son's cremains. The German Shepherd symbolizes his bond with his dog. The emerald is the son's birthstone, while the diamond came from his father's wedding band.
A client’s wish for reliquary jewellery resulted in this pendant, which holds her son’s cremains. The German Shepherd symbolizes his bond with his dog. The emerald is the son’s birthstone, while the diamond came from his father’s wedding band.

Another client (also named Mary) visited the shop after her father’s death. She had great love for him and wished to celebrate this in a more prominent way. She requested a pendant with a crystal front that would leave the cremains visible. This, of course, presented construction issues above and beyond the sentimental and esthetic concerns. She knew she wanted to wear the pendant most of the time and we had to develop a way to ensure the ashes would remain secure while on permanent display.

To do that, we made a thick-walled round silver box built around a standard sapphire watch crystal. We attached a simple two-piece bail—this allowed for future repair, as the jump ring and bail will inevitably require rebuilding. In addition, one cannot heat the entire silver piece to repair a fixed bail, although the advent of the laser welder makes this less of a concern. We had the back of the pendant engraved with her father’s name and dates of his life. As this was a delicate and very emotional undertaking, we chose a fragment of cremated bone with Mary’s assistance to put inside the piece. The bone was quite fragile (my previous assumption was that cremains were actually tiny pieces of ash, but in fact, there are larger fragments). We again used silicone to secure the bone to the back of the silver locket and applied more silicone to seal the top of the box to the base. We also sealed the crystal in its bezel with silicone.

Mary has worn the piece almost daily for more than 10 years and it remains watertight, although she does not shower or go swimming with it on. A small amount of bone has flaked off, but it has settled into the locket and the main piece remains intact. Mary tells me she receives many inquiries about her pendant and she is very proud to tell them the story of her father and their bond. She remains close to him by having him with her always.

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Mary returned this year after her mother passed away, and made a similar request for a piece of jewellery to celebrate her life. My first inclination was to simply open her father’s reliquary and add some of her mother’s ashes. Although her parents had had a long and happy marriage, Mary did not want to put them together in this way. Instead, she wanted a ring made that encased some of her mother’s hair in it. I have seen a lot of antique Victorian-era hair-work jewellery and was intrigued to find a way to interpret it today.

Mary showed me the lock of hair she had kept. (At 80, her mother still had naturally brown hair!) I knew we would need to make a capsule, similar to the piece made previously, but on a smaller scale. Mary has relatively large hands and knew she wanted to wear the ring on her index finger. As such, I was able to design a large ring without worrying it would be too big for her.

A ring is subject to more wear and tear than a pendant, so there were concerns about keeping the capsule sealed. I decided to make this part of the ring from 18-karat yellow gold to allow the use of the laser welder for the final seal. However, to stay within budget, I used silver for the rest of the ring. We started with a 12-mm sapphire watch crystal and built the gold box around it. After final polishing, we glued the crystal with aquarium-grade silicone.

Jewellery artist Susan Stanford uses a small amount of cremains in the molten glass of her lamp-worked beads.
Jewellery artist Susan Stanford uses a small amount of cremains in the molten glass of her lamp-worked beads.

Incorporating a synthetic heart-shape ruby birthstone that came from her mother’s ring posed another design challenge. My first thought was to set it in a gold claw setting and place it in the centre of the gold capsule, circling it with a wreath of the mother’s hair. However, the stone was more than 10 mm across and to enclose it made the ring far too high to be remotely practical for the frequent wear it would be receiving. Instead, we decided to set the ruby birthstone on one shoulder of the ring and, for balance, set a simulated emerald (Mary’s birthstone) on the other.

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Working with hair proved to be more of a challenge. Needless to say, I could not practice on her mother’s hair, so I visited a hair salon and got a few locks to work with. I did some research on technique for hair-work, but could not find much to help. Mary’s mother’s lock of hair was not of consistent length, so braiding would be very difficult. I finally used some clear moustache wax to give the hair enough structure so I could simply twist it into a rope that would lie in a spiral coil inside the gold capsule. A touch of silicone secured the ends and held it in place. For final assembly, I sealed the top of the capsule to the base with silicone. Next, I applied silicone to seal the entire capsule into the outer silver bezel, providing long-term stability. The gold capsule was recessed slightly in the heavy silver outer bezel for additional security.

Our hand engraver was able to engrave the mother’s name and dates around the top of the silver bezel and the word ‘Mom’ on the side. This is not a ring many women could carry off, but Mary wears it with pride. She was thrilled to be able to have mom and dad close to her.

A different take

Another alternative for reliquary jewellery was developed by a dear friend from Sitka, Alaska. Susan Stanford works with glass and makes beautiful lamp-worked glass beads and tiny wearable bottles. It was the sudden death of her husband that prompted her to create beads with a small amount of the cremated ash mixed with the molten glass. The ash is only very subtly visible among the swirls of colour in her beads, adding a faint glitter.

Working with clients to create reliquary jewellery requires patience, understanding, and empathy. Some designers and craftsmen may find it difficult to handle such personal items and deal with the intense emotions involved. However, once you overcome the reluctance, the reward attained by sharing in our clients’ lives is an experience that enriches our own as jewellery artists.

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Llyn StrelauLlyn L. Strelau is the owner of Jewels by Design, a designer-goldsmith studio in Calgary established in 1984. His firm specializes in custom jewellery design for a local and international clientele. Strelau has received numerous design awards, including the American Gem Trade Association’s (AGTA’s) Spectrum Awards and De Beers’ Beyond Tradition—A Celebration of Canadian Craft. His work has also been published in Masters: Gemstones, Major Works by Leading Jewelers. Strelau can be reached via e-mail at designer@jewelsbydesign.com.

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