April 21, 2021

Trend Watch: Custom Wedding Rings

Local jewelry designers share how to, how much, and what's possible
By Ross Boissoneau | April 3, 2021

Custom doesn’t mean costly — at least not necessarily. For those looking to make a personal statement with an engagement or wedding ring, the options are endless. Using family heirlooms or even materials associated with the area will make it more personal and sometimes even less expensive. 

“A lot of people are designing their own ring,” said Kevin Gauthier, owner of Korner Gem in Traverse City. While many jewelers are able to recast rings made from the client’s rings or other metal, he said what makes his approach unique is the ability to incorporate their found stones, including things like Petoskey stones or Leland Blue.

“That’s the beauty. We can take a Petoskey stone and slice it and have half for each [ring]. We’re doing a lot with Michigan stones, something unique people have found and include into their jewelry design.

“More and more natural Michigan rocks are becoming popular for wedding rings,” he continued, noting that younger people are eschewing traditional gold bands with diamonds. Instead, they’re opting for materials like tungsten, cobalt, stainless steel, even ceramic or silicone. He compares it to their lifestyle, in which their most important asset — their phone — typically changes every three to five years. “It’s spilled over into wedding and engagement rings. You put a beach stone into it; when it’s gone, you find another.”

Gauthier said this trend first came to his notice at a seminar about 10 years ago. “When the guy explained it, I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But observing it over the years, it’s true-ish.”

Whatever the cause, the trend toward diversity is obvious to Emily Nichols at Wexford Jewelers. Her Cadillac jewelry store specializes in custom designs. Nichols is a manager and co-owner with her sisters, who are jewelry designers for the store and have created their own line. Even so, many of the customers want something that’s more personal to them. “People are always into diamonds. When they come to a store that does custom design, they get a little more creative,” Nichols said. “They have something unique to them.”

She said the trend toward creativity continues to expand. “Everybody wants to customize these days,” she continued. “They want to add a family heirloom diamond or colored stone. We’ve even made them with Leland Blue, pieces they’ve found, their birthstone — anything goes.” 

That’s especially true in the case of wedding rings, where both partners work together to include things meaningful to them, as opposed to a surprise engagement ring. It’s bringing both bride and groom to the party, so they can incorporate heirlooms or their own activities and treasures into the rings.

Will Case of Case-Daniels & Rae Jewelry of Suttons Bay said that’s why it’s important to work with the clients to understand what they really want. He said he’s selling trust as much as he’s selling jewelry. “You sit with them for two hours, draw out what is important — fixing your teeth or getting a one-carat diamond.” 

While that may sound amusing, it’s not meant that way. Given the potential cost, it may make financial sense as well as being more meaningful to use a family heirloom than picking one out from a tray of shiny new rings. “I sell diamonds, but I don’t promote them,” Case said. 

Ed Freund, owner of Edward Freund Jewelry Design, said larger or chain jewelry stores sell what is popular, but many couples don't want what's "popular" these days. “It all looks the same,” he said. Those who want to create their own pieces can draw on what they’ve seen. “If they see something they like on the internet I can reproduce it.” 

But won’t a custom design be more costly? Not necessarily. The cost of a ring depends on three factors: the stone or stones used, the metal, and the labor. If people are choosing not to purchase a large new diamond and instead turn to diamonds they already have or use much smaller diamonds in concert with other less expensive stones, the cost of the ring can be much less. 

Freund gives a hypothetical example. “Grandma comes in with her grandson. She gave him her diamond, and I turn it into a brand new piece. It’s familial, unique, and costs less.”

How much less? The savings can be substantial. “You can save $1,500 to $5,000 if you already have a diamond,” said Freund.

Gauthier took it even further. “A one-carat diamond medium grade is about $5,000 to $6,000. If you use a custom inlay, it’s under $100,” he said. “You can accent it with [smaller] diamonds, and it’s still less.”

While many jewelers take in materials brought to them by the family, from gold chains to old rings, Nichols said it’s important to be careful when including metals. “We’ll take as a credit toward the job, but we cast with fresh gold. Old gold in a fresh casting, you can run into tinning,” where the differences in the purity of gold can lead to discoloration.

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