Ring In The Holidays
By Rachel Bosworth
Chilly winter streets on the East End are warmed by beautifully strung lights, pine-lined and ribbon-wrapped lampposts, and glowing shop windows along Main Streets. It is the holiday season, and undoubtedly the most magical time of year. With the number of meaningful holidays from November through February, coupled with friends and family close by for celebrations, this is also the most popular season for engagements.
Many of my own friends had gotten engaged over holidays past, sending announcements and photos of beautiful rings and smiling faces with glistening eyes to their loved ones. As December approaches, social media feeds will flood with these same joyful images, and even the biggest Scrooge will let a happy sigh slip. As a minimalist when it comes to jewelry, rings are by far my favorite pieces to wear. Although I am not necessarily one for the diamond variety, anything pretty and dainty certainly catches my eye. Embarking on the holiday season, I became curious how these coveted diamond rings come to be, before making their way onto the left hands of ladies in love.
The centuries-old silversmith shop inhabited by resident jeweler and silversmith Eric Messin is certainly the oldest, and one of the most celebrated, silver shops on the East End. As one of the oldest structures in Southampton, the tiny, dark, wood-shingled building was erected in 1696, and made famous by fellow silversmith and artist of French descent, Elias Pelletreau, when he set up shop in 1750. Despite its size, the building stands out on Main Street as one of the only facades not painted in Hamptons white.
I called Messin to see if he would guide me through the process of making an engagement-style ring, as he currently offers jewelry making classes for those so inclined to create their own pieces. While I had incorrectly assumed it would take an hour or two, he laughed kindly and let me know a ring would take at least eight hours, and that’s for an experienced designer. To help the process along, some of the materials would be prepared in advance, something I would later be thankful for. We set up our first meeting, and on a chilly October morning we began our work.
When I first arrived at the silversmith shop, I had no understanding or expectations for what this journey would be like. My experience in jewelry making was limited to mismatched plastic beads and friendship bracelets, all of which had been lost while growing up. This experience required materials and tools that were a bit more serious, and dedication to creating a piece women hope to wear for the rest of their lives.
Upon entering the shop, Messin greeted me from his workbench, setting aside a commissioned piece he was in the process of crafting for a client. Behind him were walls adorned with illustrations of his various works; colorful designs drawn with precision and detailed to perfection. I was amazed to see many similar pieces brought to life and placed on display for anyone that might wander by. As with all his jewelry creations, Messin sketched a six-prong solitary piece with a setting to fit an eight-millimeter diamond that would be my ring. Don’t worry, the diamond was fake.
After determining my ring size, something I surprisingly didn’t know in advance, a piece of silver was wrapped around the sizer to create a band. It took a bit of strength to meld the silver to the tool, and the overlapping metal was to be sawed off. “Saw, file, solder,” would be my most used steps as I was told, and the saw was my first entry into the world of silversmithing.
The first, yes, first, snapped saw startled me in my nervousness, but Messin assured me this happens often. Then I snapped a second and learned to tightly fasten the third. He worked on a project while I did, and after his own saw snapped, I felt a little better about my lacking skills. As I broke through the first piece of silver, both triumph and relief washed over me. The second overlapping piece was sawed as well, and Messin helped bring the two edges of the band together. A mallet was used to make the band flat and round, and I was now prepared for the next important step – soldering.
There are three types of solder used when making silver jewelry; hard, medium, and soft. You begin with the hardest and work your way down as the ring is nearing completion. After a liquid flux was applied to the band’s opening to assist with bonding, I learned to use a torch to heat both the band and the tiny pieces of hard solder that were trimmed onto a soldering block. The key is to evenly heat the piece, without melting the actual silver. You have to move precisely and quickly; something I found to be just a tad difficult as a novice jewelry maker. Thanks to Messin, I was successful, and he used tongs to move the piece to a “pickle” pot to cool it off. With this, I now had a band!
Next we worked on creating the bezel, which would become the six-prong setting to hold the stone. While I sawed through a thicker piece of silver, Messin and I chatted about how he came to be the resident jewelry designer in one of our area’s oldest standing structures.
Having moved with his family as a young man from a small village in the French Alps to the United States, Messin’s entry into the art world was natural. His father was an artist, and Messin himself painted countryside landscapes. The inspiration of nature is prevalent in much of his work today. When he became interested in the art of making jewelry, Messin spent time in Philadelphia as an apprentice for master jeweler Jean Lluffenus. After watching Lluffenus create pieces for six months, Messin was allowed to create his own piece of jewelry, and the rest became history.
Messin told me it took about eight years to become good at his craft, and with training at Van Cleef and Arpels on his résumé, among other high-end establishments, it is evident that it takes an individual with natural ability and perseverance for the craft to become a master jeweler. By the time he finished sharing his story, I had cut through that last bit of silver for the bezel.
After using a rolling mill to flatten the silver, Messin shaped the bezel that would be sawed, filed, and soldered for my setting. The same steps for creating the band were completed, and I was done for the day. Over the course of two hours my appreciation for jewelry design and creation grew immensely. From these steps alone, I felt custom-designed pieces must be nearly invaluable.
I returned a week later to get to work on sawing out the prongs on the top and bottom of the bezel. It was difficult to make them even, but the file and a rounded drill bit certainly helped. Still, my expertise was nil, and I carefully took my time fashioning the setting for my stone.
The bezel was next to be soldered onto a small ring, and six pieces of medium solder were used to attach the smaller prongs. Professional tip — keep the coffee intake to a minimum to prevent shaky hands, especially if you tend to get a little nervous using hot, nearly molten, silver. We laughed a little as this step was completed, and into the pickle pot the setting went.
More sawing and filing to the band was done to fit the setting, and soft solder was used to attach the pieces together. From all of the work so far, the ring looked anything but shiny. We pre-polished the ring before adding the stone using a polishing machine. Next, small groves were made on the inside of the prongs, and Messin pushed the stone into the setting. Using pliers, I gently closed the prongs over the stone. The piece was now finally together.
Back at the polishing wheel, rouge was applied to buff the ring, which I held with a thick piece of leather to keep the heat created by friction from burning my fingertips. After the ring really started to shine, I rinsed it in the sink with soap and water, scrubbing to remove any excess compound.
Through Messin’s guidance and much-needed encouragement, and the preparation of the materials in advance, I now have my own engagement-style ring. Slight imperfections make the ring unique, and I was thrilled to see my creation when it was finished. While this ring will be worn on my right hand, I now have an understanding and appreciation for the art of the diamond ring. To all who get engaged this winter, congratulations and remember to appreciate that silver (or gold) band for all it is worth.