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A Guide to Giving New Life to Old Jewelry

By Julie Pfitzinger for Next Avenue

Maybe it's an ornate, but outdated, brooch from your grandmother or a favorite pendant you always wore that now has a broken clasp or a bracelet that belonged to your mother laden with sentimental value, but just not your style.

How can you give new life to a piece of jewelry that you have stored in a drawer or jewelry box, and create a conversation starter that in a small but meaningful way allows you to share a bit of your story with others?

Bracelets by Arts Learning Course student Missy Van Winkle   |  Credit: Missy Van Winkle

Here are some ideas from teaching artist and jeweler Amy Cousin, who recently taught an online Next Avenue Arts Learning Course called "Making and Sharing Memory Through Original Jewelry" about where to start and what to consider as you craft your new piece. In addition, two students from Cousin's class share their ideas about their new gem of a creative pastime.

Gem No.1: Find What Sparks Creativity

Look at the piece that's intriguing to you and spend some time wondering what might come next. "Some of my students come to class thinking they know exactly what they want to do with a piece of jewelry, or even just part of [a piece]," said Cousin.

One of the class participants, Laurie Norris, who lives in New York City, brought a bracelet her father had bought in the 1950s in Morocco for her mother. "It's always been sort of an artifact in our family," she said. "I would look at it periodically. It was kind of clunky, so I wanted to see what I could do to turn it into something I would enjoy wearing."

But as Cousin said, there are no rules, so be open to changing your mind.

Missy Van Winkle, who lives in Houston, found a beautiful vintage Art Deco ring online and was convinced she wanted to find a traditional onyx gem to replace the agate it had (and that she didn't like).

That's until she found and bought a labradorite gem at an auction sponsored by the Houston Gem and Mineral Society.

"It's just this luminous black stone, with a beautiful blue sheen. It reminded me of what a grackle looks like – I love those birds," Van Winkle said.

Gem No. 2: Discover How Travel Can Inform and Inspire

Norris loves colorful glass beads and has collected them for years. "I spent some time in Sweden, which is a great place for glass, and I began picking them up," she said, calling herself "a bead addict."  

A re-made necklace by Laurie Norris, a student in the Arts Learning course  |  Credit: Laurie Norris

"I think whenever you pick up a piece of jewelry when you're traveling, you're literally taking a piece of the country with you," Norris added, also mentioning Murano glass jewelry she bought in Venice.

As Cousin explained in this Next Avenue story, "The Joy of Jewelry Making," she was able to transform some coral pieces that her mother brought home from Hawaii in the late 1950s. She'd always had her eye on doing something with the coral, and finally found a home for the pieces in an artwork she created for the "Foot in the Door" exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Mia).

From Norris' Moroccan bracelet, featuring the original chain that "looks like pyramids," she added hamsa hands, a palm tree and a crescent star to give her new necklace an updated yet authentic feel.

Gem No. 3: Let Your Memories Be Your Guide

Cousin said one of her students had fond memories of making paper beads as a child and wanted to re-visit that art form. Another spoke to the class of a beautiful green gemstone she loved, which sparked memories of a trip her grandparents had made to an emerald mine.

The materials don't matter when it comes to memory. Van Winkle, a collector of vintage postcards and greeting cards, fondly remembers her mother's button jar from the 1950s -- "she would let me play in it when I was little and she gave me my own jar when I got married" – so incorporating simple, old-fashioned buttons into her bracelets was a natural fit.

Another simple material Van Winkle used for her bracelet also came from her mother. "She had a broken piece of pot metal costume jewelry that she just never threw out for some reason," Van Winkle said. Another element of that bracelet is a "pearl" bead from a 1950s-era two-strand "moon glow" necklace that had broken.

Gem No. 4: Keep Things Simple and Sociable

Since jewelry making involves detailed work, often with wire, string and beads, make sure you're working in a space with adequate lighting (and natural lighting if it's available) said Cousin, who also keeps her reading glasses nearby.

Another tip involves keeping your fingers nimble. "I always have a cup of warm coffee or tea at my work station. If my fingers or my wrist start to feel stiff, I can hold the cup for a bit to warm them up," Cousin explained.

Be patient with yourself, she added, since learning a new skill like jewelry making can take time.

In the Next Avenue course, Cousin said the class participants quickly warmed up to each other and began telling stories to each other while they worked over the Zoom platform. "We were all doing this thing together, and I was just beaming to see them interact the way they did," Cousin noted.

In fact, Norris said she and another classmate, who live relatively close to each other in New York City, have made plans to meet "in real life."

Whether you're in an in-person or virtual classroom setting, or perhaps spending some time making jewelry with a friend, don't hesitate to engage in conversation – that can only enhance your creative experience.

Gem No. 5: Wear Your Piece Proudly and Tell Its Story

On the last day of the Next Avenue session, Cousin's jewelry-making students each delivered an "elevator speech" about the piece they had created and talked about why they had chosen its elements and why they were meaningful. In an extra-lovely touch, many dressed up for the Zoom meeting to better show off their creations.

"When you find a piece of jewelry in your drawer, it has already had a life. But if you take it and make it into something new, you're giving it new life," said Cousin. "Then every time you wear it, you can talk about it and tell its story."

Norris, who has a background in design and is a lover of history, has always found jewelry to be a conversation starter. "Jewelry can be reflective of who you are. I'm always interested in the details of a piece of someone else's jewelry – what's the story behind it? Where did it come from?" she said.

"As Amy said, jewelry is both personal and public," said Van Winkle, who recently enrolled in an in-person jewelry making course offered through the Houston Gem and Mineral Society.

"I'll be learning how to cut and polish the labradorite stone I found for my Art Deco ring," she said.

And so the story continues.

Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017.

©2021 Next Avenue

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