With This Ring She'll Cherish A Custom-made Symbol Of Love

September 27, 1992|By Joe Surkiewicz

Here's a quick history lesson for guys facing one of life's toughest assignments: buying an engagement ring.

At a betrothal ceremony in 1477, Archduke Maximilian of Austria presented Mary of Burgundy with a diamond ring set -- one of the earliest accounts on record of a diamond ring being used to seal an engagement.

While history doesn't note Mary of Burgundy's immediate reaction, it's safe to say she was pleasantly surprised by the gift of a custom-made ring -- in this case, an uncut diamond mounted in an ornate gold setting.

The royal couple were married within 24 hours.

End of lesson. Today, half a millennium later, most engaged couples seal their betrothal with a mass-produced ring selected from a showcase.

Yet the practice of bestowing a custom-designed ring, which began to decline around 1900 as less expensive manufactured rings came on the market, isn't completely dead. In fact, many retailers report a growing trend toward couples designing their own engagement rings.

Why? A personally designed engagement ring is a unique, handmade piece of art that can enhance a newly purchased stone or a precious family heirloom, custom jewelers say.

"The biggest advantage to a custom engagement ring is that you won't see anyone else wearing the same ring," says Marley Simon, owner of the Marley Gallery of Contemporary Jewelry in Pikesville. "And, a custom ring will be in proportion, making the diamond the focal point. A good custom engagement ring is tailored and simple, to show off the stone."

The basic steps of buying a custom engagement ring, the experts say, are choosing a center stone or cluster of stones, establishing a relationship with a competent jeweler and implementing the design of the ring.

"It's a lot like going to an architect," says Mr. Simon. "The customer needs to have some idea of what he or she wants."

Chris Coleman, vice president of Nelson Coleman & Sons Ltd., a jewelry store in downtown Baltimore, says that beyond a basic design concept, there are several more considerations to keep in mind if you're thinking of buying a custom engagement ring.

"First and foremost, the stone should be the primary value in the ring, vs. the cost of the setting," he says. "The only time you don't follow that rule is if the stone is of extreme sentimental

value. Really do your homework before purchasing the stone or cluster, and work on the concept you have in mind. Then, design around the stone."

Next, search for a jeweler who will work with you in implementing your design, Mr. Coleman says.

"Work with a jeweler who has the capability of doing art renderings," he says. "They can take a design and tailor it to the customer's idea. An artist can draw actual-size top and side views of the ring so the customer doesn't buy the ring sight unseen."

And don't be afraid to ask lots of questions or to discuss money when checking out a jeweler, adds Paul Metzner, owner of Jewelry by P.M. Creations, a custom jewelry store in Bel Air.

"Now, with a limited amount of money to spend, most people are trying to get the most for their dollars -- if they can find a designer who will work within their budget," he says. "I always ask customers, 'How much can you spend on a custom ring?' Then, I work toward their budget."

Mr. Metzner, who has more than 20 years' experience designing custom jewelry, also says, "Try to find a store with a designer on the premises -- most salespeople in jewelry stores don't know very much."

How do you find the right jeweler? While friends, relatives and even advertising are good leads in locating a competent custom jeweler, keep in mind that most jewelers focus on certain styles -- usually traditional, contemporary or antique, says Mr. Coleman.

"When it comes to style, you're on pretty specific ground with custom work, since everyone doesn't do it," he says. "Many jewelers will simply pull out a tray of settings and put your stone in it, vs. trying to implement your idea."

And if your heart is set on designing a custom ring around a family heirloom? Be prepared to make some hard decisions, says Tanya Turner, co-owner of Tiara Enterprises on Falls Road in Baltimore.

"Some people bring me rings that have stones that are old and ugly, and don't merit being reset," she says. "The good news is, you don't have to use all the diamonds -- just select the ones that are good. Also, some older heirlooms are mine cut, which means they aren't faceted or perfectly round. They're not as pleasing to the eye as a modern-cut stone and can become loose in their setting because of their shape."

Another word of warning: If your previously purchased stone gets chipped or damaged during the ring-making process, the jeweler usually isn't responsible, cautions custom jeweler Paula Hoffman, owner of Paula Hoffman Inc. in Parkville.

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