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Repurposing Family Jewellery Is Becoming a Big Business

Boutique jewellers are finding an increased appetite for custom pieces that rework family heirlooms and old gemstones.
The bespoke business of redesigning family heirlooms grows as shoppers go through their jewelry collection.
The bespoke business of redesigning family heirlooms grows as shoppers go through their jewellery collection. (Shutterstock)

KEY INSIGHTS:

  • More shoppers are looking to redesign jewellery they already own or have inherited, and are willing to spend as much as $15,000 if it means giving new life to family stones.
  • Resetting old stones has long been a practice in the jewellery industry, but now, a younger generation of Instagram-savvy boutique jewellers have brought this service to the forefront.
  • The time-and-labour-intensive practice requires special skills and tools, and might not also be commercially viable for bigger players.

While stuck at home during the pandemic, Mindy Trotta found a diamond watch she’d inherited from her mother, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who’d lived through Auschwitz and died in 2002.

In the 20 years she’d owned it, Trotta had never worn the ornate and outdated watch. But rather than selling the sentimental piece, Trotta decided to repurpose the stones, turning to a brand she found on Instagram: Spur, a New York-based jewellery startup that focuses exclusively on redesigning heirloom jewellery. Spur jewellers Simone Paasche and Sophie Fader extracted the diamonds and reset them into an art-deco bangle that Trotta now wears every day.

“Every time I wear it, it feels like my mother is with me,” said Trotta. “I probably could have found a jeweller on [New York City’s] 47th Street, but I trusted them… and I didn’t need any references because they were all right there, on Instagram.”

Spur — which was founded in 2018 and has seen its business triple over the last year — is one of a handful of small boutique jewellery companies that have recently been focussing on custom pieces that repurpose gemstones, as more shoppers are looking to redesign jewellery they already own or have inherited.

Over the last year and a half, jewellers like Brent Neale, Caitlin Mociun, Bario Neal, and Kirsty Stone of Retrouvai have all seen their bespoke business grow, as they position this type of custom work as central to their speciality.

The trend comes as jewellery sales, in general, are exploding. Holiday sales for fine jewellery grew 32 percent from 2020 while all jewellery sales are up 26 percent from pre-Covid 2019, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse. he trend stretches across the industry. Signet, which owns chain stores Zales and Jared, broke company records over the holidays, with revenues growing 30 percent to $2.4 billion. Revenue from Richemont-owned jewellery brands Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Buccellati rose 67 percent to about $5.8 billion during the first fiscal half of 2021.


And just as “jewellery is having a moment,” as Retrouvai’s Stone puts it, “a lot of people have been taking stock of their inventory, and thinking about how they can rework things.”

The demand for pieces with heirloom materials is not as viable a business opportunity for bigger companies, who have less flexibility to handle such projects, said Hedda Schupak, a jewellery industry analyst. But for small and independent jewellers, the art of repurposing old jewellery is attracting sustainably-minded shoppers, as well as customers willing to spend as much as $15,000 on one piece if it means giving new life to family stones.

“Luxury is thriving off of one-of-a-kind luxury goods, and within jewellery, people want something that’s unique and special to them,” said Amanda Alagem, accessories director at Harper’s Bazaar.

What’s Old Is New

Resetting old stones has long been a practice in the jewellery industry. Now, a younger generation of Instagram-savvy boutique jewellers have brought this service to the forefront, offering a variety of price points that make it more accessible to a younger shopper, said Alagem.

“A light has been turned on, and people now realise that this is something they can have access to,” said Neale.

With Instagram as the new bazaar, shoppers don’t have to search through the often-elusive wholesale jewellery market to find someone they can trust.

“Every time I post a [repurposed] piece to Instagram, the feedback is insane,” added Neale.

Jewellers are seeing a new demand for repurposing old jewellery, as people have more at-home downtime and are going through their things.

There’s also plenty of shoppers inheriting often-outdated family jewellery, who Fader said make up the bulk of Spur’s clients. She’s been working with 1960′s brooches, while Neale has seen cocktail rings featuring giant stones, like a 31-carat sapphire ring she cut and set into a necklace.

“A lot of grandmothers had these enormous cocktail rings with stones like aquamarine,” said Neal. “The price of an aquamarine, then versus now, makes it really valuable, but they have nothing to do with it. Generally speaking, my clients want something that’s more wearable.”

An increased awareness about the environmental impacts of the jewellery industry is driving this trend too. By 2025, sustainability concerns are expected to influence about 30 percent of fine jewellery sales, according to BoF and McKinsey’s State of Fashion: Watches and Jewellery report.

And while the group of shoppers fuelling the custom business are older — Millennials and Gen X-ers — experts believe young shoppers will eventually drive this trend too, once they come into more spending power or inheritances. Gen-Z is, after all, already tapped into fashion’s secondhand industry. Care for sustainability is already fuelling Millennials’ activity in the market, said Fader.

“The idea of not mining for new gems, and using existing gemstones instead, will draw more sustainability-minded young shoppers,” said Schupak.

Commercially Viable

The process for resetting old pieces into new, however, can be both long and costly. Stone said her creations usually cost between $2,000 and $4,000 while Spur’s projects run in the $500 to $3,500 range, and the practice requires special skills and tools.

“It’s really time-consuming and laborious,” said Neale. “You have to make sure there’s nothing wrong with a stone. And if it has an intro fracture, you could crack it when you reset it. It is way easier for me to design a piece and make multiples.”

Some are trying to make the practice more commercially viable. Spur has created templates on their site, where heirlooms like vintage coins or diamonds can be placed into already-designed moulds, ensuring not every job requires lengthy consultations. Neale has made rings that repurposed 1980′s old gemstones she bought secondhand; they’re not necessarily as sentimental as family heirlooms, but shoppers are still excited to give materials a new life, she said.

These drawbacks mean that legacy players across the spectrum like Signet or Tiffany, likely won’t make bespoke pieces a major part of their business, despite strong demand. One-off pieces simply don’t produce as high margins as when companies sell new pieces at retail. As well, change in the jewellery industry comes slowly, like “moving a battleship in a bathtub,” according to Schupak.

However, she does predict that some bigger companies might try to incorporate the practice in some way, as repurposed pieces and the jewellers creating them continue to gain attention buzz on social media. Jared rolled out custom jewellery shop-in-shops in 19 of its 200 stores last year, and Schupak believes heirloom redesigns could be next.

“As designers regain more market recognition, recycled materials will become more important,” said Schupak. “It will require more equipment, but it’ll be a way for companies to appear custom.”

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