Introduction by Jessica Barker (JB) of Nine Golden Swans
One of the best things I’ve discovered along my never-ending search for jewellery insights (and jewellery items!) is undoubtedly the community. While on the hunt for an acrostic DEAREST ring earlier this year, I crossed virtual paths with Oscar König of Ruben König Jewellery. Whereas other sellers could barely tell me anything about the pieces they were selling, Oscar answered all of my initial questions and more!
Despite the early COVID-19 lockdown situation, Oscar was able to switch out a stone, adjust my ring to the most perfect in-between size, and ship it internationally. The ring has brought me so much joy – and so have our jewellery conversations!
Oscar is an amazing resource for diamond details and all things antique. I’m delighted to be able to share some of his insights and experiences here!
Ruben Konig Jewellery is a UK-based business that specialises in historically accurate reproduction jewellery and carries a carefully curated selection of antique and period pieces as well. Variations on most designs can be created as bespoke items for clients, using similar processes and techniques that were used in antique jewellery production.
JB: What’s the story behind how you got started in the jewellery world?
OK: I come from a family of goldsmiths. Both my parents are goldsmiths and work at the bench making pieces. This meant that from a young age I was always surrounded by people making jewellery, which interested me – and I did do a bit of work at the bench myself, mainly in silver.
I found what I enjoyed more was looking at the gemstones and drawing. So when it came to going to university I studied Product Design at the University of Brighton. This has proved useful for so many reasons when it comes to the jewellery industry, although I didn’t know it at the time.
JB: How did your studies translate to jewellery and lead you to become a gemologist?
OK: Firstly, the course encourages drawing and sketching, a really valuable way to communicate your ideas to your clients. Secondly, the degree incorporates a heavy dose of materials science, useful for understanding the processes that can be used to make pieces due to the limitations of different materials, namely metals.
After graduating I worked as a product designer, mainly designing safety equipment like child car seats and motorcycle crash helmets. After this, I decided it was time for a change and fell back into the industry that I understood, jewellery. Working in independent jewellers over the years has taught me how these businesses work and what aspects I like.
I decided in 2015 to study for my Diamond Diploma with the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (GEM-A), the oldest gemmological institute in the world! Next, I’d like to do the Coloured Stone course.
I decided to start dealing in antique and vintage jewellery as I’ve always had a fascination with antiques, and it throws together my love of jewellery and the weird and wonderful. I think there is something about the hunt for the next amazing piece that keeps me motivated.
However, I am now busy in the process of designing the Ruben König range of historically accurate period jewellery which will launch later this year in various collections.
JB: You have a unique position as both a jeweller and a gemologist. What should consumers know about the differences between these two roles?
OK: This is a really interesting question because not many people realise that there is a difference between these terms.
I once had someone ask me, “Why shouldn’t I buy from the jeweller next door? You all have the same training, right?” Unfortunately, this customer couldn’t have been more wrong. There is nothing to stop anyone from opening their own jewellery business with no knowledge whatsoever – and this is something consumers should be aware of.
People who sell jewellery are usually referred to as jewellers, whereas people who work at the bench are usually referred to as goldsmiths or silversmiths. They are usually apprentice trained and spend a lot of time perfecting their art, sometimes in a specialist area like stone setting.
Gemmologists are different again, as they have gemmological qualifications, such as the Diamond or Coloured Stone diplomas from the GEM-A or a recognised laboratory such as the Gemological Institute of America (GIA).
In my experience, gemmologists are happy to share their knowledge and love talking about stones. I’ve found that having a qualification in diamonds does help a lot when it comes to answering all sorts of questions customers might have!
JB: Speaking of diamonds, can you share any interesting or lesser-known diamond facts?
OK: One new fact that I discovered recently has to do with laboratory-grown diamonds (diamonds that are made by man and not nature) versus natural Earth-mined diamonds. We’ve been hearing in the industry for a long time that these are sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives. However, recent research suggests that the carbon footprint of growing a diamond in a lab is far greater than mining one that nature has already produced!
My other favourite interesting fact relates to naturally coloured diamonds, which are becoming increasingly valuable and sought after. Natural blue diamonds are one of the most interesting as they are coloured by the element boron as an impurity. As a result, this makes them electrically conductive, which most diamonds aren’t.
JB: A lot of the old diamond cuts are popular nowadays. What can you tell us about the differences between rose cuts, old mine and old European cuts, and more modern brilliant cuts? Do you have a favourite?
OK: You’re absolutely right, there has been a definite resurgence in a demand for older cuts of stones as people are drawn towards antique style jewellery.
Rose cuts are a very early cut of stone that would have been typically cut from a particular type of flat rough material known as a macle. Because they have a flat underside and faceted domed top they return light in a different way. You don’t tend to get that same sparkle as you would from a typical round brilliant cut. (When we say brilliant cut we mean a stone with triangular facet arrangement – invented in 1919 by Marcel Tolkowsky.)
The other thing with a rose cut is that they are quite thin, so they do give a good size for very little carat weight. I would say that rose cut diamonds work well with period jewellery such as Georgian and earlier.
There is also a difference between old mine cut diamonds and old European cut diamonds. Old mine cut diamonds tend to be more square or cushion-shaped. This is because diamonds typically occur rough as an octahedron shape, and the technology wasn’t advanced enough to round the diamonds off properly.
Later, with the kickstart of the Industrial Revolution, we began to see diamonds with rounder outlines appearing, known as old European cuts. This was due to something known as mechanical bruting, the process for turning two diamonds against one another to exploit their ability to cut and round each other out.
Looking at the cut of stones in a piece can help date it too. There was a brief period in history somewhere between 1900-1939 where we had a cut known as an old transitional cut. This was the period where the stones were appearing to be a more uniform cut. They had the typical attributes of a more modern round brilliant cut diamond but still had the culet (the bottom point) faceted too, which was typical of an old European cut.
Modern cut diamonds now have the culet left on the stone. These transitional cut diamonds are now quite sought after and one of my favourite cuts.
JB: Let’s talk about your specialty, historically accurate reproduction jewellery. Can you talk us through the process of creating this type of design?
OK: The process of creating a historically accurate replica varies on the design, but I’ll quickly talk about two different methods we’ve used recently for a few new designs.
The first method is very traditional – in fact we can date this jewellery production method back to ancient Egypt. It is known as lost wax casting, whereby a model of the piece is carved in wax by hand. We make a mould from this wax model so that we can replicate the piece. From this, you would cast the piece by pouring molten metal into the mould, which takes the place of the wax.
The other method is similar but the desired piece is handmade in silver and is known as a master. This master ring can then have a mould made from it, and we inject wax into this mould to get a wax model, which we can then make a lost wax cast from.
JB: Are there certain things consumers should look out for when purchasing antique rings?
OK: When it comes to buying a piece of antique jewellery or a historically accurate reproduction, there are a few things to consider.
Most people who are buying jewellery are relying on the description they’ve been given either online or in person by the salesperson. As most consumers are not jewellery experts, it can be hard to tell what you are buying, but here are a few tips and things to look out for with antique jewellery.
Settings can be worn over time. This means rubover or bezel settings can be finer over time as the material has worn away. Likewise and more importantly for claw-style settings, the prongs can become very fine and then may require repair, such as re-tipping the ends, or in the worst case, a whole new setting.
Stones, especially softer stone types, can appear lifeless over time. Sometimes this can be a result of dirt or soap stuck to the underside. (You can use a soft toothbrush and some washing up liquid to clean this off with warm water.) Or, the worst case is that the surfaces of the stone are so worn, abraded, or chipped that they’re completely past their best. These stones can be replaced in most cases.
Also consider that older jewellers and even some new high-street jewellers tend to Rhodium Plate White Gold.
JB: With that in mind, what are some of the advantages of a reproduction over an antique?
OK: With new pieces from Ruben König Jewellery, we do not plate anything. The colour you see is the colour you get for life, and it’s maintenance free.
When you buy a new item, you usually have brand new gemstones, so there’s no previous wear to worry about.
Likewise with the metal, none of this has worn away yet. A good quality piece should have a good amount of metal and be designed to stand the test of time. It is important to consider whether the piece of jewellery you’re buying is suitable for your lifestyle.
JB: What is your favourite period for ring design?
OK: Tricky question. I do absolutely love Art Deco jewellery. But also I’ve recently become completely enamoured with Medieval jewellery, which spans about 10 centuries, so we see a real diverse range of pieces produced and you can see the evolution of craftsmanship.
In particular, I’ve really enjoyed researching posy rings and the messages inside and outside the rings that were gifted between people.
JB: We have to talk about acrostic jewellery, since I purchased my beloved DEAREST ring from Ruben König Jewellery!
OK: Acrostic jewellery is so interesting! It’s all about the idea of spelling out a word by using the gemstones.
So, in the case of DEAREST, this is: Diamond, Emerald, Amethyst, Ruby, Emerald, Sapphire, and Topaz. Tourmaline is sometimes seen in more modern pieces as the last stone in the sequence, or Turquoise in much older pieces.
The two most common messages were DEAREST and REGARDS. Other acronyms of acrostic jewellery we’ve seen include similar stones to spell out ADORE, DEAR, and AMORE.
JB: What can you tell us about acrostic jewelry and its significance in history?
OK: The idea of acrostic jewellery was very popular in Victorian times, but I have a book that also features an example as far back as the early 19th century during the George III era. I’ve also heard that they were popular in wartime Britain too, as something that a soldier would give to their sweetheart before they went off to war, not knowing if they would return.
The DEAREST ring, however, has remained popular right up to present day. We still see examples from every decade that have this sequence of stones in common despite the designs varying.
JB: On the topic of hidden messages, what are some phrases you’ve found while researching posy rings?
OK: Prior to acrostic jewellery, rings gifted between loved ones were similar to the posy rings I was previously talking about. These had messages engraved inside or outside the band, in English or Lombardic script.
Some of my favourite phrases are: “In thy sight is my delight,” “A friend at neede doth gould exceede,” and “When this you see, remember mee.”
The last phrase could also be seen as a memorial slogan perhaps, which was another way that jewellery has been used to invoke a memory or sentiment through a message.
JB: Let’s finish up with a few travel stories. You recently traveled stateside and visited a California Gold Rush town! What was that like?
OK: My recent trip to the States was very interesting. Firstly, I’d never been to your country before! Here in the UK we find it difficult to comprehend the size of Texas compared to our own country.
I went to Tucson in Arizona, which is a really lovely little place. My next visit here will definitely be coinciding with the annual gem show, which I’ve heard amazing things about. I drove from there to Palm Springs and then on to San Diego, and stopped in a little town called Julian.
Julian was part of the 1848-1855 California Gold Rush boom experienced in the States. I took a trip down the mine – the original equipment was still there and seeing what it was like by candlelight was eye-opening. They must have been such difficult working conditions.
The tour guide was great and you got a real sense that actually it wasn’t all that long ago in terms of history. The whole town was really pretty, even in the fog. I gathered that a lot of it was built in the Gold Rush era to cater for the local workers.
While I was there, I had some amazing hot apple pie in Julian along with some great craft beer too from another BBQ place. I would definitely go back!
JB: Do you travel often to source jewellery and gems or learn about local histories?
OK: History really interests me now – I love learning about the past of certain places and why they are the way they are now. I mostly travel around the UK for my products, visiting auction houses and antique shops.
I did a big drive through eight European countries from Bulgaria to the UK last year. Some of the most fascinating are steeped with Roman history (like Bulgaria), and some have a more interesting recent history (like being part of the former USSR or former Yugoslavia).
Two of my favourite new places I discovered as part of that trip were Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also Montenegro. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to find any jewellery on that trip. But I did come away with lovely antiques and some great wine!