Value, in the Eye of the Beholder

It’s kind of sad, if you stop and think about it, how much history is getting destroyed these days. I’m not talking about the fad of “upcycling”, wherein all too often perfectly serviceable antiques, or at least things that are old, get – if we’re honest – ruined and turned into… uninspired objets d’art, and then listed for sale on Etsy in the hopes that there really is a sucker born every minute. (I kid. But only slightly.)

No, what really depresses me is how much history is being destroyed, these days, because of inflated precious-metal prices. Grandma’s gold wedding ring? Melt it down! Uncle Bobby’s Air Force wings, in sterling silver? Melt ’em down! Those old salt cellars sitting in the cabinet? Melt ’em down!

Artistic value? Historical value? Sentimental value? All subservient to the intrinsic value. Nobody cares about anything except the weight, anymore. Which is a bad thing, because as precious-metal prices have increased several-fold in the last decade or so, the market value of most old jewelry, silverware, and so on has not increased accordingly, so that a really huge number of artifacts from the last two-hundred years are worth, in many instances, the same or even less to collectors than to precious-metal refiners, which is not a terribly enviable situation, if you care about history.

This, somewhat obviously, is a ring, for the finger:

In the taxonomy of things, this is costume jewelry. Made – I’m guessing here – in the 1920s or 1930s, this was made of sterling silver, and featured one large foiled blue glass rhinestone, and two smaller foiled rhinestone accents, probably white. It was mass-produced by stamping or pressing, and there likely were thousands of them made.

There are just over three grams of sterling silver in this ring, meaning – as I type this – the intrinsic value is right about three dollars.

I paid about six – but I had to pay for shipping, y’know.

Realistically, it wasn’t worth much more than three bucks, even had it been in better condition. It’s not from any famous maker, which largely eliminates any significant collector interest. And, as it was, it wasn’t exactly wearable, or even particularly attractive; the accent stones – only glued in place, which says this was a really low-end piece of costume jewelry, incidentally – had long since fallen out, and the foiling on the main stone was in really horrible shape:

Fugly, am I right? Jewelry like this is getting melted en masse today – and most of those are the lucky survivors who somehow avoided the smelter during the metal boom of the early 1980s, or the metal boom of the 1970s… or the recycling efforts of WWII. (Though silver wasn’t a strategic resource during the war, in the United States – but that’s largely because the U.S. has silver mines.)

What’s a crotchety blogger to do? Well, I wondered, could I fix it? Could I make it good as new?

I could, actually.

But I could also make it better.

So, I busted out the tools, made some measurements, placed a couple of orders, girded my loins, figuratively speaking, and set out to “upcycle” this elderly silver ring into, um… a silver ring.

I popped the one remaining rhinestone out of the setting, and resized the ring to fit someone I knew who was interested in the finished product. Then, using a graver, a file, a burnisher, and a couple of other tools, I set some little white topazes (often used as imitation diamonds in jewelry, way back in the day) into the fake setting-shaped spots where the accent rhinestones had once been glued.

That was a phenomenal pain in the posterior, as I had to move a lot of metal, but worked out okay in the end.

I then set a blue topaz cabochon in the main setting (yay for standard calibrated sizes), and polished everything up.

(don’t mind the polishing detritus left on the stone, sigh…)

The end result is a, well, costume jewelry ring in sterling, still – but one that’s attractive and wearable. Even though the stones are replacements, it’s still, in a very real sense, a ring from the 1920s or 1930s, and one that will – hopefully – hang around for another eighty or ninety years, valued by someone, somewhere, for more than its intrinsic precious-metal content.

Admittedly, this isn’t really an economically viable way of preserving history. The wholesale cost of the stones I set in the ring are about $15-20, to say nothing of my time, and the end result is still a piece of costume jewelry whose intrinsic value, when all is said and done, is about three dollars. No, you do this because you care about history, or because you want to preserve something you enjoy on its own merits, which is, I feel, a perfectly respectable hobby.

To be fair, I did totally cheat, in that I didn’t just randomly pick this ring for refabbing on a whim. A lot of costume jewelry back in the day really isn’t fixable, because the stones are set in one of a couple of fashions that don’t lend themselves to practical replacement. (And replacement or at least removal is often necessary, if the foiling has failed, or the rhinestones, made of comparatively soft leaded glass, are scratched or chipped.) I picked this ring because the main stone was held in place with four good-sized prongs, rather than being bezel-set or channel-set or, worse yet, punch-mounted, as was very popular on costume (and even some “fine”) jewelry at one time. And I picked one without any marcasites (or fake marcasites…), which are freaking evil little SOBs to deal with. A lot of costume jewelry wasn’t made to last, unfortunately – which, in a way, could be an argument for doing what you can to preserve the stuff that was, I suppose…

Published in: Geekiness, History | on December 31st, 2012| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 2/26/2013 at 9:49 am Said:…

    ยป Value, in the Eye of the Beholder – Entropic Memes…