The Tradition of Fine, Hand-Forged Jewelry
By Anita Rafael
Photography by Hubert Schriebl
“I have never made a tiara,” says Nathan Bennett. Of course, he could make a tiara if someone asked him to, for he is head jeweler, one of a group of talented jewelers who hand-forge superb, one-of-a-kind pieces in the small, but well-equipped studio of Von Bargen’s Jewelry. Most Stratton residents and visitors are familiar with the company’s Stratton Village location, a shop that itself is as precious as a jewel box. Not long ago, I was invited to meet Bennett at the company’s studio in Springfield, Vermont, a pleasant drive from Stratton, along VT Route 11 through Londonderry and Chester.
I find Bennett seated on a six-wheeled rolling chair at his wooden workbench, the one closest to the interior window that overlooks the showroom. On the black tray in front of him, raised up to chest-height on a narrow shelf, there is one light yellow diamond that weighs 6 carats, along with a pair of smaller white diamonds, a scattering of tiny white diamonds smaller than the head of a pin, a thin piece of gold wire, and a thick piece of dull, gray platinum bent into a precise U-shape. It will take Bennett some 40 or 50 hours to marry this assortment of loose diamonds and strips of metal into a beautiful custom ring for one special Von Bargen’s client. When the piece is done, there will be no other ring like it in the world.
All by itself, the yellow diamond is gorgeous. Bennett casually flips the square cut gem over a few times in his hand as if it was a kernel of buttered popcorn, and then slips his hand underneath the workbench where it is dark. My heart stops because I think he’s dropped the stone, which is far more valuable than my car, but he props the big diamond on the back of his knuckles and aims a bright flashlight at it so that I can see how a beam of light enters and exits the stone. He shows me how, even when he turns off the flashlight, the facets catch and reflect the faintest specks of light that leak below the bench. “That’s what diamonds do,” he says. “They find whatever light is in the room.”
Placing the stone back on the tray, and sliding it into position between the two trapezoid-shape white diamonds, which is how it will be in the final setting, he says, “I can see the finished ring already.” I look around to see what he is looking at, but there is no computer screen in the workshop, and he is not looking at CAD drawings. For most of the work he does he relies on small sketches, a few notes written in pencil, and the benefit of long consultations with Stratton store manager Roxanne Prescott, who was in the studio earlier to discuss projects with him. “A ring like this is a total collaboration,” says Prescott. “In the store, I talk with our clients about custom jewelry, and then I bring the ideas from those conversations to the studio.” Prescott, a Newfane resident who has been at Von Bargen’s for 12 years, knows and feels everything that Bennett needs to do to build this ring by hand because she herself worked at a bench making jewelry earlier in her career. Prescott brings to Von Bargen’s a gift for attentive listening with a creative ear. “This is a very emotional business in many respects,” she says. “Whether people are buying from the displays or designing their own jewelry, I am navigating a lot of personal relationships among family members or loved ones. I fully focus on the person who is going to wear this jewelry because for us to make the ring or a pendant that is truly theirs and theirs alone, I need to get a sense of who that person is.” She says she is always impressed by the originality of the pieces that come from the Von Bargen’s studio.
“The way jewelers work by hand in our studio is nearly a lost art,” says Von Bargen’s co-owner Jason Thom, a self-confessed “diamond addict.” He partners in the business with his wife Julie Von Bargen Thom, daughter of the company’s founder, the late John Von Bargen. Thom believes that the reputation the business enjoys today is a result of the unbroken tradition of dedicated craftsmanship that began in the 1970s with John Von Bargen’s own studio work as a jeweler. But, much of it also has to do with the unsurpassed quality of the cut gems that Thom now acquires. “In buying precious stones, I look at the top one-percent of what’s available on the market,” he says, “and then I reject almost all of those.”
He only wants the studio to work with the stones that you cannot take your eyes off of–as we are chatting in his office, an open door directly across from the studio where we can hear the rhythmic sounds of handheld files shaping metal, I cannot take my eyes off of the magnificent blue sapphires he is arranging on a tray on his desk. “Making custom pieces from sapphires like these is the romance side of retail,” he says.
To complement their own designs, the company represents handcrafted fashion pieces by top designers from Vermont and beyond, and it is work that Thom says is “heavily curated.” He says, “My wife Julie and I approach it as if we are selecting only the best items for an exhibit in a museum. The lines we display alongside the jewelry we create must be very interesting, very artistic, and extremely well made.” Alex Šepkus, Todd Reed, and Rahaminov Diamonds are among the nearly 20 names in Von Bargen’s roster of celebrated designers.
On the other side of the equation, the jewelers in the studio are sometimes asked to rework a valuable piece of estate jewelry into something more fashionable or more practical for a client. Bennett, a Bellows Falls native who is a graduate of Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, says that when he has, say, an elaborate 19th-century necklace with gemstones to take apart and reset, he spends “a lot of time just staring at the craftsmanship.” He tries to learn as much as he can from it. “I think a lot about the history of vintage pieces before I touch them,” he says. “If I am going to remake something, I want to be able to do that to the same level as these earlier jewelers. Sometimes we are amazed at what they could create without the use of any of the technology we have right here.” In sequence, he points to the powerful stereoscopic microscope over his workbench, the laser welder in the corner, and to the rows of bright fluorescent lights above his head. “None of that,” he says. As an artist (although he does not refer to himself as one–he says he’s a “maker”), Bennett says he strives to use the least amount of technology to achieve the same results. The genius of how Von Bargen’s hand-forges fine jewelry rests in elevating that way of thinking.
Each of us has a natural human desire to express ourselves, and commissioning custom jewelry serves that purpose. Jason Thom believes that, generally, the clients who come to their five stores seeking one of-a-kind pieces are inclined to want “fewer, better things,” rather than mass-market items. He says that much of the pleasure of his business is that every piece of jewelry the studio is asked to create originates with a touching moment that the clients often share–both he and Prescott have heard countless stories about an engagement, an anniversary, a birth, a promotion, a retirement, all the joys and challenges of people’s lives–and he says he feels honored that he and everyone at Von Bargen’s can be a part of their memories, too. From the large portfolio of photographs of jewelry they have made for their clients, Prescott points to one remarkable piece after another. Each item of hand-forged jewelry she shows me is the warp and weft of a customer’s refined taste and the deep well of talent at Von Bargen’s. It is easy to catch a glimpse of the soul of an artisan in a pair of fire opal earrings, a mandarin garnet pendant, pink sapphire drops, and an 18K gold bangle.
As I watch Bennett at work on what is no doubt going to be, a few short weeks from now, a dazzling three stone diamond ring, every surface set with hundreds more tiny diamonds, it occurs to me that Thom is right. Whomever that ring is for (a woman I truly envy but, alas, will never meet), and whomever inherits her jewelry throughout future generations, it will forever carry the name Von Bargen’s with it, too, for the simple reason that that ring did not come from a factory. It came from one person sharing moments that make her or his life meaningful, and from people like Jason Thom, Roxanne Prescott, and Nathan Bennett who know how to interpret those thoughts into artfully crafted jewelry. Now, about my ideas for that tiara…
Four Easy Tips From Von Bargen’s Jewelry Care Guide
Read the full guide at www.vonbargensjewelry.com.
- Schedule regular checkups for jewelry. Always have knowledgeable jewelers check the prongs for wear and that the stones are secure. Experts can properly clean gemstones, advise on when it’s time to restring pearls, and adjust clasps and earring backs.
- Most gold and platinum jewelry can be cleaned in a warm soap-and-water solution using a very soft brush. To dissolve grease or grime, use alcohol or a non- abrasive cleaner specifically for jewelry. Rinse the pieces thoroughly in warm water after cleaning, then dry and buff with a soft cloth.
- Sterling silver naturally tarnishes, so to maintain silver’s bright and shiny appearance, use either a non-abrasive silver polishing cloth or a liquid silver cleaner product (do not let any cleaner product touch gemstones). Rinse the pieces thoroughly with warm water after cleaning, then dry and buff with a soft cloth.
- Avoid home ultrasonic cleaners unless you are certain that it is appropriate for your gemstone or jewelry. Many gemstones are heat sensitive, so exposure to the heated ultrasonic waves can affect the beauty of their color.
Von Bargen’s Jewelry
Stratton Village, Vermont
Summer hours: Thursday through Monday, 10am to 5pm, open later on special days.
To schedule a consultation with Roxanne Prescott, call (802) 297-1975, email [email protected], or visit www.vonbargens.com.
Von Bargen’s Jewelry is also in Springfield, Stowe, and Burlington, VT, and Hanover, NH.