They’re Still Them

(This photo will make sense soon.)

Have you ever been struck by a mind-expanding realization that catches you so off guard, it takes your breath away?

My mom told me she once saw sunlight filtered through the translucent, veiny ear of a squirrel and suddenly understood life itself. Seems ridiculous, but these moments of deep, life-changing revelation do tend to strike when you least expect them.

I’ve had two such moments in the past couple years, both relating to parenthood.

Right after my son was born, I was driving somewhere one day (don’t most deep thoughts happen while driving or in the shower?), thinking about how his life was only just beginning as I entered my 30s. It struck me, like a punch in the gut, that nothing I had done before that point—none of my academic achievements, professional milestones, meaningful life experiences, none of it—would matter to him. As far as he was concerned, my life essentially began with his. And then I realized that the same was true for my parents. My dad was 40 years old when I was born. Forty! He had lived an entire lifetime before I was even a zygote. Sure, I know vague bits and pieces about my parents’ childhoods and first jobs, etc., but the stuff that really defines them as people in my mind is tied exclusively to my childhood and beyond.

How humbling is that: whatever you did before having kids—the people most important in your life—it is completely inconsequential to them.

(Case in point: I recently asked Theo, my now almost 4-year-old son, if he knew that I had studied engineering in college, thinking he might be impressed. Instead, he responded—quite unexpectedly, and without batting an eye—“yeah, but have you ever been to Florida?” LOL!)

The second such realization came recently. Out of the blue, my dad sent me and my sister some photos of the apartment where my parents lived in the 1970s through the early ’80s, where both my sister and I were first brought home as newborns. I don’t remember anything about this apartment; I was too young to have formed any lasting impressions of it. But what I wasn’t expecting is how familiar all the things in the apartment would be.

The utensil holder in the kitchen, which now resides in my parents’ current kitchen:

The striped hand towel in the bathroom, which, for as long as I can remember, has served as a rag at our family cabin in Indiana:

My mom’s vanity table, which has since been recovered in new fabric but still displays all her same boxes and trinkets:

Seeing these things really drove home something I hadn’t ever considered: my parents didn’t just suddenly become “adults” with an established home and fine things. They, like me, moved around in their youth, dragging along with them from apartment to apartment the hodgepodge of stuff they had collected over the years. They re-purposed some of that stuff and replaced bits and pieces as things became worn. But their possessions are a continuous thread linking their past, before I was even a glimmer in their eyes, to their present. I guess this really is nothing more than a visual reminder that my parents are the same people they were before I existed.

It makes me wonder which of my things will be familiar relics to my kids 30 years from now. Will it be the art hanging over our living room couch? The quilt on my bed? Or something even more mundane, like the bread box on our kitchen counter? Who knows what will stick. But whatever it is, I’m sure they’ll someday be shocked to realize I had a life before them. And that, yes, I have been to Florida.


Ring Redesign Part II: The Consultation

(If you missed the first installment of this series, catch up here: Part I.)

I met with Andre Lukawski on a beautiful, warm day in September to discuss my ring redesign. Andre’s workshop is located on the lower level of a three flat where he lives upstairs, on the northwest side of Chicago. He was waiting for me on his front porch when I arrived. I was so excited, it felt like I sprinted from my car to greet him.

I didn’t know what to expect as we made our way downstairs to Andre’s lair. I’ve never seen a jewelry workshop before—only jewelry store showrooms and the front counter of a jewelry repair shop. 

Upon seeing his workshop, my mind was blown by the scale of his operation. The wood-paneled room featured four separate workstations equipped with grinders, and buffers, and vices, and magnifying glasses, and all kinds of hand tools. In a smaller room off the main space (an erstwhile kitchen) sat an assortment of glass jars and vats of chemicals with tubing and wires coming out of them. It had the look of fully stocked high school science lab, and stirred within me giddiness at the prospect of all the jewelry alchemy that must happen within its walls:

Andre and I stationed ourselves at his large work table and, while maintaining proper distance with masks on, began to chat about my project. I had a clear vision of what I wanted my rings to look like, but didn’t appreciate beforehand just how many decisions were required to shape the design. Did I want the band to taper toward the stone or stay uniform in width? Did I want 14k or 18k yellow gold? How tall and wide should the bands be? What design did I want for the basket where the diamond would sit? As I contemplated the various options for each design element, Andre pulled out picture catalogs and sample rings from his behemoth safe to provide greater clarity for my choices. He made rough sketches and measurements as we talked, and paused throughout our conversation to pensively consider the design as it came to fruition in his mind. 

One of my concerns was whether I could save my original engagement ring setting, perhaps to gift to my kids someday. Andre had the wonderful idea that we could set a gemstone where the diamond had been. I’m planning to do that as a special gift for Sloane, maybe on her 16th birthday or as a high school graduation present.

Once we had worked through all the minutiae, Andre explained that he would convey the design to a CAD drawer, who would prepare renderings of my rings for my approval before making them. 

More to come about the renderings and the final product in Part III, the last installment in this series: The Final Reveal.

The Thing That Shall Not Be Named

There are few (if any) things jewelry-related that I despise more than the term for a gift a mother receives upon birthing a baby (here’s a hint: it rhymes with “smush schmesent”). Seriously hate. To me, this term implies the mother is nothing but a means to an end, a beast of burden whose sole worth is determined by her ability to produce a baby. It’s such a harsh term, so devoid of love and romance–not to mention that it completely excludes same-sex parents, parents who adopt, parents who use surrogates, WOMEN WHO HAVE C-SECTIONS, etc. So I will not be using that term here, or ever. Mmmm-k?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate the concept of giving your partner a gift upon the welcoming of a child. In fact, I think that gesture can be quite lovely. So please don’t call me a hypocrite when I tell you that I received some of my most favorite jewelry from my husband, Andy, to commemorate the births of our own two kids.

In advance of my son Theo’s arrival in January 2017, Andy and I picked out (read: I picked them out and announced to Andy that I really wanted them, so could he please order them and pretend to give them to me as a gift to celebrate Theo’s birth, but definitely not as a you-know-what, and also please don’t wait until Theo is born to give them to me, because that would start to look an awful lot like a “reward” for birthing our child, which is really gross, you know?) this beautiful pair of diamond studs. They’re from True Facet, which sells both new and consignment fine jewelry. (Though my earrings were new, I’ve had great experiences buying pre-owned jewelry here, too!) I wear these earrings almost every day, and especially love their unique octagonal shape and delicate halos. They remind me of winter ice crystals, which is fitting with Theo’s January birth:

Before my daughter Sloane joined the brood in February 2019, I picked out this diamond spiral ring in “black gold” (“The Graduate Ring“) from Noémie to commemorate her impending arrival. (Note: black gold doesn’t exist; it’s just black-rhodium-plated white gold.) This ring is so different from anything else I own, and so very, very sparkly. I’ve raved about Noémie here before but I’ll say it again: they sell stunning, ethically sourced, fairly priced diamond pieces that ship overnight for nearly instant gratification.

Here’s a photo of me wearing my ring with a very small Sloanie:

I cherish these pieces and their sentimental connection to my kids. They remind me of the special times in my life when Andy and I were so focused inward on our burgeoning family unit, contemplating the arrival of our babies, and all the anxiety and excitement and uncertainty and anticipation and joy that came with that. So, rather than calling these the term I refuse to say, I prefer to think of them as beautiful, lasting reminders of the wonderful little lives we created together–Partnership Presents, if you will.

What special gifts have you given or received to commemorate the welcoming of a child?

Merit Bonus

Several years ago, when I was a recent law-school grad, I was lucky enough to be part of a team that scored a major victory in a long-running patent infringement lawsuit, which was ultimately appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (resulting in a decision that changed patent law!). To celebrate this momentous success, I bought myself a David Yurman “Albion” Pearl Ring with Diamonds:

Whenever I wear this ring, I am reminded of my professional accomplishments, the hard work that went into winning that case, and the thrill of receiving the court’s favorable decision. This ring signifies not only a career milestone, but also my first taste of having “made it” as a lawyer. Not surprisingly then, this ring often lands on my finger when I need a boost of self-confidence for a job interview, a big presentation, a networking event, or any other anxiety-inducing situation.

I was recently talking to my friend / former colleague / fellow lawyer extraordinaire Stephanie about my David Yurman ring and what it signifies to me. She recounted a similar experience with her own first David Yurman purchase:

Growing up I had an eye for the finer things. My parents would joke that I had a knack for always liking the most expensive option. Jewelry was no different. I was never really exposed to fine jewelry until I started spending my summers at ballet camp. As one would imagine, ballet camp is predominantly attended by upper middle class white girls from city suburbs. As a very middle class girl from Iowa, I learned a lot more at ballet camp than just ballet–including all about designer jewelry. Since ballet students are limited to solid color leotards and light pink tights, most girls show some personality through accessories. Every birthday, holiday, celebration that followed I begged my parents for a Tiffany’s necklace. Despite my incessant requests, my parents never followed through. I realized if I were to ever own a piece of fine jewelry it would be on my terms and something I earned.

In college, my obsession soon turned to David Yurman.  I blame going to school in Boston. A Yurman ring seemed like the perfect accessory to elevate an outfit. It became a marker of sophistication that I wanted to achieve.

Fast forward, I graduated college and began attending law school. In my second summer, I scored a position as a summer associate at a big law firm. To me, this was the highest goal I could have achieved, and if all went well, at the end of summer I would have an offer for a full-time position after graduation. For the first time, I was making an actual salary and had the feeling of true independence. I ultimately did receive an offer. I was ecstatic and proud. I knew I was going to reward myself with something to celebrate my independence and being a career woman! Where did I head next? The Yurman counter at Nordstrom (I may have made a pit stop first at a bottomless brunch for some liquid courage to make such a big purchase…). I tried on a few options and ultimately settled on a ring with the classic cable band and a black orchid gemstone surrounded by pave diamonds. After I purchased the ring (finally a piece of fine jewelry to call my own!) I wore it almost everyday. To me it was a sign of independence, and I felt like a badass feminist knowing I could work and earn my own pieces of fine jewelry.

Stephanie’s new ring on the day she bought it in 2014.
Stephanie and me at Bravocon, 2019

Do lots of young lawyers starting their careers feel compelled to buy themselves David Yurman rings, or is it just a coincidence that Stephanie and I both have similar stories??

Have you ever treated yourself to a piece of jewelry for accomplishing something big? I want to hear about it!

En Vogue

I’ve been on a fashion bender lately. During these pandemic times, I find myself craving an escape from the mundane drudgery of the work-from-home, stay-at-home, do-everything-from-home lifestyle. Fashion media–from books, to movies, to YouTube fashion shows–has provided the mental and visual relief I’ve desperately needed during these trying months, and I truly cannot consume enough.

To me, fashion is a captivating art form that uniquely marries humanity with opulence and pulls so much from history while also forecasting what’s next. I have an endless appetite for learning about the quirks and foibles of the big-name fashion icons. I relish tales of the great European fashion houses and the visionaries behind them. I am mesmerized by the ability of fashion designers to innovate in a space with seemingly finite possibilities; after all, the human form is unchanging, yet designers continually conceive new cuts, textures, and silhouettes.

Here is what has kept me afloat of late, ranked in order of most impactful to most fluffy-yet-worthwhile:

  1. The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir (2020), by André Leon Talley
The Chiffon Trenches: A Memoir: Talley, André Leon: 9780593129258: Books

André Leon Talley resides at the Center of the Universe of Fashion, in that he’s met (or rather, is close friends with) everyone, has been everywhere, has seen it all, and–thankfully for us–is not afraid to share the dirt. I listened to the Audible version of his memoir, as read by ALT himself. It was an enthralling and rich journey from his childhood in North Carolina, to his early years at Interview Magazine working for Andy Warhol, through his decades at Vogue as a style editor and right-hand man to Anna Wintour, peppered with juicy tidbits about his close friends Yves St. Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Diana Vreeland, Lee Radziwill, and Naomi Campbell, just to name a few. Run don’t walk to this book. Weeks after finishing it, I’m still said it’s over.

  1. Bill Cunningham New York (2010) (Amazon Prime) Bill Cunningham New York by Zeitgeist Films by Richard Press:  Movies & TV

This absolutely charming and often melancholy documentary follows the life of famed bicycle-riding New York Times style photographer, Bill Cunningham, who died in 2016 at 87 and worked until the end. Seeing the fashion world through Cunningham’s eyes as an observer, admirer, and documentarian provides a refreshing counterpoint to ALT’s insider take.

  1. The First Monday in May (2016) (Amazon Prime)
The First Monday in May (2016) - IMDb

This documentary provides a riveting behind-the-scenes look at the making of the 2015 Met Gala, chaired by Anna Wintour, and the world-renowned exhibition “China: Through the Looking Glass” by Costume Institute curator Andrew Bolton.

If at all possible, I highly recommend timing your screening of this film to coincide with reading (or listening to) the final chapters of ALT’s memoir, which touch on this particular Met Gala. ALT and Bill Cunningham even make cameos in this film. I loved witnessing this monumental fashion event from multiple vantage points.

  1. Project Runway (Seasons 1-19) (2004 – Present) (Hulu)

This long-running hit is a go-to favorite of mine when I’m between shows or need a mindless pick-me-up. The original judging panel comprising Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and supermodel host Heidi Klum with mentor Tim Gunn has changed over the years, and now features supermodel host Karlie Kloss along with Season 4 Project Runway winner Christian Siriano as mentor, but the structure is consistently the same: designers complete a series of one- or two-day challenges that require them to make garments befitting a certain theme. The fan favorite avante garde and unconventional material challenges are still featured in the rotation.

(I would be remiss in moving any further without proclaiming my absolute love and adoration for Tim Gunn. He is the kindest, loveliest, and most sincere human being that has ever graced the small screen, or possibly even the earth. His presence on this show comforts me as much as his guidance has calmed many panicked contestants over the years.)

  1. Styling Hollywood (2019) (Netflix)
Styling Hollywood (TV Series 2019– ) - IMDb

This one-season gem features Hollywood stylist Jason Bolden and his interior designer husband Adair Curtis, along with the quirky staff of their company, JSN Studio, as they style the red-carpet looks and homes of Hollywood A-listers. Jason and Adair have great banter and schtick, and also allow the audience to get an intimate glimpse into their very personal journey toward fatherhood. It was refreshing to see a Black gay power couple on my television. I laughed, I cried, I ogled beautiful homes and fashion. Fingers crossed there will be another season someday!

  1. Making the Cut (Amazon Prime) (2020)
Watch Making the Cut - Season 1 | Prime Video

Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum took all the best parts of Project Runway, brought in professional seamstresses, and took the show on the road, internationally speaking, to create this delightful new Netflix original. Instead of pitting up-and-coming designers against each other in a glorified sewing competition (à la Project Runway), this show features designers from around the world that are already running successful fashion businesses. Recognizing that, in the real world, fashion designers hire people to construct clothes for them, the show allows the designers to leave instructions for invisible seamstresses who assemble and sew their clothes like magic overnight. The challenges transport the contestants from New York, to Paris, to Tokyo, satisfying my desperate need for armchair travel. In full disclosure, each episode features a few annoying interstitial segments of Heidi and Tim doing silly activities, but thankfully you can fast-forward through those (or use them as an opportunity to replenish your drink).

  1. Project Runway All-Stars (2012-2019) (Hulu)
Project Runway All Stars (TV Series 2012– ) - IMDb

Hosted by Alyssa Milano with co-judges Georgina Chapman (ahem, Harvey Weinstein’s ex) and designer Isaac Mizrahi, along with a rotating cast of mentors, this Project Runway offshoot features designers that have previously competed–and, in some cases, won–past seasons of Project Runway. One season featured only the winning designers from past U.S. and international Project Runway seasons. Alyssa is good, but not Heidi. The show lacks some of the luster of the original but once you’ve finished all available seasons of Project Runway, you can look forward to seeing some of your favorite (or most hated) designers again here.

  1. Fashion Shows

For fashion in its purest form, there is nothing better than a proper fashion show. Go to YouTube and search “Chanel fashion show,” “McQueen fashion show,” “[insert favorite designer’s name] fashion show,” hit enter, and let the results delight your eyes.

Here’s a taste: the Chanel Spring/Summer 2020 show. A fashion feast.

[For a fun aside, read here about how supermodel Gigi Hadid physically removed a runway crasher from this very Chanel show.]

  1. Next Big Thing in Fashion (2020) (Netflix)
Tan France and Alexa Chung to host Netflix's new fashion competition show |  BT

This show–another fashion competition where a bunch of designers compete in challenges, hosted by Tan France of Queer Eye fame and supermodel Alexa Chung–is not great. But it made the cut (pun intended) because sometimes you run out of things to watch when television is the only recreational outlet available to you and this is a perfectly fine option. There are two things about the show that peeved me: 1. It takes place in a warehouse in some undisclosed location, which started to feel claustrophobic after a while. 2. For most challenges, the designers work in pairs. I prefer man-to-man combat. Anyway, it’s last on the list for a reason.

What am I missing? If you’re tuned in to any fashion media that I should know about, please share the wealth! We’re going to be in quarantine for a long time yet…

The Beauty Room

When I first moved in with my husband ten years ago, my one condition was that we get a two-bedroom apartment so I could have a spare room that was completely my own. He agreed. Our second bedroom became a personal haven for me that I decorated with ultra-femme art and soft, pastel finishes. My husband dubbed it “the beauty room.” It was where I displayed my jewelry, applied my makeup, and found sanctuary from the world. Since then, I’ve had two different incarnations of the beauty room, but the name has stuck around.

My last beauty room was in the space that is now my daughter’s nursery. Once I found out I was pregnant with her, I knew I was going to be evicted and had to come up with an alternate location. But when you live in a small home like we do, there isn’t much unused square footage to work with. So, to create my new (and current) beauty room, we finished what used to be an unheated, enclosed sun porch off our bedroom by painting and installing new flooring, shutters, heating and A/C, and lighting. Here is my beauty room as it appears today (it might be my favorite of them all):

The need for a beauty room is apparently a hereditary condition. My mom has what she always called a “dressing room” in her home, though it’s hardly bigger than a small closet. Her dressing room houses a vanity, a treasure trove of jewelry, a collection of vintage fashion prints, and a curio cabinet full of personal souvenirs. As a kid, this room held so much wonder for me. I remember sitting on the floor, watching my mom dab perfume on her wrists and riffle through her jewelry to find the perfect piece to wear on a night out (in reality, I was probably wrapped around her leg crying and begging her not to go). I still find new marvels every time I set foot in this magical little enclave. Undoubtedly my mom’s dressing room influenced my desire to have a similar space of my own.

The funny thing about having a beauty room intended to be my private sanctuary is that everyone else in my household gravitates toward it, too. My husband does his hair in there because he says the lighting is better and I have good products. My three-year-old son sits at my vanity and applies my makeup like face paint. My twenty-month-old daughter likes to open all my drawers and strew my jewelry across the floor. So much for a room of my own!

Do you have a beauty room, or even just a beauty space, of your own? Tell me about it in the comments!

Seven-Year Itch

Don’t worry, this isn’t a post about infidelity. Or at least not about infidelity with my husband, Andy. It’s about my longing for something newer and different, to have and to hold forever and ever, on my ring finger.

That’s right, folks, I’m redesigning my engagement ring. And I’m bringing you along for the ride, from start to finish, in several installments.

Here is:

Part I – The Inspiration

I got engaged in 2013. Andy and I worked with a lovely consultant named Ellen at Steve Quick Jewelers in Chicago to design my original engagement ring. You’ve seen it here before: it features an oval diamond in a halo setting with a thin micropavé band, all set in platinum. It is feminine, sweet, young, and pretty vanilla:

Over the last seven years, I’ve had to resize my ring several times as my fingers expanded with pregnancy and the seasons. Following my daughter Sloane’s birth in 2019, my ring just didn’t fit anymore at all (for reference, I went from a size 4.5 at the time of my engagement to 6+ now!). Rather than re-size it yet again, I started wearing a single diamond eternity band in its place:

Apart from the sizing issue, I also started to feel a bit…disconnected from the ring over time. My jewelry style evolved to be less dainty and more bold. I began to covet rings that made an impact on the finger and reflected a stronger point of view. Frankly, the halo look also started to feel somewhat dated.

I have hated seeing the ring relegated to my jewelry box, unworn and unloved. I figured someday I would gift it to my children, but until then, it would just lay dormant.

And then, over the summer, I had brunch with a friend from high school, Kaya, whose dad is a jewelry designer. Kaya started telling me about how she was working with her dad to redesign her engagement ring using the existing diamond, to create an entirely new setting. This possibility had never occurred to me, but the thought was thrilling! Kaya encouraged me to reach out to her dad for a consultation.

I immediately raised the idea with Andy to gauge his feelings. He was initially saddened by the notion of changing something that carried so much sentimental weight, but then quickly agreed that I should have the ring I love that suits me now and, most importantly, that I will actually wear.

I scheduled an appointment to meet with Kaya’s dad and started to pull together inspiration photos. I already had a pretty clear vision of what I wanted, especially after having spent months writing this blog and studying literally thousands of ring designs.

My key parameters were this: I want to flip the orientation of the oval to horizontal (or “east-west,” as we say in the biz); change the band to plain yellow gold with a highly rounded profile; and set the diamond in a blackened gold collet. I also want a matching plain gold band that I can stack with the engagement ring and my existing diamond eternity band.

Perhaps my most loyal readers won’t be surprised to know that the primary inspiration for this look comes from my all-time favorite jewelry designer, Jessica McCormack. (As an aside, this style is an homage to Georgian jewelry, which is the subject of a future post.) Here are some of JM’s rings that inspired my new design:

I also found these Fred Leighton rings with a similar design:

This look is so different than my existing ring and just feels more sophisticated, unique, and bold. I think the change from platinum to yellow gold will be an exciting one, especially since I find myself wearing mostly yellow-gold-tone jewelry these days. I also think the east-west setting will give the diamond new life and a less traditional feel.

Stay tuned for the next installment…The Consultation. Coming soon!

Toi et Moi

“Toi et moi”–meaning “you and me” in French–describes a style of ring with two gemstones sitting near each other, symbolizing the union of two souls. Traditionally the stones were identical or at least of a similar size and shape, but more modern designs feature greater variation among the stones.

Napoleon Bonaparte proposed to his future wife Josephine in 1796 with the diamond and sapphire toi-et-moi ring shown below, which sold for almost $1 million at auction in Paris in 2013:

According to this source, the toi-et-moi style was very popular for engagement rings during the Belle Epoque and Edwardian periods in the late 19th / early 20th centuries. Beyond just the romantic symbolism of the side-by-side design, the stones themselves had special meaning: diamonds, which represented love and prosperity, were often paired with rubies, which symbolized passion and devotion.

I recently purchased my very own toi-et-moi ring featuring two pearls mounted in a bypass setting, flanked by fans of delicate blue topaz, on a yellow gold band:

There isn’t much romantic symbolism to this ring vis-a-vis my husband, Andy. Instead, I bought this ring as a gift to myself to commemorate the special bond I share with my daughter, Sloane (a.k.a. my angel baby from heaven), who–at 19 months old–is well on her way to becoming an independent child, though she still relies on me for most of her needs for the time being. It is quite bittersweet knowing that my second (and last) child won’t be my baby for much longer. I hope that the tight bond Sloane and I have now will translate into a lifelong relationship of trust and closeness. In the meantime, it warms my heart to look down at my toi-et-moi ring and think of the pearls as me and my best little gal :).

I found these other toi-et-moi rings that I absolutely adore–some quite traditional, others more edgy, but all beautiful:

Pearl and Blue Topaz Toi et Moi Ring, available on Etsy ($180)

Messika, My Twin Toi & Moi Ring ($4,870)

Swarovski, Attract Soul Ring ($89); similar here

Victorian Pearl & Sapphire Paste Toi et Moi Ring, available on Etsy ($300)

Danhov, Abbraccio Infinity Single Shank Engagement Ring ($4,560+)

Edwardian Style Emerald Toi et Moi Engagement Ring, available on Etsy ($2,000+)

MDC Diamonds, Toi et Moi Emerald Cut Diamond & Sapphire Engagement Ring ($2,150 excl. center diamond)

Antique Pearl and Diamond Toi et Moi Ring, available on Etsy ($695); similar here

Ruby and Moissanite Toi et Moi Statement Ring, available on Etsy ($2,700+)

Vintage Victorian Bypass Diamond Ring, available here ($30,000)

Two Heart Toi et Moi Ring,
available on Etsy ($145)

Vintage Black & White Pearl Toi et Moi Ring,
available on Etsy ($315)

Forevermark, Two-Stone Bypass Halo Ring ($7,620+)

Et toi? Do you like this style?

Back to School

This fall, the return of children to school (in some form or another) got me thinking about class rings. My class rings are among the jewelry pieces I wear least often, if ever. I have one from high school and one from college, shown below:

My high school ring.

My high school ring is very intricate. Set in sterling silver, it features our school’s mascot on one shoulder and crest on the other, an “LP” insignia (for “Lincoln Park”) on a central emerald-shaped prasiolite stone, my initials on either side of the stone, and my graduation year in four segments surrounding the stone. One feature I had forgotten about until now is that my full signature is etched inside the band. Funny to see that hasn’t changed much in 17 years!

My college ring.

My college ring is more modern and simple. It features an oval-shaped center black stone carved with the university shield, my graduation year on one shoulder, and my degree acronym on the other shoulder. It also has my initials etched inside the band.

At some point, I acquired my mom’s high school class ring, which I happen to like better than both of my own:

My mom’s high school ring.

Hers, which is set in 10k gold, appears to feature the “comedy and drama” masks on either shoulder, her graduation year across a central deep blue stone, and a “C” insignia with a tiny “Davenport” inscription for Central High School in Davenport, Iowa, where she grew up. Her initials are also etched inside her band (that must be a thing). Her ring has some really beautiful art deco waterfall lines:

I remember when the ring catalogs were distributed during senior year of both high school and college. At the time, I thought the rings were an absolute necessity to serve as a lifelong reminder of my academic achievements and glory days (only kidding). But in actuality, my rings have sat in my jewelry box, largely untouched, for years. Why is that?

It’s not because they’re ugly, which they certainly are not. Maybe it’s because they’re too…personal? Too gimmicky? Too tied to a specific place and time to feel relevant today? It’s hard to pinpoint the reason.

The tradition of wearing class rings began at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1835. According to custom, the wearer should face the insignia on the ring inwards while still enrolled in school, and after graduation, the ring can be worn with its insignia facing outwards.

If you’ve ever met someone who graduated from MIT, they might have been wearing the school’s very distinct class ring, shown here:

Although it is affectionately called the “Brass Rat,” this ring depicts a beaver, not a rat, and is made in various alloys of gold, platinum, or stainless steel–not brass. The beaver is MIT’s mascot because it is considered to be “the engineer of the animal world.”

Next time you see someone wearing this ring, you can impress them with your very esoteric factoids.

I scoured the Internet for modern designer versions of class rings, but that appears to be a niche market that doesn’t yet exist. Instead, I leave you with these lovely vintage class rings:

14k Gold 1884 Class Ring ($268) (My birth year and my ring size!)

Do you have a class ring? Do you ever wear it? Let me know in the comments!

From Behind the Counter

Today’s piece is an exposé from a former front-line worker at one of the most notorious and least understood establishments in the jewelry industry: The Jewelry Store. She broke her non-disclosure agreement to give us the dirt, and now she’s in witness protection in an undisclosed location.

Just kidding. She’s not in hiding. And she actually has some pretty favorable things to say about her experiences. She’s my friend Brittany, and I’m so grateful she agreed to share her stories. What follows is my written interview of Brittany:

Brittany and a very cute pupper!

Q: What store did you work at, and when?

A:  I worked at Ultra Diamonds, now Kay Jewelers, starting in the summer of 2006 through 2008. It was the time when three-diamond rings were a big deal–the ring that represents your past, present, and future. I truly hated that gimmick.

Q: What were your responsibilities at the store?

A: I was a sales associate. My responsibilities included educating customers about the “4 C’s” of diamonds [Editor: cut, color, clarity, and carats] — clarity was always the most important to me. My main responsibility was selling jewelry! I loved helping people find the perfect piece for their loved ones. One of my favorite sales was to a man who came in looking for a gift for his wife, and I ended up selling him a black diamond skull after he told me more about her. I was also responsible for cleaning jewelry, organizing the store, opening and closing, and taking inventory. Our most consistent sales were to sailors. There was a naval base in Waukegan near our store. Every sailor wants to buy a promise ring before they go somewhere. [Editor: That’s so bittersweet.]

Skull ring ($139), for visual interest in an otherwise text-heavy post.

Q: Did you get a discount on jewelry? And if so, how much?

A: I did get a discount but I don’t remember how much. Maybe 20%? And I never used it. I was a broke college student. I regret not using it. There was a garnet and citrine ring that I really wanted, and I didn’t buy it.

Exemplary garnet and citrine ring ($1,070).

Q: Did you get to wear the store’s jewelry while you were on the clock?

A: I got to wear the jewelry all the time. Management preferred if you wore the jewelry. I loved wearing the engagement rings. The bigger the better. Not much has changed :).

Q: What was the most expensive piece you ever sold?

A: I sold a $10,000 solitaire pear-cut engagement ring. It was a cash sale. I believe the buyer got a discount of around $2,000 for paying with cash. The guy came back a few weeks later and said his fiancée lost the ring!

Q: What was the most expensive piece the jewelry store had on site?

A: Probably that $10,000 pear solitaire. [Editor: And you sold it! Good for you!]

Q: Do you have a sense of how much the store marked-up its prices over wholesale?

A: The markup is insane. You should never pay full price at a jewelry store. The price on the tag is never the real price. There is always a “promotion” going on. And we would routinely “back out” taxes. If someone asked they could get as much as 40% off a piece.

Q: Did anyone ever try to rob the store while you were working?

A: No. [Editor: Darn! I was hoping there would be some good stories here.]

Q: Do people try to haggle in jewelry stores?

A: All the time. The best was when customers came in complaining about the price of gold, saying they could get it cheaper and better elsewhere– usually in another country.

Q: Relatedly, are jewelry stores open to negotiating prices? 

A: They pretend like they aren’t. But really they just want to make the sale.

Q: Did working in a jewelry store make you lose faith in jewelry stores?

A: Yes and no. Because the markup is so insane, it irritates me when I find out someone paid full price for something. [Editor: I won’t tell you that I paid full retail price for my engagement ring…]

Q: Would you ever shop at the jewelry store you worked at? If no, why not?

A: Yes! My engagement ring and band are actually from the Ultra Diamonds (now Kay Jewelers) in downtown Chicago. The employees there are fantastic. The manager customized my ring because I hated a couple of things about it. I love it now.

Q: Any other juicy information you want to share?

A: It’s important to know your customers. When you work in a mall like I did, you see a ton of different kinds of people. Judgy classism has no place in jewelry sales. Customers want to feel happy, taken care of, and like they are the only sale/customer you care about, even if their budget is minimal. Purchasing jewelry is a big–sometimes life-changing–decision. It’s not something people do on a whim, so you have to be relatable and boost their confidence. Knowing the inventory is so helpful. There are many times when you see a customer and just know what piece would call to them or compliment them.

Thanks again, Brittany! Please accompany me on my next jewelry-buying trip and help me negotiate the best prices! (Did I mention she’s a lawyer, too? A jewelry-buying expert and professional advocate…just who I need in my corner!)

Brittany’s adorable daughter and my silly son getting acquainted.