Sunday, November 08, 2015

My design process for a custom Engagement Ring

Wow, it has been a while since I've blogged -- that's what Wedding Prep is like, a very busy, fun, epic, crazy all-encompassing time!! I wanted to jot down some thoughts and memories here just to remind myself and family in years to come of the exciting and intricate process of designing my girlfriend fiancee's wedding ring.

Also, if you've found this page randomly via Google Search: then... welcome, congrats, mazel tov, and I wish you the very best. Here are some of my thoughts and design process as I created a custom engagement ring, and how the process generally worked.

But first, the piece-de-resistance:
The final ring!

Custom ring design or buy a pre-made setting somewhere?
This to me was a pretty obvious choice. I wanted to make something very personal and one-of-a-kind. This is not to say that you cannot achieve this with a pre-made setting, as every single diamond/stone you might get for the center stone is utterly unique and will add the kind of charm you're looking for -- so I did want to explore both options. But after seeing a few pre-made settings, I knew that I wanted to pour my heart and soul into the design and that would be a fun and meaningful experience for me, and in turn, for her.

Working backwards from the engagement date
Michal and I got engaged on August 8th, 2015. I wanted to make sure that I had the ring ready well in advance (give yourself buffer time! I had a short delay in the engraving and I'm very glad I had told them I needed the ring an entire week before I actually needed it).

As you've probably seen from my blog/facebook/twitter madness over this year, I had a lot of crazy and exciting this happening this year -- I lived in London for work for a month, I traveled in Scotland and Israel, my sister's wedding on a cruise from New York to London, the release of the Batkid Begins movie in theatres, promotional/press junkets and premieres and interviews for the Batkid film release... it's been one AMAZING and NUTSO year!! So with all of that said, it was very important to me that the engagement not feel like it was right in the midst of a million other things. We needed time to savour it, to enjoy it for it's own purposes, and not just have it be one of a thousand things on our busy, over-calendared life this year. It was very important that it came at a good time. So, I picked a good time for it, made secret plans for the "engagement weekend" (more on that later) and decided on a good time to start planning the ring.

Secret or not-secret?
I got some great advice from one of the Jewelers that I spoke with: "Are you absolutely certain that she does not want to be a part of the design process?" This is a great question to ask yourself. He said that a high percent, like 80%, of people that come into his shop come in as couples. It's not as common these days (at least from his perspective) for the man to secretly design the ring with NO input from the woman -- or at least only with the input he has cobbled together from little things she's said over the years ("I like classic earrings", or "I really don't like yellow gold" or "Look at THESE rings (shows you a magazine ad)".) Thankfully some girls (like mine) will help you out immensely by telling you plainly what they like and don't like. They may already have artistic style well-developed (look at her earrings, other rings or necklaces she already wears -- take photos of them and send them to the designer).

I think also the Jeweler wanted to be sure I actually was creating something I was sure she would love -- not just something I thought looked nice using my *own* design sensibilities. This, of course, is a ring for her, not a ring for me. Important things to think about as I moved forwards with this.

Ultimately, in my case, I decided that she would be overjoyed that I spent so much time, love, and energy in designing and carefully considering all the things she might love. I also had family heirloom diamonds I wanted to use and that would be very meaningful to her as well. She has a sense of style so I knew I had to be very careful in designing the details towards a style she likes -- it's very hard to buy people jewellery anyway, let alone a ring they are going to wear everyday for the rest of their life. So, choose wisely! If you're not very detail oriented, this process might not be for you and you might prefer to get some help from her friends or from a Jeweler. You can still make it a secret, or even get a "temporary ring" to get engaged with and then go pick one out with her in person.

But if you're jumping in the deep end like I decided to do and figuring it all out yourself and creating something one-of-a-kind that has never been done before... I hope my experience below is helpful!

I decided I wanted this to be a secret and that was going to be a good experience for her too (as she wasn't 100% set on one specific thing and would like the fact that I spent countless hours of care and energy on this) -- here's how I proceeded.

Reaching out to design firms
I wanted to do the design in secret so I didn't want her around when it was happening. That's near-impossible if you already live together, and we didn't yet at that point so that was helpful. You can also get some sneaky computer googling time at work or on the weekend as needed to try to find out the style you think you want to start from, and also where in your local city is able to do it to your specifications, and also which Jewelers even have styles similar to what you think you are going for.

I started the whole process in the midst of my work trip to England. I had 3-4 weeks there, totally uninterrupted, and could spend lots of evenings googling ring designs, talking with people, etc without her watchful eye anywhere near :) This was very useful. I start the process originally by googling designs I liked, as well as making a "code name" for the project. Any trusted friends I wanted to talk to about it I said "Do not use the word "Engagement Ring" in any email subjects -- she might see it pop up on our shared iPad by mistake." Always use the project code name :)

I called mine "Project Aragorn" (so nerdy, I know) after the dude from Lord of the Rings. (Yes, I am huge nerd). Aragorn->Lord of the Rings->Engagement Ring. Silly yes, but something she would never look at or wonder about if she saw an email subject saying: "Need your advice re: Project Aragorn designs".

I then started emailing people like crazy. I wanted to set up some meetings in advance so when I got back to San Francisco from London I could start meeting people and asking about how to incorporate the heirloom diamonds into the design, which ones of the choices I had I should use, etc. My initial error was sending an email as long as this blog post -- I sent a thousand details, talking about what I wanted and what I didn't want, send a bunch of photos of her existing jewellery and talking about designers I know she likes for earrings, etc. This was crazy and too long. No one responded. My best-man Matt said "Don't you think this is too overwhelming as an initial email?!" On my high horse I said "If they want my business, they had better respond!" Of course, as usual, being my very practical voice-of-reason for the past 25 years, he was totally correct. I made a way smaller summary PDF document with photos embedded a few days later after getting zero responses, and re-sent it out to some of the same design firms in San Francisco. This was a massive success and several wrote back immediately, helping me set up in-person meetings for when I returned to SF.

From then, I continued Googling and found lots of styles I liked, but upon thinking about it further I decided she would not like.I compiled a few "this is sortof where I am thinking it will go" images, and sent those out. Notice early on, I had already reduced all the choices down to it to being a white-gold (or platinum) ring, along with white diamonds and blue sapphires integrated together. So I had already gotten pretty close to what I figured would be meaningful to both of us and what I suspected she would want in terms of colour and stone type. But initially I had the ring style way-off.

The original concept after Googling a lot -- I sent this in the PDF to all the design firms
I was stuck in my mind on the idea of an Art Deco-style ring -- that one on the top right was one of my favourite pre-defined settings. Very ornate, intricate (things I did keep in the design, ultimately), but as my Dad famously put it, "Don't buy her a Superbowl Ring"!! These are quite beautiful, but given Michal's petite hand as well as her personality, she wouldn't want a massive, chunky ring. Working out and running and on a computer a lot as well, I didn't want her to have something so chunky, something a little more streamlined and feminine was important, ultimately.

That said, I'm sure she would have loved whatever I came up with (she is just amazing like that), but I am very glad that this was my starting point and not my ending point. :)

How the hell do I figure out her ring size?!
This is hilarious. I trusted nobody. I didn't want anyone to take her to Tiffany's and "try on stuff" as then she would be totally onto me. I didn't want to go with her to some Jewellery place because then she might have a totally different idea of what I was getting her and the second she started looking at a yellow-gold ring I would probably freak out and completely change my design, second-guessing my gut instincts and taking anything she said there as gospel as to what she wanted. It seemed like it would derail the process. So I decided to go a bit MacGuyver with this.

MacGuyver-ing the ring size
She never wears rings, so I couldn't take one she had already. Darn. So, I waited till she had gone to work one day and rifled through her stuff (fun!) I found a few older rings of different sizes and found a few chunky ones (far right) that seemed like they were older and probably from street vendors -- so I opted to measure the metal ones that looked like they had been bought as a gift for her in the past. I made a paper cone and taped it together (thank you Frank for that excellent idea!) and dropped the ring onto that cone. Then, I used a pen to mark the position on the cone. I repeated that process for several of the rings she had to cross-check. Then I used that plastic ring measuring tool (see middle of the picture) to measure where the pen lines were on the paper cone. They read approx 6-6.5. Seemed like a good guess, as the average woman's ring finger (as I learned) is a size 7.

Side note: this was totally wrong. Her fingers are TINY. Turns out she was was size 4.75?!?!?! Crazy. The one ring here that actually fits her, I thought was a pinky-ring. And the other ones she used to wear on her middle or pointer finger instead. Wow. So this process only got me in the ballpark of size. I had confirmed with the design firm that it was OK to be a bit off -- they said that was absolutely no problem and they could easily re-size up or down a couple of sizes. But I needed to be in the ballpark otherwise major re-designs would need to happen. So, ultimately this process got me close enough. Would have been great if she usually wore rings and I could just have measured one of those, but you have to work with what you've got. :)

Working towards the CAD design
After a good amount of deliberation, I decided the style of the lovely ladies at RedStart Design in San Francisco were the winners. They are so awesome there, and have a magnificent vibe of true craftspeople -- they are a combo of designers and engineers from Stanford, so they had a cool art+science vibe that reminded me a lot of my own workplace. I really trusted they would be the great partners I would need to help me along throughout this process. I wanted people with their own excellent artistic sensibilities to help me take my concept and craft it into something she would love. I did not want a designer just to do whatever I said -- I am not that smart or talented to know exactly what she would want, and I am certainly not arrogant to think I know the first thing about Jewellery design. That said, I did feel it was very important to work in some personal touches and little personal reasons for making certain choices in the ring, and since the diamonds were all heirloom diamonds from South Africa (where my family is from) and were given to my Great Grandmother Lily on her Wedding day by my Great Grandfather Norman... this was a very personal gift for Michal. I wanted it to have a personal touch from me, and not just to set the stones in a pre-existing setting. Thus this design process.

So! RedStart was the perfect combo of "helping me achieve what I think she will like" and "steering me away from making bad decisions since I am not, in fact, a Jewellery designer". They struck a perfect combo.

We worked together back-and-forth for a few weeks. This was great and I really enjoyed the process. They were great about responding to my 7,000 word manifestos about the specific angle of things or the type of engraving or millegrain dots. They were also very smooth but not pressurey at suggesting changes: eg. ultimately I ended up choosing this in unplated white gold (rather than plated white gold), something I didn't even know existed, so it better showed off the stones rather than contrasting too much with them.

Ultimately, after a few weeks of design ideas and passing drawings back and forth, we ended up with this CAD drawing from them, which is darn close to the final ring. This did not yet include engraving.

CAD design -- getting close!

I wanted Michal's ring to be a combination of "new and old" -- just like us. Tradition is very important to us but we are also modern people -- so I wanted the ring to reflect that too. We are also very balanced in terms of bustle and relaxation -- we are a tension of opposites, in some ways. I wanted to get this idea into the ring. Michal's style of Jewlwery (for her earrings, etc) is often very "antiquey" -- plus these stones were hand-cut in 1907, so this is literally an Antique -- though I didn't think she would like a purely Antique-style ring. So the mix of antique and modern was important to me.

I decided that the ring design should be mostly modern, and we would achieve more of that "antiquey" look via the engraving and millegrain detail.

We figured this part out by drawing on top of the ring design CAD printouts, and ultimately coming to a decision reasonably quickly about what kind of engraving would look good. I kept having to remind myself that the engraving would not be dark like the pen drawing on the paper, ultimately it is much more subtle than that in reality.

So this was great, and helped me get to the final design. And then... all I had to do was wait!

We were off again on another trip, this time for my sister's wedding on a cruise ship with no access to the internet of phone for 8 days! I had planned to handoff everything to RedStart in advance of the trip and just had one last-minute call to clarify one of the final engraving decisions about 2 hrs before we left for the boat!! Crazy-pants. But I knew I could trust the ladies there, and with all artistic things, you need to work your butt off in advance and then just let it be. I knew I had put in a bunch of work to get it "right" in advance and she was going to love all of the time and dedication and design details that went into the ring.

We set off on the boat, and I suspected that when we arrived in England, most things would have been completed on the ring. This was exactly the case and when I got back online, I had an email waiting for me called "Sneak Peak" showing off the not-yet-engraved, but completed ring!! OMG!!!

OMG!!!!!!!!!!! It's real!!!!!!!!!!!!
This was an amazing moment of awe and wonder. They had taken the heirloom diamonds, beautifully merged them with some awesome add-on sapphires I wanted, and the ring design was smooth, femine, beautiful, unique, streamlined, and so so glorious. I was so happy. This was now very close to the final completed ring and I was over the moon with joy -- she was going to LOVE IT.

Then, as I mentioned above, I waited for a little longer and trusted the engraver (who has been doing this for 45 years) to take my initial "I want something like this" input and to make it a beautiful reality. And, of course, he did. It was perfect, and the final ring was a slam dunk.

The whole process was so much fun and also so satifsying. I knew I wanted to put my own personal touch into her ring. I had the opportunity to go the other way, to pick a pre-defined setting and to get another place to fill in other stones. I could have also traded in the heirloom stones for something else and bought new ones that were bigger, brighter, different... blah blah. Ultimately the most important thing is the spirit and the meaning inside the ring, and I knew she was going to feel the same way. I actually had a ring designer at another studio try to convince me to trade them in for something else bigger. I said "Thank you for your time" and basically did an about-face and left. That would have been a terrible idea. The heirloom stones are not perfectly clear flawless stones, certainly. But they are much more inherently meaningful than anything I could have ever bought, with any amount of money. They mean carrying forward a family tradition, together. This is ultimately what marriage is all about for us. So I am very glad I stuck with the plan, and so glad I found a design firm keen and willing to work with me, and not try to convince me to do things outside of the core values I wanted the ring to represent.

Ultimately, and my bride-to-be agrees, I ended up with something that is the most meaningful to us, and represents what our love and marriage will stand for. And spending 3.5 months of effort to "get this right" and putting in so much time and energy on her behalf, is I think an excellent and fitting way to start off on the right foot. Energy and effort = time = love.As Mumford and Sons say it, so well, "Where you invest your love, you invest your life". And what a life it will be together!!

Looks good on her :)

To anyone reading this and struggling with a decision about making a custom ring, I hope this was helpful. Good luck. If you decided to go for it, just make sure you choose someone you trust to help usher you towards a final design that she will love.


Ricky Rowe said...

Very insightful article. I am going to propose to my girlfriend soon and am thinking of a custom ring. I never really thought about getting her involved in the process, since I wanted to surprise her. But after reading this article I'm thinking it might be a good idea to have her help and input. Afterall, I want her to love her ring and enjoy wearing it the rest of her life.

Ricky Rowe @ Find A Jewelry Expert

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