A special provenance: the remaking of an heirloom with Yvonne Gilhooly

A special provenance: the remaking of an heirloom

It’s rush hour at King’s Cross Station in London, and hundreds of commuters bustle like ants in and out of Pret a Manger on the open concourse. Oblivious to the chaos around them, Jill and Yvonne sit quietly in a corner, drinking lattes as they talk. Jill reaches into her shoulder bag and pulls out a small faded black velvet box which fits neatly in the palm of her hand. Briefly glancing over her shoulder, Jill hands the box to Yvonne. As Yvonne tentatively lifts the box-lid back, her eyes, weary from the long train journey down from Glasgow, light up – inside the box is a treasured, third generation family heirloom: a white gold ring set with a cushion cut Cape diamond that glints as it catches on the fluorescent wall lighting.

Yvonne Gilhooly – a traditional goldsmith who started her career in 1995 – would take the ring back up to the west coast of Scotland and spend the next four weeks transforming it into a unique piece of statement jewellery. For centuries jewels have been remodelled to reflect changes in taste, but the remodelling of an heirloom is the most sensitive type of commission, involving an emotional as well as artistic dialogue between the jeweller and their client. We interviewed Jill and Yvonne about the evolution of the piece and creating a new heirloom together.

“The diamond ring belonged to my grandfather who wore it as a signet ring. As a child I was fascinated by how it glistened – and the size of it!” Jill says, as she chats to us from her home in London during the national lockdown. “My siblings and I all have memories of Grandad’s ring. Mum inherited it on his death and had it transformed into another gorgeous ring which she wore with pride on any special occasion. She always used to tell me that it was valuable and that it would be mine one day.”

Sunrise from Yvonne’s studio

“…I was drawn to her strikingly modern and bold designs: the simplicity and blend of modernity with the use of beautiful stones as the centre-pieces.

“Upon her death in 2016, I duly inherited it, but I knew I would never wear it. For three years it sat inside its box in a chest of drawers. Then last year (2019) I visited Goldsmiths’ Fair for the first time and met Yvonne at her exhibition stand. I was drawn to her strikingly modern and bold designs: the simplicity and blend of modernity with the use of beautiful stones as the centre-pieces – particularly the Ju Cuffs (broad bangles in silver).”

Ju Cuff by Yvonne Gilhooly, inspiration for the commission

One cuff caught Jill’s eye – a silver cuff with 18ct yellow gold edge set with brilliant cut diamonds: the main focal point was a Tahitian pearl set in a dome edged with 18ct yellow gold. “Seeing that [cuff] was what set my mind running,” says Jill. “I have never worn rings, but I do love a bracelet. I asked Yvonne if she could use a diamond rather than a pearl as the centre-piece of her Ju Cuff. And the rest, as they say, is history!”

Yvonne was very excited to see the diamond upon meeting Jill. “I knew it would be a stunning focal point and that the design for the cuff that I had in mind would be both elegant and understated,” she says, talking to us over the phone from her studio in Scotland. “I was keenly aware of the ‘priceless’ nature of the heirloom ring to Jill. She, understandably, felt that she must choose [the commission] well to honour the memories of loved ones it held. Yet, ultimately, she also wanted to wear and enjoy it – it was simply too beautiful to be sat in a chest of drawers forever.”

The decision to transform the piece wasn’t an easy one. Jill explains that the ring has special provenance in her family. “I am one of four and without doubt my mother left me her most valuable possession. I was worried about transforming it into a bracelet, so actually didn’t talk it through with my siblings for fear they would say ‘don’t do it: don’t be so stupid’. I’d also been to Hatton Garden in London before meeting Yvonne. I’d dipped and dived into various diamond specialists and they’d said, ‘don’t fiddle with it, it’s a lovely ring and we’ll give you…’ – the prices varied in one afternoon from four to £14,000 pounds!”

Sunset from Yvonne’s studio

Yvonne’s sensitive approach to the project reassured her client. During their face-to-face meeting at King’s Cross, Yvonne and Jill spent time talking about the history of the ring and the memories it held for her and her family. They also developed a shared vision for how the ring could be transformed, agreeing to a design like the Ju Cuff that had first sparked Jill’s curiosity. This is a vital part of commissioning: a creative unity that evolves between the client and the maker as they go through the design process together and develop a shared visual understanding of the finished piece.

“We were both keen to give Jill’s diamond centre stage and I thought it would be nice to emphasise this with a further gold detail around the setting, inlaid with small diamonds that would ‘hug’ the Cape diamond,” says Yvonne. “It’s very important not to rush decisions with a client and to ensure that all aspects of the design are agreed before commencing work. Communication is key; you need to discuss everything and be clear that you both understand and agree on what is expected before committing to the finished piece.” Jill adds, “When Yvonne mentioned ‘hugging the diamond’ with gold I was really delighted with the idea. It was not something I’d anticipated. I loved the concept of it.”

Yvonne worked on the commission in her studio on the west coast of Scotland. Facing the river Clyde, her view from the studio is framed by the Argyll mountains and beyond the mountains is “a vast sky with the most beautiful quality of light: an everchanging inspirational panorama.” Describing her practice as “a celebration of geometry in all its poetic forms”, Yvonne uses traditional goldsmithing skills to create sculptural pieces both as adornment and as standalone objects. “My fascination with line, form, volume and the void is where I begin, exploring both tension and harmony, absence and presence. My practice is meditative, and process is key.”

The finished commission featuring the Cape diamond

The whole making process of the cuff took around four weeks, although from first discussion to delivery it was around six months. Yvonne kept in constant contact about her progress, which Jill found very reassuring. “She completely inspired me,” Jill says. “And as our conversations and emails about the piece and the evolution of the design process developed, that just grew.”

On an unseasonably warm March day (2020) Yvonne travelled back down to London to visit Jill at her home to hand deliver her unique cuff. “Jill opened the box and her first words were ‘Wow’ – that and a huge smile! I was delighted,” Yvonne recounts warmly. “Given the very personal nature of the project, I feel honoured to have been entrusted with the commission and to have had the privilege of bringing the beautiful heirloom diamond back to life in a piece which will be worn and enjoyed.”

The silver cuff with 18ct yellow gold edge has the Cape diamond as the main focal point, set in a solid 18ct yellow rubover setting, it also has the addition of a further solid 18ct yellow gold curved band around the setting which is set with nine small brilliant cut diamonds. The process of its creation has added another layer to the story of this beloved heirloom.

For Jill the experience of her first commission was “a delight”. “What I loved about Yvonne’s approach was that she was totally on my side, understood my worries and was very empathetic. She has brought to life a family heirloom that might have remained in a box. Now I will wear this striking and modern diamond cuff with pride for special occasions, just as my mother did when it was a ring.”

Due to the lockdown, the first outing of Jill’s cuff was not your typical special occasion. “Interestingly, I wore it on a Zoom call with my family, because of the COVID-19 lockdown. And I was delighted to show them Yvonne’s work. It caused us all to reminisce about ‘Granny’ and, for me and my siblings, ‘Grandad’. It was a special moment and I was relieved they were all happy with how creatively and sensitively the piece had been made. I feel so fortunate to have met Yvonne that evening at Goldsmiths’ Fair. Now I can carry my family heirloom with me.”

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