Mourning jewelery leaves the Victorian era behind

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When Alyx Carson’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2020, she left her nursing job in Austin, Texas, and flew to California to be with him. Shortly after her arrival, they talked about what awaited her: she told him that she would like to turn his ashes into a diamond.

He began to cry, she recently recalled from her home in Austin. “He was so honored,” she said. “He loved the idea. He said, ‘Will you do that for me?’”

Ms. Carson is among the growing number of people buying contemporary versions of mourning jewelry, pieces made to remember a loved one or pet, ranging from diamonds to inexpensive glass or metal vials worn as ash-filled pendants.

“People move so much,” says Gina Murphy, who combines ash and resin in a proprietary process for her Close By Me jewelry line. “We don’t go to graves anymore. We don’t want to make monuments, leave our loved ones there, because what if we move? These types of pieces allow you to take them with you; you don’t leave them.”

Such jewelery dates back to the Roman Empire, although it became especially fashionable in Western Europe after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, after which Queen Victoria experienced decades of mourning. It became customary to wear rings and bracelets woven from the hair of deceased loved ones, or to keep some of their hair in lockets. As photography became more affordable, portraits often took the place of hair in medallions or were set in brooches or rings.

But these days, “people now often want things that are modern and celebrate life,” said Adelle Archer, co-founder and CEO of Eterneva, which produces diamonds made with cremation ashes. “People spend so much at the end of their lives — the average is $10,000 to $15,000 for the coffin, the service, the grave. If you ask people if they found meaning in that, most would say no.”

Ms. Carson, who used Eterneva’s services and later joined the company, agreed. “He was so afraid that I would forget him,” she said of her father. “And I said, ‘On the contrary, you will be with me everywhere.’ The thought that he can walk me down the aisle and come with me to do all the things we used to do together – it’s so beautiful.

While all lab diamonds are produced with carbon, not all carbon in ash diamonds is cremation ash. “It’s a mix of generic with personal,” Ms. Archer said. “Five to ten percent is personal.”

Just as everyone’s ashes have a unique hue, so does the appearance of each stone. And colored diamonds can be made by adding other elements, said Yulia Kusher, CEO of Meylor Global, a diamond breeder in Ukraine that also produces ash diamonds. “It can be white, or blue if you add boron,” she said from the company’s New York office. “Nitrogen makes it yellow. It is the same as with natural diamonds. Elements in the earth create the color.”

Regardless of the size of the diamond, about 50 grams of ash – about half a cup – is needed. The ash is charred and then mixed with other carbon, minerals and metals for the process, which takes about a month.

But for those who commission these diamonds, which cost an average of $7,000 to $12,000 for the unset stone, the fact that the diamond contains other carbon is irrelevant.

Liz Pires of Santa Rosa, California, who lost both of her children to drug addiction, found the experience itself healing. “It gave us something on the other side that was positive,” she said of the two gems she created. “It’s not just ashes or a tombstone. There’s something uplifting about it.”

In a contemporary spin on lockets, designers like Mrs. Murphy are transforming ashes into jewelry that’s more affordable than diamonds, more distinctively individual—and made almost entirely from cremation ashes.

Mrs. Murphy grinds less than a tablespoon of ash into a fine powder before combining it with clear resin, creating a stone-like substance that she then adds to silver or 14-karat gold settings ($200-$1,700). In the process, the ash often forms a pattern in the resin, each with a distinctive color.

Other designers produce updated versions of hair-woven jewelry, setting small amounts of hair into resin in a process similar to Mrs. Murphy’s method. And Margaret Cross, whose company is in Brooklyn, ties, braids, or weaves hair — or even a beloved pet’s fur — and covers it in clear crystal domes in 10, 14, or 18-karat gold settings that can be accented with gems (starting at $900).

A bespoke ring by Dutch jewelery designer Bibi van der Velden, on the other hand, was more traditional. Two entwined serpents (symbolizing immortality), sculpted from 18-karat rose and yellow gold and adorned with brown diamonds and tsavorites, hid a small compartment to contain the ashes of the client’s mother, a sort of secret tribute.

For many, however, memories and connections are more important: wearing a sapphire to suggest a sister’s blue eyes or something with a boat motif for a father who loved to sail. Cece Fein-Hughes, a jewelery designer in London, creates bespoke champlevé enamel commemorative pieces in 18k gold with gemstone accents as “miniature works of art to celebrate life, love and the lost,” she wrote in a recent email.

For example, one customer memorialized her grandmother with a ring featuring two magpies—a favorite bird—set amid star-studded diamonds and an enamel wreath of rosemary and oregano, which the designer says “represents remembrance and happiness in the afterlife.” Ms Hughes, whose prices range from £2,000 to £49,000 ($2,525 to $61,860), has also created enameled portraits of beloved pets, incorporating symbols that tell the story of their lives. (Similar portraits of people can be made, she said.)

For some people, the jewelry can come to embody such stories. As Mrs. Carson said, speaking of her father and the green diamond that reminds her of his love for nature: “Someone said there are two deaths that people experience: the death of the person, which is the soul leaving the body, and the second, when people stop talking about it.

“This jewel prevents that. With him I can keep climbing mountains. I can keep telling his story.”

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