As I write this, 2016 has just come to a close and I’m about to embark on my 35th year of making jewelry. Mark Twain once said the two most important days of your life are when you are born [with your talents and gifts] and when you find out why. I started making jewelry at five years old and after thirty-five years at my craft the “why” behind decades of creativity often gets lost in conversations about fashion trends, carat weight, metal quality and monetary value. And then, a project comes along that brings me right back to the “why” of my work.
That project was a very special custom Christmas gift, 64 years in the making, and something that not only reconnected me to my real purpose as a jeweler but something that I hope you’ll keep in mind when selecting your next piece of jewelry. And that is, what jewelers really create when they make a piece of jewelry just for you.
On September 13, 2016 my family lost a remarkable man, Lester Elliot Ballentine. Lester was my husband’s maternal grandfather who passed away at the age of 86.
Lester was a wood pattern maker and machinist by trade and a master violin maker and pie chef by passion. He was blessed with 61 years of joyful marriage to his soul mate Sonia, 6 children, 16 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren. He loved classical music, art and doting on his family.
Grandpa Lester and I had a very special relationship. Both of my biological grandfathers passed away before I was born, so I never understood what a granddaughter/grandfather bond could be until I met Grandpa in 2001 and he immediately “adopted” me as his granddaughter.
We would talk for hours over cups of his favorite Salada tea with two spoonfuls of sugar and slices of his famous apple and cherry pies. The joy of making was often the topic of our many conversations, especially how raw materials speak to artists. Grandpa said he could knock on a piece of wood and know if it had music in it and then it would become one of his violins. Selecting the raw materials for my jewelry designs works much in the same way. A gemstone has to give me some indication of what it wants to be to have a place on my workbench.
Grandpa also loved hearing stories about my clients and the special occasions and love they celebrated with a piece of my jewelry. The pieces I create are not only beautiful and fun to wear, they are lasting symbols of deep emotional bonds that are beyond words. And that is why I create jewelry, to bring joy to others and connect people across time and generations.
When Grandpa Lester became seriously ill this past summer he knew his time was near. Plagued with heart problems for over forty years Grandpa chose to forgo another surgery and spend the rest of his days at home. Family and friends visited almost everyday with larger gatherings on the weekends. His final months were filled with violin music, love and laughter.
A few weeks after Grandpa Lester passed, a file full of drawings circa 1952 was discovered among his belongings. One of the images was a sketch of a three-gemstone pendant featuring two smaller stones set in a geometric frame and one teardrop stone dangling from the bottom of the piece. The moment I saw his design I knew I had to make it for Grandma Sonia as a special Christmas gift from Grandpa.
Grandpa’s sketch didn't include any details on the specific gems for this pendant so it took weeks to find the perfect stones. When I first saw the drawing I knew the center stone had to be peridot, the birthstone for August and Grandma and Grandpa's wedding month. The bottom teardrop stone is an aquamarine to represent their March birthdays.
The top-stone was the hardest to find, then, late one night in the studio I remembered I had a sapphire, the birthstone for September to honor the month Grandpa passed away. This stone was a perfect fit for the pendant as these three gems, aquamarine, peridot and sapphire, symbolized the full circle of Grandma and Grandpa's life together and love for one another.
On Christmas Eve forty-three family members across four generations all piled in to the tiny ranch home Grandpa built for his family. Grandma received her pendant as the first gift of the evening and it was a beautiful and tearful moment for all. The holidays are about connecting with our loved ones near and far and while I don’t have any firm ideas of what happens to our souls when we die, I have a sense that Grandpa's spirit was with us that night, sitting in his favorite chair beaming with pride over his family and sipping tea.
photos by Michelle Pajak-Reynolds