Karen Karch and I talk about the growing desire for custom designed jewelry
“Many of our custom designs begin with one of my signature styles. We can re-create our collection pieces to a client’s specifications, whether it be the addition of larger or smaller stones or saving parts of a sentimental piece, which the client owns. It’s so gratifying to offer our customers the opportunity to take part in every step of the process and to collaborate with them on a piece they will wear and treasure everyday.”
I remember the first time I sat down with Karen Karch to discuss a custom project. I had been coveting her tiara ring designs ever since she began creating them. But there was one catch—I wanted two different styles that fit together to take shape across the width of my finger and rest right below my knuckle. It would also have to fit on my size 3 pinky As a designer myself back then, I knew that this request would take some artful re-working to scale down rings that traditionally started at a size 5 with larger stones into the exact look and size I wanted.
Always ready for a challenge, Karen sat with me in her first shop in Nolita, in a small room in the back, which was her workspace at the time. We gathered around her jeweler’s bench, which held the tools that created her handmade soulful, rough-hewn textures. My two platinum rings with irregular lines impressed into the shanks sat on the table. I tried them on and they sat together perfectly. And, so we went to work on choosing the stones, which Karen spilled out into a small box. Gem tweezers in hand, we selected the colors and sizes, dropped some rubies and champagne diamonds on the floor, found them again and eventually the ring came together exactly as I had envisioned it. I still wear it today, 18 years later. I loved being part of the process of creating a ring that depicted Karen’s design sensibilities but that was created especially for me.
Many women feel this way, which has been part of the shift towards more one-of-a-kind and limited edition pieces in designer collections, and in repurposing jewelry women own and don’t wear. Since 1998 when Karen designed those rings for me, she has become one of New York City’s go-to jewelers for custom and bespoke pieces—her rings in particular.
Pushing the boundaries of precious metals in weathered and worn textures and her perfectly imperfect hand finishing provides the backdrop for her different variations on tiara style rings. Other rings include tactile thorns and branches that create the design around black, grey, opaque, and ice and champagne diamonds in brilliant and rose cuts for engagement rings. Alternative has been part of Karen Karch’s design vocabulary from the moment she launched her collection in the early ‘90s. At the forefront of cultural and stylistic trends, she was a proponent of jewelry that set the trends for both bridal and self-purchase pieces, ultimately leading her into more custom design.
“Over the past 15-20 years, women became more knowledgeable and savvy about what they wanted in jewelry. They also began to purchase for themselves and, those that were getting engaged started to take part in the selection of their bridal rings,” Karen explains.
All this led to contemporary women growing more aware of her own tastes and sensibilities and what they could relate to in the aesthetics of certain collections.
“As designers, we needed and still need to respond with openness to work with our clients who love our styles but want something that only they will own—whether that means a gemstone they inherited or purchased while on holiday, set into one of our distinctive designs. Or, refashioning their grandmother’s pearls into something very current and with our particular brand of edginess that our customers expect from us.”
Karen will work to convert heirloom pieces that aren’t being worn or revamp a Karen Karch signature style with a juicer larger center stone.
“Technology has definitely helped with both the process in building our collection and our custom designs. I remember when someone first talked to me about CAD when I was looking for a way to be more meticulous and precise about multiple set stones. CAD had its limitations and I was concerned in the beginning about losing the organic feel. But I worked to find a balance. When the structure and settings were perfect, I used various tools to round the edges, softening shapes of the metal. With a few more steps, the pieces retained the look and feel of my hand. But as we grew, so did advances in technology.” Karen continues, “We finally were able to make CAD work for us in the way in which we needed. We can show our clients each of the steps of the custom design we are working on with them. An accurate visualization of what their design will look like is a dream come true.”
When Karen Karch moved to her larger space in Gramercy Park—her organic and sometimes rock and and roll interpretation of sumptuous gemstone fine jewelry was shown in the serenity of a spa-like atmosphere, where she could sit down with her clients and rough sketch out the initial ideas and then take the pieces into the next phase of the designs.
“A recent example of this is type of custom work is a redesign of one of our rings to accommodate a customer’s larger diamonds from an eternity band she had not worn in years. The client was a huge fan of our original double vine ring and we used it as inspiration for her ring.”
Karen takes us through the creation of this client’s custom ring:
1- “We used our original double vine band and our new heavier double vine with melee diamonds as inspiration.”
2- “We received the client’s original eternity band.”
3-“We took out all of the diamonds from this ring she was not wearing”
4- “We then created a wax model from the CAD drawing –here you see the wax model and the drawing.”
5- “We then cast it into 18K rose gold and once again showed the client what it would look like with the drawing. Here is the metal model before it is all cleaned up and ready for casting.”
6- “We then cleaned up the casting to prepare the client’s stones for setting and for finishing the ring.”
7- “We were thrilled that the client loved the finished style and that we created a piece that she would now treasure and wear almost everyday utilizing the stones from a ring that sat in her jewelry box.”
“Breathing new life in designs that just sit in a jewelry box or working with stones that have significance and designing a piece ar0und them for which a customer will get a lot of wear is so important to me.” Karen continues, “I also love when there is a bespoke piece and client the only person to own that exact design. These collaborations are so fulfilling because the customer is actually part of the process of what what she will wear and when it is finished and she pus it on, it becomes part of her daily life.”