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Refurbishing Old Jewelry

© Zach DeSart

She had all the earrings she needed, but half of them were missing stones. Departures tracks down the experts who restore, repair, and restring.

First there was an earring without a post. Then a necklace with a broken clasp. Finally a bracelet of strung rubies that had become, well, unstrung. They’d been sitting in a box in my dresser drawer, unworn, for more than a year. Deciding the times called for resourcefulness, I gathered my goods, made some calls in the name of research, and headed to Manhattan’s 47th Street. My sources all agreed: If repair is needed, go to those who specialize in only that. Most jewelers offer repair as a service, which often translates to sending out a piece to someone who knows how to fix it. Also, trust is paramount. I’ve heard more stories than I care to recount of women who left their diamond rings for cleaning only to discover years later that a D flawless had been replaced with a cubic zirconia.

When I arrive at Alex Sepulveda’s Booth F at 45 West 47th Street, he is bent over his magnifying glass, tweezers in one hand and a diamond bracelet in another. “Alex is a perfectionist,” says a customer, “the best hands on the street. If I could hire him, I would. I can leave a million dollars worth of diamonds here and come back in a month. I know they will still be here.” At that, Sepulveda gets up and hands the diamond bracelet to the gentleman. Turns out the client is Benjamin Ebrahimian, one of the biggest diamond jewelers and dealers on 47th Street.

Sepulveda works alone. “People want to see the person who is going to touch their jewelry. I am not going to lie to them, tell them I will do it and turn around and give it to someone else,” he says candidly. He is a jeweler who works the old-fashioned way, with his hands and eyes, tools and fire. Laser and computer technology have brought speed and accuracy to the field of jewelry repair, but “the mark of a good jeweler is his craftsmanship, and that comes from his hands. I work ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week with my hands, and I might use the laser every six weeks or so,” says Sepulveda. A Colombian by birth, he came to New York 24 years ago and learned his craft from his uncle, who had a small jewelry shop in Chinatown. A few years later, he moved up to 47th Street, finally opening his own booth about 12 years ago. When I ask him what he feels is his specialty, he replies, “It is repair. That’s what I do.” And he will do it all, from a simple cleaning to a complex refashioning job—say, turning an old tennis bracelet into hanging earrings.

I hand over the earring in need of a post. Sepulveda examines it and gives me two options: the laser, which could be done immediately, involving a quick phone call to his colleague across the street; or by hand, though I would have to come back in two days for him to do it personally. “Keep in mind that there may be some very minor discoloration on the back of the earring because I will use fire,” he explains, “but it will be very minimal and I will polish it and try and equalize it. It’s $10 if I use a laser and $5 if I do it by hand.” I opt for the second offer. I’ve worn the earrings almost every day since.

Then there is the matter of the unstrung bracelet. Restringing is a separate category of repair, and Mimi D’Ambrosia is an expert. She uses silk thread or tiger tail, which is a stainless-steel wire overlaid with nylon that works better for heavier stones. For pearls, it’s strictly silk. D’Ambrosia can also reset and clean pearls and redesign strands or loose stones into chokers, bracelets, or earrings.

After a couple of wrong turns and a few stops to ask for directions, I finally arrive at D’Ambrosia’s Booth 58. At 10 a.m. there is already a line to get in. Among the waiting clients is a woman trying to divvy up her strands of pearls among her grandchildren. “These pearls were my great-grandmother’s,” she says proudly, fishing out a velvet pouch to show me creamy vanilla and black pearls. “She bought them in China at the beginning of the century. I want to make individual necklaces for my five little ones…but let’s see, Mimi might have a better idea.” The man ahead of me is from the Christian Bernard, and the one in front of him is from H. Stern.

A diminutive woman from Hong Kong, D’Ambrosia works in a tiny, unadorned, characterless booth toward the back of a fluorescent-lit floor in one of 47th Street’s large exchanges. Yet in her cramped space, D’Ambrosia and her young Chinese assistant work fast and can often have the job done within a few hours or by the next day.

D’Ambrosia’s manner is unassuming, professional, and direct. She looks at the piece with the cold eye of a surgeon, turning it this way and that, silent while she assesses what needs to be done. When she pronounces judgment, it is delivered efficiently, her expression showing no emotion. And while you may well become sentimental about the procedure your great-grandmother’s pearl and diamond choker might have to go through, I warn you, D’Ambrosia will not. The one thing you can be sure of, though, is that if D’Ambrosia takes on something to repair or redesign, she will deliver it as promised. If she cannot do the job, she will tell you upfront and explain why.

Mahesh Bharany of Bharanys in New Delhi—who, with Loulou de la Falaise, designs and creates the jewelry line for Oscar de la Renta—has taken several of his other clients’ pieces to D’Ambrosia and is delighted with her work. “She is great at repairing,” he says. “I wish I could take her back to Delhi with me. She’s much better than the guy I have there.”

As for me, she restrung my ruby and rose-cut diamond bracelet and had it ready to wear the next day.

Alex Sepulveda: from $5 for repairs (45 W. 47th St., Booth F; 212-398-1424). Mimi D’Ambrosia: from $14 to restring pearls to $40, plus materials, to refashion a vintage piece (37 W. 47th St., Booth 58; 212-730-2833).