All the Feels: Reimagining Grandma’s Diamonds into New Jewelry

Maggie Morris discusses the lasting allure of natural diamonds with jewelry designer Katelin Gibbs.

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natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring
Reilly Rings by Katelin Gibbs

Whenever I notice a woman wearing a diamond ring that’s not an engagement or wedding ring, I take note. Recently, my friend Hayden turned up for a visit rocking a giant ring (on her middle finger!) covered in a constellation of multi-sized natural diamonds. She explained that the ring was one of a collection of sixteen “Reilly Rings” that were custom made from her grandmother DeeDee Reilly’s jewelry collection by the Los Angeles based jeweler, Katelin Gibbs. I immediately set out on a studio visit with Katelin; what follows is a bit of our conversation which validated the deeper, heartfelt meanings jewelry can hold, and made me want to reimagine my own grandmother’s jewelry

natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring
Los Angeles-based jewelry designer Katelin Gibbs.

Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about what you do and what drew you to making jewelry

Katelin Gibbs: I’ve always loved jewelry. During high school my first job was at this folk art gallery/store in Malibu which is where my appreciation for jewelry began. I’d always wear pieces while working and talk with the jewelers who sold there. By the time I left for college, I had a small collection of meaningful pieces, but it hadn’t occurred to me to design my own jewelry.

When I went to RISD for college, I imagined I would study illustration or painting. Leaving home was a big deal for me. I brought a necklace of my mom’s with me to school, a big smoky quartz wrapped in leather or something, you know, very hippie.

Very California!

KG: Yes! And very much like my mom. When I wore her necklace, I really felt her with me. After that first year at school, there was a day when I went to put it on, and I realized I didn’t feel her energy anymore. I felt like had become mine, which was interesting. Not sad or happy or anything, but I noticed this feeling, this sense of jewelry becoming an object of its wearer.

natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring katelin gibbs
Katelin Gibbs diamond ring
natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring
Katelin Gibbs Miranda and Tanya diamond rings

And maybe you transformed while wearing it?

KG: I absolutely did. So that first year – just for fun, I took a metalsmithing elective and instantly I was hooked. I discovered a relationship to the process I’d never had with painting and drawing and decided to major in Jewelry + Metalsmithing. Right out of school I had orders and custom commissions. It all grew from there by word of mouth. One of my first collections was sold at Love Adorned in NYC.

I noticed your latest collection is cast in recycled gold. Do you always work in gold?

KG: I feel strongly about working in a way that considers the impact on the environment and the people in it, which is why I use recycled gold. Working with heirloom diamonds aligns ethically as well. Plus, there’s always a story that comes with an heirloom diamond, where it’s come from and where it’s going. By the time it makes its way to me, I am part of creating its next chapter.

natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring
Jewelry designer Katelin Gibbs making rings.
natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring katelin gibbs
Extracting diamonds from heirloom rings.

What was the first natural diamond you worked with?

KG: I made an engagement ring for a close friend. I had a sense of what she would like. I knew it had to be a rose cut diamond, which I love. A rose cut has triangular facets on top that create a sort of geodesic dome on top. Rather than coming to a point at the bottom, it’s flat. Rose cuts and old mine cuts are both antique precursors to the modern-day brilliant cut, which has more facets, making it extra sparkly.

I had a vision for the piece, a sphere on top of the ring with open space inside, completed by the diamond on top. I was so specific about the shape of the dome, the size and the clarity. Even though rose cuts all have triangular faceted domes, the facets can vary in size, quantity, and dispersion. Some have a higher or lower dome or can look boxier.

natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring
Katelin Gibbs rose cut diamond engagement ring

I noticed that several of your engagement pieces have a smaller diamond in the bottom, facing the palm of the wearer. Is that a signature of yours?

KG: Yeah, that’s an intimate little touch just for the wearer, not on outward display. When they close their hand, they are holding that stone.

You made that ring twelve years ago, and the sphere motif continues in your current collection, Cycles.

KG: Spheres have been a theme throughout my time of jewelry making. At first, they represented space and time. Now it’s more about the domed/rounded forms, their warmth, a nurturing softness, I hope. Essentially, they all speak to life. Thank you for noticing.

natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring
Heirloom ring that originally held the diamonds that Katelin Gibbs extracted and set in the Miranda wedding rings.
natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring katelin gibbs
Katelin Gibbs Aubrey ring

How is it different designing an engagement ring versus a project like the Reilly Rings?

KG: It is definitely different. For engagement rings, people often want to showcase the diamond. And that has its own meaning and beauty. The Reilly Rings were inspired by a different meaning. What’s unique about that project is that it’s for a family, not just one person.

Tell me more about them.

KG: It was a dream project, everything I love about making jewelry.

Hayden, who I knew from RISD, wanted to make a collection of rings from her grandmother’s jewelry. Her grandmother, DeeDee, had tons of diamond jewelry, lots of very 70s 14 karat gold charms. Her husband loved buying her diamond jewelry but it wasn’t that important to her; she was more of a tomboy. She had this one broach, a tennis racket that said 40 Love or something like that, all blinged out. Still, DeeDee suggested making something new from her pieces.

Hayden wanted the rings to be iterative. Right away I knew they needed to be big with a lot of surface area. I also wanted them to capture the energy of a matriarch, but be wearable by any gender. There was one bag of 16 good sized, loose natural diamonds that had been in a brooch and many melee diamonds – at least 50 or so.

The base design of the sixteen Reilly rings is a gold dome with one of those 16 bigger diamonds set in the same spot. The expansive dome shape was fitting for a warm maternal heirloom and offered space for more stones and engravings to be added by the wearer or future generations. Each ring I made has DeeDee’s name hand engraved in the bottom. Hayden and her mom wanted to add more of DeeDee’s diamonds to their rings, which are my favorites. That base design is now part of my collection, Cycles, as a simple gold ring, The Heirloom Ring.

natural diamond heirloom Reilly Ring
Reilly Ring designed and created by Katelin Gibbs.

After seeing Hayden’s ring, I thought about my great grandmother’s diamond engagement ring. I brought it with me to talk about resetting it.

KG: Can I see it?

Yeah. My mom gave me this, it was her grandmother’s. I felt a little awkward receiving it, I’m not married and I didn’t feel right wearing it in this setting, so I wanted to have it appraised and then put it somewhere safe.

KG: I think this is an old mine cut diamond. Did you have it appraised?

Yeah. Don’t laugh. A friend sent me to an LA appraiser he referred to as the diamond whisperer. I just wanted to know how much it was worth, but as soon as he held it, he started telling me it had been in a long marriage, a love relationship. He told me natural diamonds carry all this accumulated energy from their wearers and stressed that the energy of the diamond has to match the energy of the couple or else the union would fail. All this woo woo stuff.

KG: It oh it was a psychic situation? I didn’t know this existed!

Me neither! So LA.

KG: This is fascinating. So what was his “reading”?

He claimed it was a good vibe diamond. Before then I’d never thought about how a ring can sit on a person’s hand for most of their life, as was the case of this one. Plenty of marriages that don’t last, but I’ve never felt right asking my divorced friends where their wedding rings end up. Where do those dead diamonds go?

KG: They don’t die! They go on to another life with another person somewhere. It’s a valuable question though.

It goes both ways, like all emotions in life. You can’t experience one side of the spectrum without experiencing the other side of the spectrum. A piece of jewelry can come with a really inspiring, beautiful, joyful, feeling. And it can transform and carry really heavy things, too. It’s a circle, it goes around and changes and comes back again.