Thursday, August 30, 2012

Around the bend--sizing and shaping bracelets

One of the great impediments to buying (or selling) a bracelet has always been the fit. After all, jewelry of any kind is meant to be worn (with the possible exception of some of the more extreme and dangerous contemporary pieces we have seen lately, which look like they were made to protect the wearer from the Visigoths). And if a piece is not comfortable, wearing it is out of the question. No one should have to suffer for their jewelry, and though all great pieces look wonderful on a shelf, it can be frustrating to own something that simply cannot be worn.

The Indian bracelet, when well-made, is a marvelously simple triumph of bioengineering. The cuff-style with the open back makes it easy to put on and take off with just a bit of practice, and the lack of hinges or sharp angles gives it strength and durability. Add to this the fact that silver is generally a malleable and forgiving material, and the end result can be a piece of art that is both strong and beautiful. And as anyone who has spent a lot of time looking at the back of old bracelet can tell you, there are very few tragedies that can befall a good old bracelet that will prove to be fatal--many old bracelets show some signs of native repair, and the best modern smiths can save all but the most hopeless patients from the scrap heap.

Somewhere along the line, many people got the idea that if a piece is an antique, it cannot be modified, adjusted, or even exposed to strong breath. This is true to the extent that the basic integrity of any antique must be respected and protected, but the beauty of Indian bracelets is that it is possible to reshape many them to some extent. The opening in the back gives the wearer a choice on how the bracelet should fit, and by opening or closing the gap a better fit can usually be found.

Here is an example of a bracelet that can be sized without much trouble:
The main impediment to bracelet sizing is stone settings. Sizing will always involve bending the silver part of the bracelet. If there are stones set in the area to be bent, the great fear is that the bending process will send the stones flying across the room, or even crack them within the setting. This bracelet only has a single stone in the middle, and there would be no reason to do any bending near the setting.

Here is an example of a bracelet that would be a bit more tricky but could still be sized:
With this one, the person doing the bending would need to be careful to restrict the manipulation of the silver to the area between the stones, as well as the sides where there are no stone settings. It could certainly be done, but it would take more time and care than with the first bracelet.

And here is one that presents a different kind of problem:
Row bracelets, especially ones made from thick ingot silver like this one, are very tricky. Most of the shaping needs to be done on the ends, and the great danger is that any major rounding of the overall shape will put too much stress on the stone settings. That is not to say that nothing can be done, but the usual "grab both ends and squeeze" technique is not the best idea. A professional with the proper tools can work wonders, so don't give up hope, but don't try this one at home.

And finally:
If this one doesn't fit now, it never will. Zuni inlay does not respond well to reshaping.

In terms of measurements, a good rule of thumb is to keep the opening in the back somewhere between 7/8" and 1 1/4". People with very thin wrists can live with an opening as small as 3/4" (or even less for the very tiny among us), and those who tend towards the burly need an opening that is even larger, but for the average person this is a good range--narrow enough so the bracelet will not slip off, but wide enough that it can be put on and taken off with comfort.

Once it has been established that a bracelet is an appropriate size (or can be made so), the important question to answer is whether or not it wears comfortably. Many older bracelets were made for native use, and therefore were made to fit a "Navajo wrist". In layman's terms, this means they were shaped wide and flat. To be worn on a modern wrist, it is sometimes necessary to have them reshaped to be more round. The overall measurements may stay the same, but the piece will wear better. And if the time comes when the bracelet reaches the market again, it is no problem to return it to its previous shape.

The basic lesson is that a buyer should not be afraid of how a bracelet fits the first time. The main consideration is whether it is something that would be a good addition to the collection, and then whether it can be adjusted to fit. In many cases, a little sizing and shaping can make all the difference.