Namano salvages jewelry (and memories) scorched in house fire
There are over three hundred house fires each month in the state of Georgia alone. That’s a pretty mind-boggling number; multiply it nationally and the results are staggering: thousands and thousands of house fires in the U. S. every year, causing nearly seven billion dollars worth of property damage. At work recently I saw another side of the story firsthand in the aftermath of a house fire that destroyed the home of a longtime Namano customer.
Our customer’s house burned down after a car battery charger caught fire in their garage. The fire quickly destroyed their house, and what the fire left behind was lost to water damage caused by the fire hoses. The victims of the fire see themselves as lucky – they weren’t home when the fire started, and they weren’t hurt – but there’s no denying that it was a horrific ordeal for them. They lost their dog, who the owners described as their best friend, and they lost many aspects of the life that they share together. They didn’t simply lose a house; they lost the peace of mind of having a home.
And yet, so often there is one thing that can survive the extreme conditions of a house fire: jewelry. Because gold melts at around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on the karatage), and most house fires burn at less than 1200 degrees, it is rare that gold jewelry will melt beyond repair in the event of a house fire. Platinum can withstand even higher temperatures, melting at over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, while diamonds can usually be re-polished if they get scorched.
This means that, when everything else is lost, jewelry can often be salvaged. We all know that the value of jewelry goes far beyond the amount of money spent on it. At Namano, we had the opportunity to refurbish 28 pieces of jewelry that came in burned, blackened, and nearly unrecognizable. By the time one of our contract jewelers (with 40 years of experience) completed his work, every piece had been documented, cleaned and restored. The process took several weeks, and by the end of it the pieces were again unrecognizable – this time, because they looked nearly new again. Each piece we refurbished represented a moment in our customers’ shared life together, whether it was a birthday, an anniversary or the memory sustained by a piece of jewelry that once belonged to a loved one.
The first step was to number and photograph each piece of jewelry. Many of them were so encrusted with soot that it was impossible to even get an accurate stone count, let alone to identify stone types or qualities. The pictures served not only as a record for us of everything that our customer brought in, but also as a documentation of the repair process for the insurance company. We didn’t know at that point if the jeweler would be able to save any of the pieces, or if everything would have to be scrapped, but we at least had a good idea of what they brought in to begin with.
At that point we sent everything to our jeweler, who walked me through his process for restoring the scorched jewelry.
He began by evaluating each piece individually. He inspected each ring, pendant, bracelet and earring to determine if any of the gold had melted, which serves as the first indication that a piece of jewelry has been damaged beyond repair. He realized that nearly everything could be saved, with the exception of a few of the more delicate chains. However, most of the clasps as well as solder on some of the custom pieces would need to be replaced; not only had these components been damaged by the fire, but they would be further destroyed by the harsh cleaning process.
Luckily, the diamond and gold components were intact and mostly undamaged underneath all of the dirt. Our jeweler used a combination of techniques and cleaning solutions in order to clean them, some of which were harsher to the jewelry than the fire had been in the first place. Like a surgeon breaking an improperly healed bone in order to re-set it more effectively, he described his restoration process as a breaking down of each component in order to rebuild a solid, completed piece. The jewelry could never be returned to its original condition, but it could at least be turned once more into something beautiful and wearable.
The skilled jeweler accomplished this by putting each piece through a series of cleaning solutions that stripped the gold, diamonds, and gemstones of soot and debris. The first was muriatic acid, a corrosive that is the strongest cleaning agent he used. He stored his acid in a plastic container, and only soaked the jewelry in it when he was in his workshop and able to check on it every thirty minutes or so. While the acid didn’t damage the gold itself, it did destroy solder as well as any steel components, such as those found in springs and clasps. Because of this, he frequently removed each piece of jewelry from the acid, steaming it off in order to see how it was progressing and then returning it to the acid to continue stripping down the dirt. He also placed the small container of muriatic acid in his ultrasonic, shaking loose any particularly stubborn debris, but only for short amounts of time in order to avoid loosening any stones.
He also used a few more commonplace cleaners to continue the process: pickling solution, bleach and boiling, soapy water. These components, while not as strong as the muriatic acid, continued the process of removing the dirt and soot in layers, gradually weakening and breaking down the stubborn, caked-on debris and stains. Because muriatic acid and pickling solution are acids, and bleach and soapy water are bases, he carefully rinsed each piece of jewelry in water in order to deactivate the acids before exposing the pieces to basic solutions, and vice versa. These solutions can be volatile, so he also kept a fan running at all times and worked in a well-ventilated area.
After soaking and rinsing each piece, he continued to steam them, gradually seeing each piece return to its original color and luster. Some pieces were fairly easy and quick to clean; two plain gold bangles, for instance, had smooth surfaces that didn’t trap dirt. Pieces like these simply had to be cleaned and then polished in order to return them to their original state. Other pieces, however, were much more difficult. Any of the pieces with many small stones provided plenty of spaces for dirt to get trapped between prongs and under stones. He soaked and steamed these pieces much more extensively, until the diamonds once again appeared white. A few pieces also included weaker gemstones and pearls, which were burned in the fire beyond repair and would need to be replaced.
The most complicated piece – and the one that required the longest cleaning process – was a custom diamond bracelet that included intricate detail as well as a large amount of solder. The tiny diamonds trapped dirt, so the piece had to be cleaned extensively. This extended cleaning time further broke down the solder, so the jeweler had to carefully rebuild and repair each link of the bracelet in order to ensure that it could be worn safely. This was the last piece finished, and it joined 27 others looking almost new once more.
Despite this impressive transformation, the jeweler warned me that it is important to understand the limitations of this kind of repair work. Each piece has been damaged by the fire, further weakened by cleaning, and then rebuilt; despite their appearances, these are not new pieces of jewelry. The process of burning and restoration can weaken the tension in the gold, which means the customer could have problems with some pieces losing stones in the future. The jeweler emphasized that the most important thing is managing a customer’s expectations; jewelry can be repaired so that it is strong and wearable again, but, as with many antique pieces or family heirlooms, jewelry that has been restored will have problems that a well-made new piece will not.
The trade-off for this is the ability to keep and wear jewelry that holds sentimental value, the reason that our customer chose to have her jewelry repaired rather than simply replacing it with new pieces. This is the reason the fire victims saved what they could, sifting through ashes and painstakingly saving each piece that they found – even when everything looked to be damaged beyond repair. They described taking a window screen down to the banks of the lake, pouring ashes through it as they “panned for gold.” They managed to laugh about it; finding a single earring became a bright spot in an otherwise horrific situation. And seeing the repaired jewelry for the first time provided another one – the realization that things weren’t lost beyond the hope of being rebuilt.
Samantha Lamon works at Atlanta-based Namano, Inc. Namano is a family owned diamond wholesaler since the early 1970s. Namano inventories loose diamonds in a wide variety of shapes and stocks, from melee to 3 carat diamonds. They work closely with their sister company, Southeastern Findings, to make available a wide selection of mountings and finished jewelry. Learn more about Namano online at www.namanodiamonds.com, learn more about Southeastern Findings at their website, www.sefindings.com.