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Mourning Jewelry Leaves the Victorian Era Behind

When Alyx Carson’s father was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2020, she left her nursing job in Austin, Texas, and flew to California to be with him. Soon after her arrival, they talked about what was ahead: She told him she would like to have his ashes made into a diamond.

He began to cry, she recalled recently from her home in Austin. “He was so honored,” she said. “He loved the idea. He said, ‘You would do that for me?’”

Ms. Carson is among the growing number of people buying contemporary versions of mourning jewelry, pieces made to remember a loved one or a pet, which can range from diamonds to inexpensive glass or metal vials worn as ash-filled pendants.

“People move so much,” said Gina Murphy, who combines ashes and resin in a patented process for her Close By Me jewelry line. “We don’t go to gravesites anymore. We don’t want to create monuments, to leave our loved ones there, because what if we move? With these kinds of pieces, you can take them with you; you don’t leave them behind.”

Such jewelry dates from the Roman Empire, though it became particularly fashionable in Western Europe after the 1861 death of Prince Albert, after which Queen Victoria observed decades of mourning. It became common to wear rings and bracelets woven from the hair of deceased loved ones, or to preserve a bit of their hair in lockets. As photography became more affordable, portraits frequently took the place of hair in lockets or were set into brooches or rings.

But today, “people now often want things that are modern and celebratory of life,” said Adelle Archer, a co-founder and chief executive of Eterneva, which produces diamonds made with cremation ash. “People spend so much on the end of life — the average is $10,000 to $15,000 for the casket, the service, the grave. If you ask people if that’s what they found meaning in, most will say no.”

Ms. Carson, who used Eterneva’s services and later joined the company, agreed. “He was so afraid I would forget him,” she said of her father. “And I said, ‘To the contrary, you’ll be with me everywhere.’ The thought of him being able to walk me down the aisle, and go with me to do all the things we used to do together — it’s so beautiful.”

While all lab diamonds are produced with carbon, not all of the carbon in ash diamonds is cremation ash. “It’s a blend of generic with personal,” Ms. Archer said. “Five to 10 percent is personal.”

As everyone’s ashes have a unique shading, so, too, does the look of each stone. And colored diamonds can be created by adding other elements, said Yulia Kusher, chief executive of Meylor Global, a diamond grower based in Ukraine that also produces ash diamonds. “It can be white, or blue if you add boron,” she said from the company’s New York office. “Nitrogen makes it yellow. It’s the same as with natural diamonds. Elements in the earth are what create the color.”

Regardless of the size of the diamond, approximately 50 grams of ash — about a half a cup — is required. The ashes are carbonized and then blended with other carbon, minerals and metals for the process, which takes about a month.

But for those who commission these diamonds, which cost an average of $7,000 to $12,000 for the unset stone, the fact that the diamond contains other carbon is beside the point.

Liz Pires of Santa Rosa, Calif., who lost both her children to drug addiction, found the experience itself healing. “It gave us something on the other side that was positive,” she said of the two gems she had made. “It’s not just ashes or a tombstone. It’s something uplifting.”

In a contemporary twist on lockets, designers like Ms. Murphy transform ashes into jewelry that is more affordable than diamonds, more distinctively individual — and made almost entirely of cremation ash.

Ms. Murphy mills less than a tablespoon of ash to a fine powder before combining it with clear resin, creating a stonelike substance she then adds to silver or 14-karat gold settings ($200-$1,700). In the process, the ashes frequently form a pattern within the resin, each with a distinctive color.

Other designers produce updated versions of hair-woven jewelry, setting small amounts of hair into resin in a process similar to Ms. Murphy’s method. And Margaret Cross, whose company is in Brooklyn, twines, braids or weaves hair — or even the fur of a beloved pet — and covers it with clear crystal domes in 10-, 14- or 18-karat gold settings that can be accented with gems (starting at $900).

By contrast, a bespoke ring by the Dutch jewelry designer Bibi van der Velden was more traditional. Two entwined snakes (symbolizing immortality), sculpted of 18-karat rose and yellow gold and adorned with brown diamonds and tsavorites, concealed a small compartment to contain the ashes of the client’s mother, a kind of secret homage.

For many, however, memories and connections are more important: wearing a sapphire to suggest a sister’s blue eyes or something with a boat motif for a father who loved to sail. Cece Fein-Hughes, a jewelry designer in London, creates custom memorial pieces of champlevé enamel in 18-karat gold with gemstone accents as “miniature works of art to celebrate life, loves and those lost,” she wrote in a recent email.

One client, for instance, memorialized her grandmother with a ring bearing two magpies — a favorite bird — amid star-set diamonds and an enameled wreath of rosemary and oregano, which the designer said “represents remembrance and happiness in the afterlife.” Ms. Hughes, whose prices run from 2,000 to 49,000 pounds ($2,525 to $61,860), has also created enameled portraits of beloved pets, integrating symbols that tell the story of their lives. (Similar portraits can be made of people, she said.)

For some people, the jewelry can come to embody such stories. As Ms. Carson said, speaking of her father and the green diamond that reminds her of his love of nature: “Someone said there’s two deaths people experience: the death of the person, which is the soul leaving the body, and the second, when people stop talking about them.

“This jewel prevents that. I can keep climbing mountains with him. I can keep telling his story.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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