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Jewelers restore fire-salvaged memories

Engagements, anniversaries, custom orders, family heirlooms and mementos — this is how jewelers get to know their community.

Moments of celebration and love are often marked with a diamond or a band of gold, but over the past month Ashland jewelers have also shared in heartbreak, as Almeda fire survivors seek to salvage their sentimental property.

“They’re grateful they found things, but they don’t have a lot of hope,” ArtFx Fine Jewelry Manager Dane Cluff said of fire survivors who bring in their singed jewelry. “Then they leave them with us and then we take care of them — they come back and they’re just absolutely astounded that they got their pieces back. When we tell them there’s not any charge for it, they just lose it a lot of the time.”

Some pieces only need a few days of soaking in a jeweler’s pickling solution to be like new, while other pieces need more extensive restoration to become whole again. About a dozen people have come through ArtFx with jewelry survived the fire. Nearly every piece has been salvageable, even diamonds scorched from extreme heat. Diamonds will not disintegrate in fire but may lose their polish, essentially fogging the stone, Cluff explained.

A few fire survivors have taken the opportunity to remake an old memory into a new one. A collection of two heirloom rings, never worn but now charred black, will be remade into three separate pieces for a mother and her two daughters.

From his work station Thursday, jeweler Mick Cushman cleared black soot to reveal clean gold underneath. Soaking, wire brushing and polishing can bring burnt metals and stones back to life, but some gemstones that lost their color in the heat will never be restored. With more than a decade of experience behind each staff member, these jewelers know well how fire reacts with each material.

When a piece comes through his door, Gold & Gems Fine Jewelry owner Ron Hansen checks to ensure the stones are salvageable — some are so charred Hansen can only promise to do his best. Even with discolored stones, the sentimentality of the item often overtakes a customer’s cosmetic concerns, he said.

Still, like their neighbors up the street, the shop has had close to a 100% success rate restoring items brought to them.

Hansen knows how it feels to lose everything. Back in 1997, his home burned in a fire. Understanding that pain pushed him to open up his services and allow Almeda fire survivors to bring in their damaged jewelry to be cleaned and repaired at no cost.

Hansen estimated thousands of dollars of restoration services have been provided by his five-person staff team since the fire Sept. 8.

“My heart bleeds for my community, and I wanted to help,” said Hansen, an Ashland-based jeweler for 38 years.

Gold & Gems has yet to encounter any cases of fraud for these services. Similarly, Cluff said he has a knack for detecting potential fraudsters but hasn’t used his skill in this circumstance so far.

The Almeda fire burned at 1,000 to 2,000 degrees, Ashland Fire & Rescue Division Chief Chris Chambers estimated. The blaze reduced homes to ash and cars to rivers of metal. But a few treasures emerged.

One customer, Toni, brought a large aquamarine in a platinum and diamond setting into Gold & Gems for post-fire restoration. Typically an icy blue color, the stone was jet black, and when cleaned, it revealed an opaque white hue — intense heat had changed the color but everything else cleaned up nicely. Toni didn’t want the stone replaced, as both a memory of its history and the fire itself, Hansen recalled.

Toni, looking forward to her 80th birthday this year, barely escaped the fire with her small dog and laptop. She had downsized several times recently, so everything she kept at home meant a great deal.

After three years of work, six freshly wrapped, handmade quilts intended for her future great-grandchildren burned, along with photographs at her former house on Arnos Road.

The week before the fire, she wrote a letter to each of her six grandchildren: “Someday, there may be a little person in your life, and if I’m not there to tuck them in with you, please use this and tell them it’s a hug and a giggle from their great grandma.”

She wrapped the quilts with teddy bears she had saved through the years and packed them up to mail out the next day.

“You can buy new dishes, and you can buy new clothes, but it’s things like that that you just — it’s hard to replace,” Toni said.

One day, a friend who offered to sift through the ashes of Toni’s home found a box. Toni put her gloves on, lifted the box lid and moved her fingers through the ashes.

The aquamarine ring, a mother’s day gift from years ago, was once a vibrant, deep and sparkling blue. When her fingers found its edges, it was the only thing that hadn’t melted. The small diamonds were blackened and scorched, and the stone resembled a marble with its milky opaqueness.

“They made my ring beautiful again,” Toni said of Gold & Gems staff. “The old part that was there, they cleaned up and it looks like brand new. The stone looks so different, so it’s kind of a reminder of before and after, but all coming together in something that’s really beautiful.”

For Toni, beauty is healing. She has taken each moment since the fire as either a blessing or lesson, and continues to work through the confusing confluence of grief and gratitude each day. But bringing a small remnant of beauty back into her life was a true gift.

“As I look at the ring, I think what it reminds me of, because the stone was so changed, that my life has changed. But there’s still beauty in it. That’s what that ring represents to me now.”

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

allayana darrow / ashland tidingsArtFx Fine Jewelry manager Dane Cluff handles some burnt jewelry.