In the back of a historic Warehouse District loft, Tess Haun took a seat at a distressed wooden workbench, lowered an Optivisor over her eyes and fired up an oxy-propane welding torch. Her palladium wedding band took on an intense fiery glow. Nearby, Haun's fiancé, Jake Nyberg, ran a metal ingot through a rolling mill until he achieved a delicate ribbon of silver to insert into his wedding ring.
Couples like Haun and Nyberg are taking do-it-yourself weddings -- and their commitment -- to a new level by making their own rings in daylong workshops led by master goldsmiths.
"I was about to buy a mass-produced ring, and I'm so glad I didn't," Nyberg said, holding up his ring to admire his work. "This is so much more original and unique, and it's awesome to say we're wearing a work of art that we created."
Haun and Nyberg signed up for "The Art of Love Workshop," a new offering by longtime Minneapolis goldsmith Stephen Vincent. Other couples have similar opportunities nationwide, and the trend is growing.
Goldsmith Sam Abbay operates a one-man shop in New York's Financial District and his "New York Wedding Ring" workshop has been filled since he began offering it four years ago.
"People want their rings to be important and emotional and individual," Abbay said. "Some people will make it important by spending a lot of money, but that's obviously not the only way."
Abbay recently tutored a Minneapolis woman, a self-proclaimed "avid do-it-yourselfer" whose boyfriend surprised her with a romantic proposal on a sunny December morning in Central Park. He told her they'd be making her ring together the next day.
Kristen Olson, 28, and her fiancé, Steve Scherping, 31, spent the next two days designing and creating Olson's blue sapphire platinum ring. Abbay walked the couple through each step of hammering, sawing, sanding, welding and polishing. Thankfully, jewelry-making is a difficult but forgiving craft, Olson said, so their small mistakes were easy to fix with patience and a steady hand.
"It's a one-of-a-kind ring with tiny imperfections that only Steve or I would ever be able to notice, but they remind us of the wonderful weekend we spent making it together," Olson said, adding that they are planning a return trip to New York to make their wedding bands.
Labor of love goes local
The Wedding Ring Experience, which now has nine locations, including New York, Las Vegas, Chicago and headquarters in San Diego, held 340 workshops nationwide last year, up from 160 in 2007, said Lewis Barnes, owner of the Wedding Ring Experience in the United States.
And while the Experience has no plans to expand to Minnesota, in addition to the "Art of Love Workshop" in the Warehouse District, couples also can make their own rings at Metal Heart Jewelry in northeast Minneapolis.
Metalsmith and jeweler Kirk Sklar has been teaching the occasional couple at Metal Heart to make their own wedding rings for five years. Some couples sign up for his classes to etch their fingerprints on each other's rings, a simple process that takes 30 minutes. Others want to set their own diamonds, a tedious task that can take several days to learn, whereas at other wedding ring workshops, the stone setting is left to the professionals.
"Every project really reflects the personality of the couple," Sklar said. "It makes a very meaningful piece of jewelry ... far beyond what you could purchase in a jewelry case somewhere."
Darren DeBerg worked at Metal Heart for about six weeks to make three rings: one for the woman he married, Claire DeBerg, one for himself and one for Claire's 9-year-old daughter, which he presented to her during an adoption ceremony at the couple's wedding.
"It's quite a gift to receive something that is truly handmade," Claire said. "My ring is quintessential Darren -- thoughtful, creative and all wrapped into this poignant symbol of love."
The cost of making your own rings varies with the amount of time needed to complete the process and with the choice of metal, a rapidly changing variable. Vincent's "Art of Love Workshop" costs $850 for eight hours of workshop time, plus the cost of the rings, which currently range from $240 for a women's stainless steel ring to $2,370 for a men's platinum band. Sklar says a conservative set of 14-karat gold rings made at his workshop will cost about $600.
All in the details
For Vincent, the special details that couples think about when creating their own rings are emblematic of his philosophies and working methods. As a goldsmith trained in Italy, Germany and California, Vincent has created jewelry for 35 years. His storefront location in the Warehouse District is filled with his work (the upstairs doubles as his workshop and home).
Over the years, Vincent's customers have asked to watch as their jewelry was being made and he's given tours of his workshop. He's taught dozens of apprentices and has always wanted to open a jewelry-making school.
So when he was diagnosed with Stage 4 head and neck cancer a few years ago, he decided to close his store in Gaviidae, downsize and get back to his roots. Vincent celebrated one year cancer-free in December by launching the "Art of Love Workshop."
Just before Valentine's Day, Vincent's second clients, Haun and Nyberg, kept busy learning the tools of the trade in what can only be described as a Santa's workshop of jewelry-making with wall-to-wall Old- and New-World equipment, soft music playing in the background and candles burning.
With an occasional visit from Charlie, Vincent's three-legged Chinese crested hairless dog, and a break for a romantic lunch, the couple created one-of-a-kind rings to exchange on their wedding day: Haun's simple palladium band on which Vincent will inlay 27 diamonds and Nyberg's stainless steel band with a silver inlay.
"I didn't know how to do anything delicate at the beginning of the day and now I'm making a ring," Nyberg said, towering over his workbench at 6 feet 4. The couple are already thinking about coming back to make anniversary rings. "I mean, with all the banging, bending and buffing," he said while holding up his ring, "this definitely feels more permanent."
Aimée Tjader • 612-673-1715