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Fishing for Compliments

When a woman came in two years ago with an unusual idea to surprise her husband for his birthday, Steven Lesse was intrigued. The owner of Abracadabra, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based custom jeweler, was used to working with wood—in fact, the retailer specializes in ironwood inlay pieces. But in this case, the woman presented him with a thin, four-inch long piece of bamboo.

“She told me that this was the bottom cut off from a fishing pole that her husband made,” he recalls. “I didn’t know that it takes about a year to make a custom fishing pole, it’s a hobby and a labor of love.” The man had taken a ten-foot long piece of bamboo and, using a special tool, cut it into a triangle shape only 1/4 inch wide. Six of these long triangles were glued together forming a hexagon, which created the fishing pole. His wife wanted to take a small slice of the hexagon and create a wood-inlay ring set in yellow gold.

The problem was that bamboo is one of the softest woods, making it difficult to work with in jewelry and creating a long-term durability problem. “You can prick bamboo practically with your fingernail,” says Lesse. “So we had some problem solving to do.”

The creative design of the ring itself was simple since the hexagonal shape of the wood was aesthetically pleasing. Lesse decided to accent the bamboo slice by putting small green sapphires on each side to contrast with the brown color. But the wood needed to be protected somehow, a challenge that Lesse was ready to meet. “I kind of look at all of jewelry design as a problem where you need to find a solution,” he says.

Lesse ordered a Movado watch crystal made of sapphire, which he knew would not scratch like glass. The crystal was bigger than the size of the wood to be inlaid, and he cut it on a fastening wheel into a hexagon so that the sides were 100% parallel. “The fastening wheel, as opposed to a lapidary wheel, is designed for perfection. You have to go out of your way to make it not perfect,” he explains.

After creating a drawing and a hand-carved wax model, the wood was cut and inlayed into the wax and the crystal was cut and glued on top of it. But there wasn’t just glue holding in the inlay. There were grooves in the glue so the wood was held in with a technique called dovetailing. “The glue forms a peg that holds it in, so it’s more difficult for it to come out,” he says. And there was a bonus: The crystal slightly magnified the pattern of the grain, since a watch crystal is concave on the inside. “So you can see all that fine grain of the wood, which was nice,” Lesse points out.

The fastening wheel has turned into Lesse’s favorite piece of equipment. “We can get the quality of the inlay that we want if we do it on a lapidary wheel and touch it up with the fastening wheel for the exactness. It fits so tight.”

The best news? The customer’s husband loved the wood inlay and green sapphire ring. “He thought it was just incredible,” Lesse says.
— Sharon M. Goldman

Bamboo inlay ring in yellow gold with green sapphires
Bamboo inlay ring in yellow gold with green sapphires by Steven Lesse of Abracadabra, Ann Arbor, Michigan.