Couples Say I Will With Crown Nine Diamonds
Jewelry designer Kate Ellen creates custom jewelry designs so that couples can declare their marriage intentions with signature style.
Kate Ellen of Crown Nine is a talented jewelry designer who knows how to keep a secret.
Photo by Pat Mazzera
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Bay Area native Kate Ellen, owner of jewelry boutique Crown Nine, comes from a family of makers and craftsmen. On her father’s side, there are stonemasons. Her father is a furniture maker, landscape architect, and photographer, and her brother, who began working on custom bikes and cars as a kid, now makes craft beers. “The three of us spent a lot of time in the garage when I was growing up,” Ellen says. After eight years as a teacher and then a social worker, Ellen migrated back to her roots and discovered a new career working with her hands.
“For a long time I felt like an artist without a medium,” the 33-year-old designer said. “Then, about seven years ago, I took a basic metalsmithing and jewelry making class at The Crucible, and I immediately connected with the process. I’m drawn to the way handmade jewelry, these small pieces of art, are both functional and intimate.” From there, Ellen took more courses, experimented, and set up a studio in Jack London Square. Two years ago, she moved to Ninth Street across from Swan’s Market with retail space on the first floor showcasing her work and the wares of several other jewelry artists and makers.
Engagement rings and wedding bands have become a growing part of Ellen’s craft and business. Each ring she makes is custom-designed or part of her made-to-order Vow Collection. Socially responsible diamonds are fundamental—and a big draw for clients. “I specialize in antique stones that are reclaimed from obsolete jewelry. It is a sustainable and conflict-free way to enjoy a diamond.” These old stones have a different cut style, proportions, and faceting than diamonds today but go through the same grading process. No two stones are alike. “One feature I love about these old stones is that the culet, the point of the stone on the bottom, is cut off, creating a sort of flowery kaleidoscope effect,” Ellen says.
Fifteen steps up a narrow staircase lead to Ellen’s studio. Here she forms, fabricates, solders, sand-casts, and carves. Her tools include three gas-torch setups, a hydraulic press, a rolling mill used to flatten metal, and a jeweler’s bench filled with hammers, files, pliers, and shears. She sometimes wanders down from the studio still wearing her long, black apron and optivisor, a headband with magnifying glass, to help out in the shop.
Ellen employs ancient methods like Mitsuro, a Japanese wax-casting technique dating back to 750 A.D., to achieve a style that is earthy, irregular, and organic and requires research, intuition, and patience. “I learned Mitsuro from an obscure wax-working book written by a Japanese couple. It took tons of trial and error to develop my own recipe, as they didn’t include one, only some general ratios that are very temperamental.” When she cooks up the finicky formula in a pot in her kitchen, the smell of the pine-resin and beeswax fills her home. “I work with it while it is warm, stretching it to get the striations that are traditionally symbolic of bamboo. The process is quick, unpredictable, and fluid, a sort of meditation in itself.” The result is a detailed, overlapping stripy pattern, like paintbrush strokes on metal achieved by using the wax to create a mould.
Another old technique she uses is sand-casting. “There are forms of it dating back to 1600 B.C., and it has been used in making American Native Indian jewelry,” Ellen says. She pours molten metal directly into a sand cast, which yields a grainy surface with irregular pits. “What I like about the sand-cast effect is that it makes the metal look like a buried treasure that has been unearthed.”
Ellen usually takes a photo of the partner who picks up the ring. “Yes, we take a Polaroid of whoever is brave enough to propose, and we keep it here,” she said. “We’re making a scrapbook of our little family of clients. Typically, the other partner will come in after the proposal. We share the photo with them, and it brings them into the energy their partner took in planning the ring.”
She may be the only other person who knows the story of each ring until the proposal happens, and fortunately she’s good at keeping that journey a secret.
Four rings, four stories
The couple: Hannah Quimby, 37, runs the Quimby Family Foundation, and Zak Klein, 34, is executive director of the Global Trails Alliance.
The ring: A custom-cast wedding band with 14-karat yellow brushed-gold mounting, 18-karat palladium white-gold bezel, and a .25-carat diamond.
The story: Quimby and Klein are serious hikers who have completed the Appalachian Trail. Their first date was a moonlight hike on the Tennessee Valley Trail, and they were linked from then on. Since January 2014, they have been on the road in their Mercedes Sprinter camper van traversing the country to hike the tallest peak in all 50 states. In May, Quimby and Klein came back to Oakland to pick up the engagement ring, fresh from Mount Hood, peak No. 23 in their quest. A lot of planning had gone into the ring. The gold (melted down and recast) and the diamond came from family rings. But the most distinctive feature ties directly to their common experience—the AT. Ellen used an aerial view to carve a solid groove, a profile of the trail, on the band.
The couple: Dominique Tan, 25, philanthropy side of a family aviation business, and Giovanni Bryden, 26, tech sales for Mixpanel.
The ring: A Celestial Solitaire, a .75-carat diamond with an Old European cut dating back to 1850-1900 with a platinum mounting.
The story: Tan and Bryden went sky gazing on their first date and ended up at the Santa Fe Dam, a concrete aqueduct in Los Angeles. The fog left them cold and wet, but not before they witnessed the Perseids. The stars aligned that night, and the couple dated long-distance until they both relocated to Oakland in 2012. After almost seven years together, they talked about marriage. Tan worked near Crown Nine and liked Ellen’s jewelry, so Bryden had a starting point but had to be stealthy. He picked up the ring before the couple left for Kauai. He had the night skies in mind again, and they drove to Hanalei Bay to see the full moon, even though Tan was jet lagged. Mosquitoes attacked her when she got out of the car to take in the view, but Bryden quickly got down on one knee and presented the ring.