I wear my wedding dress regularly. Considering the financial and emotional toll of acquiring one, shouldn’t every bride do the same? These gowns result from months of sweat (elbowing your way into one silk taffeta cream puff after another), tears (of frustration and, finally, bliss), and yes, even blood (if you’ve got a tailor who’s a little shaky with those pins). And all for one night of wear? We can do better than that.
Enter San Francisco-based jewelry designer Gabe Bratton, who uses a wax casting process to convert sections of fabric into metal. Thanks to her, instead of popping out for dinner in swaths of designer lace, I wear just a gold-plated portion of my dress in the form of a pendant necklace. Bratton used a swatch of lace from my gown to form this one-of-a-kind statement piece. We’re talking about dress preservation at a whole new level.
Bratton can turn fibrous material—think lace, burlap, canvas, rope—into nearly any adornment you can dream up: earrings, necklaces, bracelets, brooches, cuff links, and hair pieces are her specialties. The process of creating a custom metal piece of jewelry out of a sample of fabric is, predictably, not simple.
Bratton explains it to me in detail, and she responds to my look of befuddlement by telling me to just check out the process of "lost wax casting" on YouTube. It’s pretty fascinating to watch. Essentially, a section of fabric is dipped in wax and inserted into a plaster cylinder. After a run in the kiln, the original fibers and the wax disintegrate to leave a cavity that's then filled with molten metal. The result is a completely unique piece of bronze, sterling, or gold that preserves the integrity of the original material.
Bratton, who recognizes the magnitude of her responsibility in dealing with swatches of peoples’ delicate keepsakes and heirlooms, is confident in the process, thanks to the years she spent earning her B.F.A. in jewelry and metals from the University of Georgia’s prestigious Lamar Dodd School of Art. “You’re handling something that means a lot to people, and I take that seriously,” Bratton says. Though no stranger to burns, she knows exactly what she’s doing.
But when it comes to her matrimonial jewelry, it’s not all about preserving the dress: Many a bride has discovered the wonders of Bratton’s line, Gabrielle Jewelry, long before her march down the aisle. Her clients have had swatches of their grandmothers’ handkerchiefs or their mothers’ veils turned into into earrings or bracelets for their wedding days, creating the perfect combination of old, borrowed, and new.
So, while the long-standing tradition of re-wearing family gowns is still alive, Bratton’s new spin on it may just suit the modern bride even better. Her custom pieces are overflowing with sentiment and significance (in case you needed more of that on your wedding day). Take customer Lane Nash, whose two daughters were married less than a year apart, wearing the same veil. With lace from that veil, Nash had Bratton fashion cuff bracelets for each of her daughters.
Bratton, who takes pride in making her pieces specifically for individual people, knew which cuff should go to which of Nash’s daughters, though the differences in the pieces were minor. “The stories behind my pieces matter,” Bratton says, “I love to meet people in person, to read their style and decipher what they’d like to wear.” And if she can’t meet someone face-to-face, she uses pictures and correspondences to get a feel for who someone is; her craft is about creating a piece someone will immediately recognize as her or his own.
Nash’s older daughter, Austin Coley, says of her veil-turned-bracelet, “I vividly remember my wedding day each time I put on the cuff, even now, years later. That’s the real gift of Gabe’s talent: She can literally transform a moment of your life into a stunning keepsake.”
As far as prepping for the big day goes, Bratton doesn’t snub the guys. Her custom cufflinks have made many a groomsmen gift, sometimes even matching pieces worn by the bride or her attendants. Bratton’s process—of taking a delicate section of fabric and casting it in metal—carries a certain masculine appeal, after all.
“I’ve noticed that guys love buying jewelry and knowing about the labor behind it. They’re interested in the way it all works, in the tools involved,” Bratton says. Recently, a customer contacted her about making a gift for his wife for their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. He cut the lace from her old dress and sent it to Bratton, who helped him decide on a design for a pair of delicate gold earrings.
Later, Bratton received his handwritten letter of thanks for creating something that meant more to his wife than anything he could have found in a store: It’s their wedding day in wearable form, thirty-five years later.
“If a piece of lace is really old, I like to keep an antique feel to its metal counterpart, but modernize it. I’m re-contextualizing,” she explains. For bride Chase Felmet, Bratton fashioned an ornate gold hairpiece out of her wedding dress lace. Felmet, who wore it at her reception in the place of her veil, says, “I knew it would be something I’d treasure all my life. It’s a piece that I can wear over and over, and when I do, I feel all that joy and elation from my wedding day come flooding back.”
Knowing she’s starting a family heirloom is, Felmet says, indescribably special. Certainly metal outlasts lace.
As for my own gold-plated lace rendering, it came as a gift from my stealthy husband who, in collaboration with my mom, sent Bratton a sample salvaged from one of my dress fittings. The necklace embodies that dress, the one I hunted for and loved so hard, but it also represents a whole lot more. It represents a day. A person. A vow.
And in the end, it isn’t so much the lovely gown that we brides so badly want to slide back into (if only we could fit). What we really want to re-wear—now in delicate adornment on our necks or wrists—is that one invaluable moment.