Creating, or re-creating, heirloom jewelry

Sterling silver and amethyst crystal ring.
Sterling silver and amethyst crystal ring.

The marriage of craftsmanship and design is at the core of the Charlotte jewelry design business named Custom.

The marriage of Lee Lally and Kate McFadden is also central. Lally is a master jeweler who has been a goldsmith for 22 years. McFadden is a designer with a passion for beautiful wares.

In 2011, the two opened Custom on North Davidson Street and now, joined by manager and apprentice Lindsay Parker, they specialize in creating unique heirloom pieces.

Some they make from scratch, but often they repurpose existing pieces – all in a less-than-conventional setting.

“We started (by) trying to please everyone,” says McFadden, “then winnowed it down. We want to put forward an authentic representation of who we are. There’s a dog running around the shop.” (That’s the brindle Bruce.)

“We don’t want to intimidate anyone with a diamond,” she says. “Custom jewelry is achievable for any budget or any personality.”

Parker agrees. “We don’t put up a front. Walk-ins are always welcome. We are not trying to up-sell you. We are trying to home in on the customer ... not make the customer feel on guard, like they’re going to break something.”

Lally began his career as a production jeweler for a wholesaler, where he set and polished stones. He attended the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts in San Francisco, and he’s worked for all three Lion’s Jeweler stores in Charlotte.

McFadden is an entrepreneur who has owned a massage therapist business, then a catering company in Southern Pines.

Those taught her “that you can start small, with very little overhead,” she says.

Custom’s core product is heirloom jewelry, which McFadden describes as a branch of custom jewelry. “People inherit jewelry that doesn’t speak to their style, but it’s very sentimental,” she says. “That’s what we’ve started to call heirloom redesign. We make a new heirloom, and it travels through the generations of the family.”

The repurposing previously owned materials helped Custom find a niche as a new business in a difficult economy.

“When people say, ‘I want an engagement ring, and I have this charm bracelet from Grandma,’ we can melt it down. It adds a lot of emotional value, and it really offsets the cost,” says McFadden.

When hired to make a custom piece, the first step is an interview with the client.

“We exchange ideas. It can draw from jewelry, architecture, or if someone has a tattoo of a rose and a crow, or skulls,” says McFadden.

Organic designs with free-flowing curves are best created by hand carving a wax model. Symmetrical designs are often created with CAD (computer-aided drafting), then a model is printed in 3-D resin.

Next, the model enters the kiln, where the wax or resin melts away, leaving an impression in a plaster cast (that’s also called the “investment”). Once the molten metal has been poured into and hardened in the investment, the piece is polished by tools, ranging from a tumbler to hand tools to a polishing wheel.

The showroom is meant to highlight their space and make their clients comfortable. “We have a great neighborhood, and it often gets people through the door,” McFadden says. “We want to put forward an authentic representation of who we are. There’s a dog running around the shop. We don’t want to intimidate anyone with a diamond. Custom jewelry is achievable for any budget or any personality.”

A lot of Custom’s clientele are young and social media savvy, so much of the company’s promotional effort is grassroots: word of mouth, Google reviews, Instagram, Pinterest.

Customers inquire about unconventional metals, such as steel and tungsten, says McFadden, and popular stones include sapphires of every color, zircon and tourmalines. “We have even made sterling silver engagement rings with amethysts or black pearls that fit a different budget,” she says.

“We really try to work with whatever people have, to make something special.”

What’s the oddest piece Lally’s ever made?

“An elk’s tooth bracelet,” he says. “They are ivory, like tusks.”

Another unique piece he designed is a dragon engagement ring: The tail and head encircle the finger, and the top holds an amethyst egg.

About 85 percent of Custom’s business is custom-made jewelry, says the couple, and sales have increased 30 percent a year since opening. In a busy month, all three designers work on as many as 10 pieces, not including retail or repair.

Custom prices are determined by the type and amount of metal and the size of stones. The average price per piece is between $2,000 and $4,000, while a typical silver piece from the art inventory is $150.

Custom is attempting an online retail presence, and hopes to expand enough to hire another jeweler.

“As a business, we are trying to preserve the art of this Old World craft and Old World processes, while incorporating New Age technology,” says McFadden, “so that we can broaden the possibilities of what we can create.”


3206 N. Davidson St., 704-980-9840;; on Instagram @customjewelrylab.