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Sonoma jeweler repairs broken memories

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Charred, melted and mangled – sometimes a piece or two of cherished jewelry was all that remained after the October wildfires. People who have lost everything have been bringing these misshaped, blackened lumps of sentiment – sifted from the ashes or found inside a melted safe – to Daniel Trudeau at Halem & Co., hoping that somehow he can restore their splendor.

Trudeau has made some amazing transformations. An ashy black band with a missing pearl is once again golden, and the pearl replaced. A battered class ring shines anew. And wedding rings are made wearable once again. Nothing is exactly as it was, and he is learning that people accept that. The jewelry becomes symbols of what the fires have wrought.

People leave the Plaza-fronting jewelry store with tears in their eyes, so happy to have something from their pre-fire life that remains. They are touched that Trudeau is not charging for most of these restorations: he’s motivated by his ability to bring joy to those who have lost so much.

Sadly there have also been tears shed when there’s been nothing he can do. “I have had to look some people in the eye and say ‘This is gone.’”

Trudeau has been a master jeweler for 20 years. He’s repaired pieces that were dropped down the garbage disposal and sucked up by vacuum cleaners, but never has he seen anything like the jewelry that has been brought in since the fires.

“It is not too often a jeweler gets to work on something that is completely destroyed,” he said quietly. “People are walking in the door with a piece of jewelry in their hand that is the last thing they have left from their home.”

One woman came in with several pieces of a broken porcelain plate, the only thing found at the site that was once home. She wanted to know if he could some turn the blue and white bits into a piece of jewelry. And he did. He cut a bird out from the plate’s design, surrounded it in silver and made a unique pendant. When the owner picked it up there were many tears.

Manuel Merjil and Paul Curreri’s Glen Ellen home and car were melted to nothing the first night of the fires, and a neighbor was able to find their safe in the rubble. It was badly burned and difficult to open, and when they finally saw what was inside three weeks later, they learned that the safe was basically an oven that ruined their passports, important papers and jewelry inside. Collected over a lifetime, their jewelry, including heirloom pieces, was a pile of black. “It was all a mess,” Merjil said. “They were charred and melted and bonded together. I cried and cried.”

He brought several pieces he thought might be salvageable to Trudeau, and he worked his magic. “One of Paul’s rings that belonged to his aunt came out like nothing happened to it. It meant so much to him, ” Merjil said, his voice fading a bit, as it is all still so difficult to talk about. A ring that was not as perfectly repaired is just as meaningful. “One of the beautiful things about it now is that this is what nature did, this is what the fire did to it.”

Trudeau said that the surface of diamond turns white after 1,400 degrees, and there is nothing that can be done about this “frosting.” He said most every piece he’s seen has been at temperature over 2,000 degrees. “I can rebuild the ring, and the diamond can be replaced.” He said one woman decided to leave in her frosted diamond, because nothing is the same after the fire.

The owner of the jewelry store, Michael Halem, lost his home in the fires, so the compassion at Halem & Co. is heartfelt and close to home.

“I just have to do this for free because I feel so bad for people,” Trudeau said. “It’s hard to imagine that this piece of jewelry I’m working on is all they have left.”

Trudeau designs and makes custom jewelry, as well as doing repairs. He has made more than 1,000 custom pieces in his career, and sapphires are his favorite. He has always most enjoyed making wedding rings, because it is such an important piece of jewelry. But nothing will surpass the heartwarming work of repairing the fire-damaged jewelry. It is the most meaningful work he’s ever done.