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Slice of Life: Geneva jewelry designer creates one-of-a-kind pieces

Michelle Dené Reagan works on a butterfly ring that she designed in her Dené Gallery in Geneva. Reagan's jewelry starts as a wax sculpture before it is cast into metal.
Michelle Dené Reagan works on a butterfly ring that she designed in her Dené Gallery in Geneva. Reagan's jewelry starts as a wax sculpture before it is cast into metal.

GENEVA – Sketches for a one-of-a-kind butterfly ring filled the drawing paper where jewelry designer Michelle Dené Reagan was working in her store, Dené Gallery, at 207 S. Third St., Geneva.

Her custom pieces start with an idea from a customer, a request for something personal and unique, Dené said. 

“The inspiration for the jewelry is about the customer’s taste and style,” Dené said. “It becomes part of the family legacy.”

An artist and sculptor, Dené has worked as a jewelry designer for 20 years. In 2002, Dené was recognized as one of 40 Designers of the 21st Century by Jewelers’ Quarterly Magazine.

After she receives a request, she does drawings to fit what the customer has told her, seeking the story behind the piece.

“The story is important,” Dené said. “Sometimes, there are romantic stories. One of the rings we did was of two blue jays. The fiance wrote a poem about his bride, and it was about a rose among thorns. The band is thorns, and the head is rose petals. Blue jays mate for life, and the bride had blue jays in her wedding. So the blue jays in the ring have 100 tiny blue diamonds in each bird.”

The current project of the butterfly is an engagement ring for a young woman who survived brain surgery for a cavernous malformation – an abnormal tangle of blood vessels in the brain that were leaking blood.

“She had a second chance at life,” Dené said.

Carissa Murawski, 26, of Napervile, said Dené’s drawings of the butterfly ring “brought tears to my eyes.”

“The idea behind it meant so much,” Murawski said.

The butterfly is evident on the sketch side of the ring, its top edge providing the setting area where a sapphire and other stones the customer provided will be affixed. 

The sketch becomes a wax form that Dené carves.

Wearing a jeweler’s magnifying headset, Dené worked on the piece, leaning in with fine tweezers, making sure all the stones would fit tightly in the settings.

“If the setting is not right, it’s way too hard to do it in metal,” Dené said. “All the revisions are taken care of in wax.”

Her next step will be to create a plaster mold from the wax carving, which will become the form for the actual ring.

Dené said she uses reclaimed gold that is refined and purified.

Old gold rings or earrings go to a refinery to be purified because most are blended with other alloys. The refining process takes those out, plus any impurities, Dené said.

When a molten precious metal – such as gold, silver, platinum or palladium – is poured into the plaster mold, it goes through a process of pressurized casting so that the piece will have no air bubbles, she said.

The plaster is dissolved in water, and the piece then is sent to a team of jewelers, polishers and setters at her manufacturing facility on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. 

Dené said she follows Fair Trade Protocol, as much as is available in the industry today, as well as fair trade in the sourcing for the jewelry materials she uses. 

“That is why fair trade is important – no harm has come to anyone who had a hand in the piece, as far as the environment or exploitation,” Dené said. “I want to make sure that the piece itself has a positive influence in the lives of every hand that touches it.”

Know more

Dené Gallery is at 207 S. Third St., Geneva. For information, call 331-248-0041,,

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