Lutetium Ring

January 31, 2018, 4:57pm

Lutetia and I are engaged! I proposed January 1st on the shores of the Berkeley Marina and she said yes. The story of the proposal is pretty fun but this post is actually about the ring.

More than it appears


The story of the ring starts when I stumbled across the element, Lutetium (atomic number 71), during a late-night Wikipedia deep dive. This rare-earth metal has some interesting properties, including the highest hardness, density and melting point of the lanthanide series. I was intrigued with this element and sent my friend, Waddie a message:

12/08/2016 12:01PM
Yo Waddie! Long time. Hope this crazy world’s been treating you well lately.
I know you work primarily in silver, but I’m wondering if you have any experience working with rare earth metals. I’m looking to get a custom ring made of lutetium. I did some research and it seems like pure lutetium might corrode and/or cause skin reactions but there are alloys that might mitigate some of these problems.
Is this a project you might be interested in?


Waddie is a super-talented silversmith whose style I was sure Lutetia would dig (check out his gallery to see what I mean). I also knew he'd be down to go deep into the nerdy science and chemistry of this strange metal with me. We discussed the logistics of a lutetium ring but particularly concerning to Waddie was the element's extreme melting point: over 1,200 degrees hotter than that of silver. We explored a few ideas like embedding a chunk of lutetium into the ring (didn't solve the corrosion problem) or casting silver around a narrow band of lutetium (super-heating an unknown metal was deemed unsafe). Waddie ended up referring me to his Stanford silversmithing professors, Amanda and Sara from RedStart Design, who echoed his concerns.

I'd hit a dead end but not for long.

While searching for lutetium alloys, I came across an interesting crystal: lutetium aluminum garnet (Al5Lu3O12). This crystal borrowed many properties from its parent element, lutetium: most notably high hardness and durability, along with some new properties, like a high refractive index and exceptional thermal conductivity. After reading this description from Wikipedia, I was sold:

LuAG is a scintillating crystal that will demonstrate luminescence after excitation.

- Lutetium Aluminum Garnet (via Wikipedia)

Wikipedia led me to a lab in Montana (Scientific Materials) that grew LuAG crystals, whom I contacted about acquiring a small sample. They were quite puzzled by the request, since LuAG's typical application is high-powered laser amplification. Once I explained the significance of lutetium and Lutetia, they happily sent me two samples of their highest purity LuAG crystals.

LuAG, LuAG doped with ytterbium, quarter

I shared these crystals and its physical properties with Amanda and Sara at RedStart and they signed off to design an engagement ring featuring a faceted lutetium aluminum garnet with me. It was June 17, 2017 and this crazy idea floating around my head was on its way to becoming a reality.

Reflections, Elements

By this point over six eventful months had passed since beginning the ring research. It was summer and after finishing up a crazy first year in Cleveland, Lutetia and I were back home for six weeks (Lutetia in China, me in LA). Six weeks was the longest we'd been apart since we started dating (weird to think about) and provided some welcome distance to reflect on the relationship. I also took this opportunity to chat with friends and family about the ring and the monumental decision it would accompany.

If you've had a conversation with me in the past few years, there's a good chance I brought up the classical elements (earth, water, fire, air) at some point. Just about everything I do now is based around the elements, like my recent mobile puzzle game, Godai, concepted around the Japanese interpretation (try it free on iOS and Android!). In particular, as an emotionally insensitive INTP, it helps to examine human relationships through psychographic lenses like elemental affinity and Myers-Briggs type indicators.

Best Case

An examination of a person's elemental affinity generally begins with his or her astrological sign. Lutetia is Taurus (earth) and I'm Libra (air). Not only are these opposite elements, but our secondary elements (Lutetia: fire, me: water), are opposite as well. This means at our best, we represent all four elements and unlimited potential. It also means that we must be extra-careful not to neutralize each other's strengths, lest we end up a lukewarm puddle of mud.

Worst Case

After many deep chats and long walks under the California summer sun, my mind was resolved. I viewed our antagonistic elemental alignment as a portent of potential rather than incompatibility and accepted the inordinate amount of effort that such a relationship would entail.

In late June, I made a trip to the RedStart studio in San Francisco to hand over the LuAG samples and share my vision for the ring with Amanda and Sara. I didn't have too much clarity at the time but knew I wanted to start from the elemental motif. The stone was an ideal representation of Lutetia's earth/fire nature (a rare-earth crystal with exceptional thermodynamic properties) so the band and setting should reflect air/water. The RedStart ladies listened patiently as I shared a jumbled stream of ideas, gently shooting down the crazier ones (like a parabolic base that focused light into the stone) and helping overcome paralysis over details like the stone's size and cut (we landed on one carat, round cut).

Interlude: Turkey

In early July, Lutetia and I reunited in Turkey for our friend Mia's wedding. We spent two incredible weeks there, traveling from Istanbul to Gemlik to Cappadocia, then back to Istanbul.

Here are some pictures from the trip:


Design, Iteration

Last May, Lutetia and I hurriedly moved into a new apartment then immediately left Cleveland for the summer, leaving all of our belongings in bags on the ground. In particular, all of the non-perishable foods (flour, sugar, spices, etc.) were in garbage bags on the kitchen counter while the landlords refurbished the shelves. This provided an ample supply of food for the family of mice that moved in while we were away.

I'll spare the gory details for those people who came expecting a cute, romantic story (for those who like gory details, check out this post) but capturing and cleaning-up after the mice was an ugly endeavor to say the least. During this time, I was also exchanging emails with Amanda and Sara about the ring's design.

Concept sketches

They sent me a set of initial concept sketches which incorporated air and water elements into an Embarcadero setting, as we discussed in June. Thematically, I liked E because the top looked airy while the bottom was like water and aesthetically, I liked the symmetry of F and that it resembled the shape of laminar air flow around a cylinder.

Turbulent vs. Laminar Flow

After a couple more sketch iterations, they took a first pass at modeling the ring. I thought the ring was beautiful. Just to be sure, I sent the 3D render to my sister who shared her approval.

3D concept

The ring was almost done but missing one crucial component: Lutetia's ring size.

Hard Conversations

Iterating on a design is pretty familiar to me and geeking out over science came quite naturally. The hardest part was broaching the subject of marriage with Lutetia. It took ten days to finally bring it up the topic of engagement and when I did, she didn't even know her ring size! Regardless, over dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, I casually inquired about her hypothetical requirements for an engagement ring. Here's what she came up with:

  1. No diamonds.
  2. Must be a unique, custom design.
  3. Must contain some asymmetry or irregularity on the band.
  4. Will probably be lost at some point in life, so cannot be priceless or irreplaceable.

I was pretty elated because I knew about the first two, and the second two were serendipitously addressed through the design process. I left that Cheesecake Factory without the sought-after knowledge, but with the knowledge that I was on the right track.

Amanda and Sara mailed me a set of ring sizers and I asked them to add prominence to the water wave in the band since it was now a specifically requested feature (very impressed by their preemptive design insticts!). We also determined that since the exact shape of the water wave wasn't important, it could be utilized for resizing: expanding and contracting without needing to add or remove material from the ring. Among water's chief defining characteristics is its fluid, malleable nature and I was enamored by the simultaneous symbolism and practicality that emerged from this simple little wave.

The design was complete.

Manufacture and Delivery

The Ring

A few weeks later I received notice from RedStart that the ring was done! This was early October and I was crunching to prepare Godai for release. It was launched on October 17th, 2017: my 32nd birthday but also the day I completed the the final payment on the ring. It was done and delivered to my parents' house in LA, and although I wouldn't see it for two months it was now up to me to manufacture a proposal and deliver the ring to Lutetia.


...but that's a story for another time.