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Fingerprint jewelry: Keepsakes to mark birth through death

Lori Schiavi keeps her sons, Luke, 8, and Paul, 5, close to her heart - in the form of two silver pendants, each with one of the boy's fingerprints on one side and his initials on the other.

Lori Schiavi keeps her sons, Luke, 8, and Paul, 5, close to her heart - in the form of two silver pendants, each with one of the boy's fingerprints on one side and his initials on the other.

After ordering online, Schiavi of West Chester received a mold kit with instructions for getting the best print - having her boys use clean, dry fingers, for instance, to push into sculpting clay. She then baked it to harden and shipped it back in a prepaid envelope.

It was Schiavi's Mother's Day gift to herself this year, a $200 keepsake that turned out to be not only personal, but fashionable.

Using mold kits or digital files, jewelers are increasingly making charms and pendants, key chains and crafts embedded with fingerprints. It's the ultimate one-of-a-kind gift, and it can celebrate milestones from birth through death.

"People want gifts with meaning," said Daria Dzwil, whose Maya Belle Jewelry added fingerprint keepsakes to its offerings three years ago. Specialty items include the baby-footprint necklace one new father bought as a "push present" for his wife, dog and cat nose and paw prints, and the annual mold of children's fingerprints that clients can take each year to chronicle their young ones' growth.

"At that moment, you're capturing the shape and structure of that little finger, along with their fingerprint, which is priceless," said Dzwil, of Lansdale.

Though Dzwil's business initially specialized in wedding party gifts, fingerprint jewelry has now become her biggest seller. She sold 50 pieces in 2013, 100 in 2014, and 200 so far this year. Costs range from about $100 to less than $200.

When time is limited (or bronze is being used, which doesn't work well with a mold), clients can rub a finger with a pencil lead, transfer that print to clear tape, stick it on white paper, scan the image, and email it back. Dzwil can then transform the digital image into a customized stamp.

Harry Merrill & Son on Jewelers' Row started making customized wedding bands with couples' fingerprints about four years ago. Sales have doubled since, from one or two to three or four a month, said company treasurer Robert Schwartz.

"Instead of engraving a phrase or initials inside the ring, they'll do a single fingerprint to make it their own personal statement," Schwartz said. "Millennials are more into classic, nontraditional rings, and a fingerprint is more sentimental."

Also popular is an alternating fingerprint pattern or the meshing of the couple's fingerprints on the outside of the ring. Prices depend on the type of metal and ring size, starting at about $300.

Jonathan Wilson of Roebling added fingerprint pendant necklaces and key chains to his Renata & Jonathan website in February, and prices range from about $140 to $250. He's selling about 10 a month, accounting for almost half of his company's sales.

"Originally, we thought people would buy them to make prints of their children," Wilson said, but, instead, they are commemorating their elderly parents.

Fingerprint keepsakes memorializing deceased loved ones have become so popular that many funeral homes now take a digital fingerprint before burial.

After Kathy Munn, 62, of West Chester, lost her husband suddenly in February to a fungal infection, a friend sent her and her daughter necklaces with his fingerprint.

"Your fingerprint is your identity; it's part of my husband that I can wear around my neck and feel like he's always with me," Munn said.

Dzwil plans to add another product to Maya Belle: a pendant dome embossed with a fingerprint and that holds some of the deceased's ashes.

"You have the fingerprint on one side and ashes on the reverse," Dzwil said.

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia began taking molds of terminal patients' fingerprints about three years ago, said Kelly Gross, its certified child-life specialist.

"We had a patient who was under hospice, and I was looking for other ideas to create a legacy for the patient," she said. "I knew the mom really liked jewelry."

With funding from outside organizations and foundations, Gross has taken molds of many of her patients' fingerprints, including those of Katie Bednarek, who died of a brain tumor in February at 19.

"She was diagnosed the first week into her senior year in high school and battled for 17 months," said her mother, Denise. "Kelly would meet with Katie to prepare her for end of life. Memory-making was really the focus."

After Katie died, Gross presented Denise with the fingerprint necklace that she and Katie had ordered together. "It's a heart-shape metal necklace with Kate's thumbprint on one side and an infinity sign with her initials," Bednarek said. "Not that it will ever fill the void that she has left, but it is a heart that's close to my heart. I touch it, and it's my way to know she's always with me."

For Father's Day, Bednarek bought her car-enthusiast husband a key chain with Katie's name in her own handwriting, as well as her fingerprint. "He has it with him every day, and said it was one of the most special things he ever had."