Derek Doneen, a 28-year-old documentary filmmaker from Los Angeles, spent a year saving for an engagement ring before he told his parents about his plan to propose. His mom mentioned that there was a diamond in the family that he could use for his girlfriend Jenna's ring instead.
Derek didn't know it at the time, but the stone was part of an heirloom necklace that had been passed down in his family for generations, starting with his great-grandparents -- Jews that escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s -- and continuing on to his grandma, his mom and finally to him.
“Even when my mom first said that, I was thinking I probably want to do my own thing and start my own traditions," he told The Huffington Post. "Once I heard the story about the necklace, [I felt otherwise]. The fact that I’m starting a new family with something that symbolizes so much for my family is really special.”
The Story of the Ring
Derek's great-grandfather Friedrich Salzburg, a prominent attorney, and his great-grandmother Greta Ann Salzburg were living in Dresden, Germany in the 1930s. By 1933, the situation for Jews in Germany was worsening, and the family began losing friends and clients. So in October 1935, they formally applied to leave the country. But it was several years before their request was pushed through and they were able to flee to Italy.
There was one stipulation though: they couldn't take anything with them except the clothes on their backs.
"They had to renounce essentially all of their assets, their homes, everything really," Derek said.
The day they were granted permission to emigrate, the Salzburgs bought as much jewelry and as many precious stones as they could afford -- small, valuable items that were easy to hide.
"And that’s what they brought with them with the idea that they could sell them and at least have something to start a new life," Derek added.
Not long after their arrival in Italy, the Salzburgs discovered that the country was no longer a hospitable place for Jews.
"By this time, Italy began using the same race laws as Germany, specifically against Jews," Friedrich wrote in a journal documenting the experience. "Therefore, we had to abandon the idea of Italy and decided to settle in California."
Instead of going through the drawn-out, formal emigration process yet again, the Salzburgs boarded a Japanese cruise ship and headed for the West Coast of the United States in 1938.
After settling down in Berkeley, California, they sold all of the jewels that they had smuggled over with one exception: the diamond necklace that would one day be passed down to Derek and Jenna.
“My instinct is that they sold what they needed to sell and kept it because it held significance and sentimental value," Derek said. "They had enough to start over and were able to get their feet on the ground."
Years later in 1964, Greta Ann gifted the necklace to her daughter-in-law June Salisbury, whom she was very fond of. Later, June passed it down to her daughter Ann -- Derek's mother.
“You could make the argument -- maybe not in a one-to-one kind of way -- but in an indirect way that it’s because of that diamond they were able to smuggle out that I’m even really here today," Derek told HuffPost. "It allowed them to get out of the country and start a life and a family here that eventually led to my mom and me.”
Fast-forward many years to the beginning of 2014, when Derek's mother handed down the necklace to him so he could begin his new life with Jenna. One of the diamonds was removed from the original necklace to create a stunning engagement ring. (Derek later had the necklace redesigned -- keeping it as close as possible to the original -- and gave it to Jenna on their wedding day.)
In June 2014, Derek used the money he had originally saved for the ring and put it toward a surprise trip back to Cannes, France -- the same place he and Jenna had fallen in love when they studied abroad there years earlier.
Derek pulled out all the stops. He brought her back to the location of their first date and prepared a sunset beach picnic with wine and cheese. Of course, Jenna said "yes!"
Afterwards, Derek told Jenna the story of the ring's rich history. Needless to say, she was honored and moved.
"It's a lot of pressure!" Jenna said with a laugh. "Because it's so irreplaceable. It's so, so cool and I love it so much. I would never want any other diamond. It happens to be an incredibly beautiful diamond, but regardless of that, the significance is the most important and coolest thing about it."
Check out more photos of the couple's big day below:
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