How Jewelry is Made: from Dreaming to Design

Technology has changed the way we manufacture these days.

Back in the old days of jewelry (think Georgian and Edwardian eras), much of the jewelry was hand-fabricated.  Simply put, every component of the piece was rolled out in a rolling mill, formed under careful heat, and assembled by hand.  Some of the jewelry was also made from hand-carved waxes and casting methods.  Even more, other items were hammered out over a metal mold.
As technology has changed, the jewelry making process has become faster, more detailed, and cheaper…but cheaper is not always better.
With the use of 3D Printing and Computer Aided Design, gone are the days of only hand-fabrication.

MODERN METHODS USED IN  JEWELRY FABRICATION
  • CAD Design + 3D Printing
  • CNC Machine mold-making
  • Lost Wax & Die Cast Fabrication
  • Good ol’ handmaking

The Design

Today, most jewelry is made beginning with a CAD (Computer Aided Design) rendering to keep labor costs down.  This method of design relies heavily on knowledge of metals, understanding design balance, and knowing that the item is truly meant to be worn.
CAD Design is truly an art.  Sure, anyone can quickly mock up a design, add some detail, and send it off for mold-making.  However, the industry’s most respected CAD designers were often once bench jewelers, who understand the limitations and tolerances of the metals and materials used.
If the CAD file is not designed by someone who understands these limitations, the results can include shoddy casting, unbalanced design, and a lifetime of worrisome repairs.
Talented CAD Designers train over many years, if not decades, to perfect their craft, hone their design skills, and keep up with the latest software.

FROM CAD TO CAST:
Growing a Wax vs. Hand-Carving A Wax
Most manufacturing houses now print your design using a 3D printer, using high-quality resins to make a lifelike prototype.  Although these resins are brittle, they are often strong enough to allow the client to try on, hold, and view.
Some designs simply cannot be printed in one piece, depending on the intricacy of the design.  However, many basic designs can be made in 1 or 2 pieces, allowing the client to see and assemble basic pieces.
HAND CARVING
Many jewelers still prefer the old way of jewelry making, which often involves making a design in CAD and then hand-carving a wax mold.  This labor-intensive approach often yields extremely ornate jewelry, or is commonly used for freeform and nature-inspired jewelry that requires a high level of detail.
WHAT THESE HAVE IN COMMON
Regardless of how the wax prototype is made, the next steps are fairly the same.  From here, the resin/wax is submerged in a metal flask filled with a plaster-like slurry, called investment.  This flask is then gently vibrated or vacuumed to remove air bubbles.
After curing, these flasks are subjected to extremely high heat to “burn out” any resin or wax.  All that is left is a empty impression of your jewelry-to-be.

It’s Getting Hot in Here:

THE CASTING PROCESS
Unless your heirloom requires some hand-fabricated pieces (see: Bench Jeweler), we’re casting the items next!
The casting process, depending on the manufacturer’s choice and the metal chosen, involves either centrifugal casting or vacuum casting to throw, inject, or otherwise fill the mold with precious metal.  Once the plaster can be handled with tongs, these extremely hot forms are then quenched with water or left to cool.
Once cooled, the plaster is chipped away, leaving only the metal forms needed to complete your jewelry.  These metal forms look more and more like your finished piece.
You might see things like: prongs, basic design, and some small details.


Sarah Martin Rowe, G.G.

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