In a world where mass production dominates many industries, there's a profound appreciation for handcrafted items that carry a touch of human artistry and individuality. Handmade jewellery is no exception. It holds a unique allure, crafted with passion, skill, and dedication. In this blog post, we'll delve into the fascinating world of handcrafted jewellery, exploring various techniques like assembly, casting, and fabricating. We'll also uncover why handcrafted jewellery is so special and the profound connection it holds with its maker.
Assembly is the process of creating jewellery by joining different components together. It involves meticulously arranging gemstones, beads, and metal elements to form a cohesive design. This technique requires a keen eye for detail and a creative mind, as each piece must harmonize seamlessly with the overall aesthetic. From delicate necklaces to intricate bracelets, assembly allows for endless possibilities in jewellery design. Assembly is where jewellery artists generally begin their journeys. Many a jeweller has started out by stringing beads together to create bracelets and necklaces, gained a passion for jewellery making, upleveled their skills and transitioned to metalsmithing and fabrication.
As an aside: my journey to jewellery making was a little bit different. Read about it here: How a Biologist Transformed Into a Jewellery Artist
Casting is a method where molten metal is poured into a mold to create a specific shape or design. Casting is a great technique for creating complex designs and detailed, intricate shapes that would otherwise be too difficult to hand fabricate. This technique enables us to consistently reproduce shapes & patterns.
To begin with, a wax model is created that represents what the final metal piece will look like. These wax models can be carved by hand or machined (either with CNC machines or 3D printers).
Once the wax is created it is used to make a mold. This can either be a one-time-use process or can be used to create a rubber or silicone mold that can replicate the same piece over and over. In the case where multiple pieces of the same design are desired, numerous waxes are produced and joined together on what is called a "tree". This tree is then covered with a special casting material (usually a mixture of plaster and silica). This material hardens, creating a negative impression of the pattern, also known as a mold.
[The term "mold" can be a bit confusing as it is used to refer both to the rubber/silicone mold made from a wax model as well as to the plaster/silica mold that is created from a one-time-use wax or from a wax "tree".]
The waxes are then burned out of the plaster/silica mold in a kiln leaving a cavity that will be filled with molten metal during the casting process.
Now, casting can begin. The desired metal, such as gold or silver, is melted in a crucible to a liquid state (around 960℃ or 1763℉ for silver and 1064℃ or 1948℉ for gold!).
To ensure that the molten metal fills the entire cavity of the mold, centrifugal force is often employed. The crucible containing the molten metal is placed in a machine that spins rapidly, generating centrifugal force. This force propels the molten metal into the mold, filling it completely and capturing all the intricate details of the pattern.
Once the mold is filled, the molten metal begins to cool and solidify within the cavity.
After the metal has solidified, the mold is carefully opened to reveal the cast jewellery pieces. The casting material is broken away, leaving the raw castings behind. At this stage, the pieces have a rough appearance with casting imperfections which need to be refined.
This process involves removing any excess metal, smoothing rough edges, and refining the surface of the jewelry piece. Various techniques such as filing, sanding and polishing are employed to achieve our desired finish and shine.
Jewellery fabrication, also known as jewellery making or metalsmithing, is a meticulous process in which artisans create jewellery pieces by hand. Fabricating is the process of shaping and forming metal components by hand and my personal favourite method of jewellery making.
Unlike jewellery casting, which involves pouring molten metal into a mold, fabrication involves manipulating metal through cutting, soldering, forging, and other techniques to form the desired shape, texture and design. This technique requires precision, patience, and a deep understanding of the materials being worked with. This method also allows for greater artistic freedom and customization.
The first step in jewellery fabrication is conceptualizing the design. Sometimes I will sketch a design, or series of designs and other times I will just play around with the gemstones and bits of metal on my workbench, arranging and re-arranging until something strikes me as "right." When using gemstones I often let them tell me what they want to be. I know this sounds a bit woo-woo but I don't question it, I just roll with it.
This design process also includes the type of metal I'll be using (silver, gold or gold filled or a combo of any of those three).
The chosen metal is then prepared by cutting it into roughly the desired shape and size with saws, shears or wire-cutters.
Soldering is a critical technique in jewellery fabrication that involves joining metal pieces together using solder, a metal alloy with a lower melting point than the base metal. The metal components are carefully aligned-and I mean very carefully. As in, if you can see a ray of light between your joined metal, you need to file it again. The piece to be soldered is then covered in a liquid called "flux" (this prevents oxidation & allows the solder to flow) and heated with a torch until the solder flows between the metal joins, creating a very strong bond. Soldering takes a while to get the hang of and can be very frustrating for beginners.
TEXTURING AND DETAILING
To add texture and detail to a jewellery piece, there are also a multitude of techniques like stamping, hammering, roller printing and engraving. These methods create unique patterns and surface designs, giving jewellery depth and character. Two of our favourite texturing techniques here at Mikel Grant Jewellery are roller printing and hammer texturing.
Hammer texturing is an ancient technique and has endured for good reason. A hammer textured piece of jewellery sparkles like sunlight dancing on water. The reflections shimmer and sway creating a captivating play of light that evokes a sense of calm and serenity, mirroring the peaceful beauty of a sun-kissed waterfront. Hammer textured jewellery also stands up really well to wear.
Roller printing is another favourite of ours, allowing for an infinite variety of textures on metal. To roller print metal, a soft piece of sheet metal is passed through a rolling mill, sandwiched between two textured rollers (or smooth rollers and a textured pattern), to imprint unique designs onto the metal. Roller printing adds depth and character to jewellery pieces, making them truly wearable art. Two of our favourite textures are skeleton leaves (used on our leaf print meditation rings) and abstract concrete-like textures.
FORMING AND SHAPING
Fabrication allows for the creation of unique shapes and forms. With the use of various tools like hammers, mandrels, pliers, stakes and forms, we can bend, twist, and shape metal in multiple ways.
We use most of these tools on a daily basis and some of my tools have been with me since I started making jewellery 20 years ago. I love that these hand tools are exactly the same types of tools people have used to make jewellery for thousands of years. There are definitely high-tech tools one can use to create jewellery but I love the timeworn, basic, hands-on approach to jewellery making.
A new favourite tool of ours is a hydraulic press. With this fabulous tool, we can more easily form metal into shapes that would be difficult otherwise. This powerful tool is used to apply immense pressure to metal. With the use of specialized dies and molds, the hydraulic press can create intricate patterns, emboss textures, and form three-dimensional shapes from metal sheet. Our convex cuff bracelets are an example of what can be created with a hydraulic press.
If the jewellery design includes pearls and/or gemstones, they are generally set into the fabricated metal piece as the last or second to last step. Setting pearls and gemstones requires a very careful hand and lots of practice. I've been setting stones for a very long time and I still crack stones here and there (one of the most crushing things as a jeweller is to crack a beautiful stone at the very last step). There are numerous types of stone settings such as claw setting, bezel setting, flush setting and tension setting. We prefer bezel setting over all else because it is the most secure setting and because of the sleek, modern look it gives a piece.
The final step in jewellery fabrication is the finishing stage. This involves refining the piece by removing any sharp edges, smoothing surfaces, and polishing the metal to achieve a desired finish.
At Mikel Grant Jewellery we almost exclusively use tumble polishing to polish our pieces. This technique employs a tumbling barrel loaded with steel shot, water and soap to burnish jewellery pieces. This process takes about 8 hours to achieve our preferred finish. We prefer tumble polishing over a high shine from a polishing machine because tumble polishing seems to wear a little more naturally than highly polished jewellery. Highly polished jewellery looks dazzling on a shelf but as soon as it's worn it it can lose the high shine, especially in the case of rings.
Jewellery fabrication is a labor-intensive and artistic process that allows us to create distinctly unique and personalized jewellery pieces. Through cutting, soldering, shaping, and detailing, we bring our creative vision to life, resulting in meticulously handcrafted jewellery that holds a special charm and individuality.
The dedication, skill, and artistry involved in jewellery fabrication make each piece a wearable work of art, celebrating the connection between the maker and the wearer.