Have you ever wondered how your sparkly heirloom came to be? Sure, you know that a jeweler likely made it, but how does it all go down?
Whether an item is made by hand or cast, much of the beauty in jewelry comes from the tiniest of details.
This post is one in a series about jewelry crafting, and what it truly means to have “Heirloom Quality.”
What makes a jewelry piece “a QUALITY piece,” and how is that made? Let’s take a deep dive into the world of jewelry manufacturing.
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 die 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
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.
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.
THE CASTING PROCESS
Unless your heirloom requires some hand-fabricated pieces (see: Bench Jeweler), we’re casting the items next! For this entry’s purpose, we will focus on lost-wax casting, which is the most common way to cast a piece of jewelry in today’s market.
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.
Your bench jeweler is truly the savior or the destroyer of any good design. And let’s be straight here: all bench jewelers are not created equally. Some bench jewelers are master diamond setters, some are master engravers, and some are skilled at fabrication. Therefore, we cannot always expect one single bench jeweler to excel at ALL areas of jewelry fabrication and finishing. It can take a village.
A trained, tenured, and talented bench jeweler will then polish your pieces in totality, inspect them for quality, and then carefully assemble them using solder and laser welding techniques. This step is key to the strength and beauty of any item.
Your Bench Jeweler will also hand-set any diamonds and gemstones, carefully forming and “dressing” each prong to its respective stone, making sure each is strong enough to hold yet minute enough to allow the stone to shine uninhibited. Some fine designs require hand-made prongs & diamond seats, such as those found in pavé settings, or might require hand-carved engraving.
Once all of your gems are set, your Bench Jeweler will give a final polish to the piece, inspect all settings, and thoroughly clean the item. One final steam, and your jewelry is complete!
We take great pride in our chosen Bench Jewelers here at Leake. Lots of coffee, treats, and appreciation. (and good pay.) We believe that a fantastic Bench Jeweler is truly the key to any heirloom.
All Bench Jewelers used by The Leake Co. are local to Louisville, tenured, and masters at their craft.
There’s nothing better than true heirloom quality. Here are key points to this quality:
Expert Design: Using CAD makers who understand form and function of jewelry
Expert Casting: Only partnering with the best US-based casting houses available, to cast your heirloom heavy and without defects. No hollow shanks, no “scooped out” lightweight designs, and only durable mountings.
Expert Bench Jewelers: Master craftsmen who assemble, set, and polish your jewelry by hand, with beauty from every angle.