The term “lapidary” is used to refer to the act of cutting gemstones into beads, cabochons, faceted pieces, and more, as well as the person who performs these tasks. A lapidary is different from a diamond cutter, who focuses on just the one stone and the particular work a diamond’s intense hardness demands. Jewel cutting has many aspect and specialties, such as cabochon shaping, carving and engraving.
To create jewelry grade stones requires years of training and practice. When faceting, lapidaries must be careful to incorporate symmetry, an even girdle, and make sure light shines out from the top rather than leaking through the sides or bottom. Carving is also complex, as the desire to create a beautiful image must be balanced with preserving the stone’s carat weight and structural integrity. All types of lapidary work depend on a strong polish to underline the cutter’s efforts and the jewel’s best attributes.
Lost wax casting
Also known as “investment casting,” lost wax casting is a method of creating a mold often used in jewelry manufacturing. To create a large number of precious metal components in a short amount of time, jewelers will create a large mold from which dozens of findings and other parts are cast at once. The practice is an ancient one, dating at least as far back as the Bronze Age, and used on multiple continents by a number of civilizations.
In jewelry making, lost wax casting usually begins with a rubber mold, which is used to create a number of findings made of wax. The pieces are affixed to a central base and immersed in a plaster known as investment. Investment should fill up every empty space, so there is no air bubbles between it and the wax tree. The trunk of the tree shouldn’t be covered in plaster, but have its tip visible from the top of the cylinder. Once the investment dries, the cylinder is placed into a kiln that melts the wax away, leaving a negative space inside the plaster in which to cast metal jewelry.
For smaller, detailed pieces of jewelry, some artisans use centrifugal casting, or centrifuging to accomplish their task. Unlike industrial centrifuging, which uses a mold inside spinning drum to shape its pieces, jewelry casting uses a mechanical arm which twirls on an axle. The axle is contained within a vat to protect the room and its occupants from stray flecks of molten metal.
If the axle is driven by a spring instead of a motor, it’s wound up in preparation for casting. A pan shaped crucible on the arm is preheated with a torch. In the meantime, a single use mold is heated in the kiln. When the arm is ready, the mold is fastened next to the pan. Precious metal is placed in the crucible and melted with a torch. Flux may be added as needed. Finally, the axle is activated, spinning the entire arrangement and forcing metal from the crucible into the mold.
Three dimensional printing is the mechanized process of creating an object through adding thin layers of material one on top another. 3D printing may be applied to a large range of industries, including jewelry. For designers, the possibilities are vast, allowing complex pieces such as invisible set rings or pendants with surrealist geometry to be made in hours, when making them by hand may take days.
Printed objects may be made from a variety of materials, including plastic, nylon, glass and metals. Depending on the design and application, the printed item may be jewelry in its own right, or used as a step in the manufacturing process. A polymer ring may be used as a master to create rubber molds, or a wax bracelet may be used in lost wax casting. Designers are still exploring the possibilities with this technology.
All jewelry begins with an idea. Design refers to how it looks, as well as the process of planning and refining. To see if the concept looks as good to the eye as it does in the mind, the design is rendered in a series of drawings. It’s important to sketch the piece from multiple angles to make sure it looks as good from the side as it does from the top, and to see if it’s as pretty on the hand as it is against a plain background. Sketches determine what cuts, clasps and mounts look good, if there should be one tier or three, and how many stones and other flourishes should be in the piece.
Sketches serve as a record of the creative process and a time line of trends and styles. Even if a design is used for a brief period, holding on to the drawing serves a purpose for the artist. To serve as a reference later on, drawings are kept in files and uploaded into computer databases.
While some methods such as lost wax casting create molds that can only be used once, other techniques have forms that can be used repeatedly, known as permanent molds. Permanent molds are often made of metals such as iron, steel and bronze, though ceramics may also be utilized depending on the material being cast. Due to the melting points of gold and other precious metals, ceramics are used for permanent jewelry casting, as they can endure a greater amount of heat than metal.
Permanent molds may be filled using gravity, vacuums or centrifugal force. To keep the temperature uniform throughout the manufacturing process, the forms are heated prior to pouring and kept warm to allow for continuous use and uniformity for each cast item. Despite the name, permanent molds can experience fatigue and may deteriorate after a dozen or more uses.
One of the finishing touches to ready a piece of jewelry for display is polishing. The act removes any remaining rough surfaces and edges, and helps the piece to shine. Though the same term is used for both metal and gemstones, the approaches are different. For precious metal, polishing doesn’t always involve a mirror like shine, but may leave a more matte appearance, like the brush finish. What unites metal polishing is the use of polishing wheels, leather strops, and use of the abrasives jeweler’s rouge, pumice and tripoli. Depending on the metal and design, polishing may also remove unwanted oxidation from the piece.
In gemstones, polish is used to enhance a jewel’s luster. As gems vary greatly in terms of hardness and durability, there is no one size fits all approach. Gemstones also have differing ways of reflecting light. Abrasives and tools are adjusted accordingly to help bring out the best in a stone without accidental damage.
Also known as mounting, setting is the act of placing gemstones on a piece of jewelry and securing it through one of several means. In addition to keeping jewels in place, mounts may also add to an object’s design, by making the stone look larger, brighter, helping to cover the piece in jewels, or making lacy patterns.
There are dozens of ways to set a stone, many of which fall into a few broad categories. Bezel settings use a strip of metal to encircle a stone and hold it in place. Prong mounts use tiny wires to secure gemstones, and channel sets uses to bands of metal to hold a row of jewels in place. Tension sets use pressure and hidden notches, giving the impression of a stone floating in place.
A goldsmith is an artisan skilled worker who specializes in making objects from gold. Historically, goldsmithing has been found in a number of cultures and continents, Including the Americas, Africa and Asia. In addition to jewelry, smiths of yore would create religious objects, artistic pieces and high end eating utensils. Gold’s ability to be easily shaped calls for casting, soldering, polishing and other skills to make beautiful creations.
Modern goldsmiths, depending on their region, may use traditional tools or modern technology to make their wares, mostly jewelry. They alloy gold with other materials to make the final product sturdy while preserving the gold’s malleability. Smiths may use casting to create their pieces, and may also craft parts such as prongs by hand.
Along with jewelry, silversmiths have traditionally made silver religious items and luxury goods such as candlesticks and teapots. While there are some similarities to gold and silver smithing, silver doesn’t have the same malleability of gold, the former is more prone to tarnishing, requiring more maintenance. Silver also has a different degree of malleability, which informs how it’s shaped.
Some techniques involve shaping the precious metal from preformed sheets or bars. Though silver may be worked with while it’s cold, it will eventually harden from the frequent pressure, requiring heating to make it soft enough to manipulate. Currently, heat may come from anything from charcoal, gas torches or lasers. For other designs, silver may be melted in order to cast findings and other objects.
Created in 1990 in Japan, metal clay contains powdered precious metal suspended in a mixture of cellulose binder and water. Like plasticine and kaolin, metal clay may be shaped by hand, with molds or with the help of tools. Once the piece is completed and allowed to dry, it’s fired in a kiln. The organic material is burned away, leaving behind pure metal jewelry.
Precious metal clay is available under different brand names and formulas. Shrinkage from firing may vary, as well as the required firing techniques and heating times. The types of metal may vary from silver, gold or platinum in concentrations ranging from 50-90% of the clay. These products come as a paste of different firmness, or as a powder to be mixed with water, extending its shelf life.
Some jewelry is made via casting, others are carved or shaped from clay or heated glass. Still others are bent and plated into shape from precious metal wires. This technique is called wire or wire wrap jewelry. This style of jewelry is ancient, dating as far back as Egypt’s second dynasty of 2890 BCE.
Basic tools used for creating wire jewelry include pliers and wire cutters. More elaborate work can involve files, vises and mandrels. Inventive artists may knit or crochet their wire creations, or incorporate beads and faceted gemstones.
Wire drawing is the process of creating wire by pulling precious metal through increasingly narrow openings. Over time, wire reaches the desired size. Before drawing, the tip of the metal is narrowed through hammering, filing or other methods, then pulled with pliers through the first of a series of holes in a drawplate. Depending on the final diameter, wire may be pulled through more holes, or fewer. Fine wire used in jewelry is often reduced by about 15-25%. As the precious metal narrows, it grows longer.
Though wire drawing can be done at room temperature, the act of compressing the metal ends up hardening the material. If it becomes too stiff to work with, it may be heated a little to make it more user friendly. When the drawing is over, the wire might be heated one last time to ensure its ductility.
A modern addition to the engraving process, lasers are being used to imprint designs and information onto jewelry and stones. Traditional engraving tools include burins, which are manually operated and require a steady hand. Rather than have a tool come into direct contact with the jewelry, lasers use concentrated light and heat to carve patterns into gemstones. The wavelengths of the laser can be adjusted to burn different alloys and stones of varying chemical compositions. Care must be taken to avoid accidentally chipping a stone’s surface.
Lasers can be used on surfaces both flat and curved. They also have the advantage of precision, to engrave exactly what needs to be done without missing or carving at the wrong depth. They also have the ability to mark areas both large and tiny. The Gemological Institute of America uses lasers to imprint the institution’s name and a stone’s number on the diamonds they grade, allowing others to easily verify a diamond’s provenance. These numbers are engraved on the stone’s girdle, to small for a person to casually find.
The simplest definition of fabrication is to create or manufacture an item. In jewelry, the term might mean putting together an object from bits of precious metals, findings and gemstones. Many techniques are used for fabrication, including stamping, die cast, cutting bits from sheet metal and hammering. For metal work, fabrication specifically means creating items through cutting, bending and assembling items. Sawing, hammering and solder fall under this definition while casting and molding may be considered separate categories.
Fabrication can encompass anything from creating a jump ring to forming a necklace from start to finish. Cutting gemstones and techniques such as enamel fall under different terminology, though they’re used in conjunction with fabrication to create a work of art. Fabrication can be quite intricate, such as bending complex wire shapes or sawing a wavy edge onto a tiny ring.
Annealing is the use of high temperatures to recrystallize metal, making it softer. In addition to heating, the material should be allowed to cool under controlled conditions, allowing its molecular structure to shift into a desired, more ductile form. Annealing occurs in an oven designed to have heated air circulate around the piece, allowing for even heat distribution. The piece may be allowed to cool in the oven or chilled quickly in a low temperature medium such as air, water or brine.
A number of jewelry manufacturing techniques processes such as reprousse and die striking have the side effect of altering the molecular structure of metal. This in turn makes the material stiffer and more difficult to shape. Annealing makes the metal softer, giving artisans more leeway to turn designs into reality.
One of the steps of preparing a piece of jewelry for retail is making sure it looks pristine. Not only should the stones and metal be polished to perfection, but the item should be thoroughly cleaned to help it looks its best. Different techniques are used depending on the gemstones used and the mountings employed. For jewelry with strong durability, ultrasonic cleaning, steam or a combination of both may be used.
Before cleaning, it’s important to inspect the jewelry to make sure that everything is securely mounted in place, and that there aren’t any clarity characteristics that may not endure the process. If the jewelry passes inspection, it takes a bath in an ultrasonic cleaning machine which uses sound waves to shake off dirt and grime. The piece is then rinsed and given another inspection. Jewelry may also be placed under a valve which shoots steam at high pressure to dislodge yet more debris. After one final check, the jewelry is ready for display.
A jewelry designer is a person who creates an idea for how a piece of jewelry will look, before the piece is made. Whenever possible, they seek to create an original appearance. Depending on the designer and their skills, they may make the piece themselves, or use the help of others to turn their vision into a reality. An example of the former would be Tony Duquette, and a designer of the latter type is Jean Schlumberger, who had no formal training.
Modern jewelry designers often possess multiple skill sets such as gemology, sketching and metallurgy. These abilities helps them to employ the materials to their best advantage. Designers from centuries ago were more likely to be part of a jewelry house or artisan guild such as goldsmith, and their creations were likely credited to their guilds rather than individuals.
In a broad sense, “findings” can mean the assortment of little tools and items artisans uses to create their work. For jewelers, findings specifically mean pre-made objects that are incorporated into a larger piece of jewelry. These include jump rings, clasps, earring backs and other pieces that help hold the jewelry in place.
For the hobbyist, findings are readily found in craft stores. Jewelry companies may prefer to create their own in-house. It’s useful to have a large quantity of findings made in advance so they are on hand when the artisan needs them. Depending on the piece and design, they may be crafted from different precious metals and take on uncommon shapes. A clasp may be made to resemble an anchor and rope loop.