Jewellery making basics - 4 terms to understand March 07 2016, 0 Comments

Until the day we all plug 3D printers directly into our brains and the things we dream of appear by magic, this is how those gorgeous sparkly things become reality.

Forging - 

Forged is a gorgeous word. It makes me think of blacksmiths with roaring fires, covered in soot, hammering away at huge lumps of steel. There is something medieval about it.

When working with a very tough metal like steel a blacksmith will heat it to the point that it becomes soft, then work it whilst it is hot before it hardens again. With a soft metal like silver or gold it can be 'cold forged' which means you can heat the metal to a temperature where it becomes soft, let it cool, and it will still be subtle enough to be shaped. As the metal is worked or polished it will harden. 

Hand 'cold forged' wedding rings in 18ct gold

It's not a word I would often associate with fine jewellery, but I've seen a few listings recently on Etsy describing the rings as forged. What this means is that the ring has been formed from metal wire or sheet, rather than cast from a mould. 

This can be a good thing in that machined metal in sheet or wire form is less likely to have imperfections or air bubbles as cast metal can have (see below), and can therefore be stronger. It is unlikely to make a huge difference in a simple ring as both methods create perfectly wearable pieces. 

Soldering - 

Soldering is the companion to the technique above, once you have cut and shaped your pieces you need to join them together. Most of my work is made by cold forging and soldering. Solder is precious metal with the addition of zinc, which has a lower melting point. To join 2 pieces together solder is placed on the join and the whole thing is heated, the zinc evaporates before the pieces melt, and the solder flows into the join, holding it together with the same precious metal the piece is made of, most of the zinc having disappeared.

Sounds simple right? The tricky bit with soldering is getting the right temperature, the items you are trying to join must be warm enough to attach to the solder, but not actually melt, when the solder does melt. It's a careful balancing act, too little heat will result in a join that doesn't hold, too much will melt all your work.

There is something a bit zen about soldering, on a good day it's easy as pie, on a bad day beyond frustrating. 

Anastasia necklaces, castings just out of moulds before cleaning

Casting - 

Metal has been cast into objects for at least 6,000 years, with the oldest surviving cast metal object in the world being from 3,200 bc.

Most cast jewellery is made using the lost wax method, a wax mould is made to the shape and size of the final piece, this is surrounded by rubber to make a mould, molten metal is poured in and this melts the wax away, replacing it with a finished metal shape. As mentioned above there can be problems in cast metal with air bubbles and imperfections, but sometimes these also add to the uniqueness of a piece. 

Carving and casting is a great way to get more organic and complex shapes which wouldn't be possible by cutting and attaching pieces of wire and sheet together.

Casting is an industrial process, and most very small jewellery workshops such as mine wouldn't have the machinery to cast items. If I melt anything in my workshop I'm having a bad soldering day, my zen has abandoned me. I love to carve in wax, and then I use a external company to cast for me into metal.

Cast ring in sterling silver

Stone Setting - 

There are lots of different methods of setting, depending on the shape and size of stone, and the look you want. What they all do is hold the stone in place, attached to the rest of the jewellery piece.

Setting in a stone is the last thing a maker will do when finishing a piece, most stones don't respond well to heat so all the soldering and shaping needs to be done before any stones are placed in. In most styles of setting metal is gently tightened in around or over the stone to hold it in place. Glue is not a feature of a properly set stone.

As many stones are quite fragile this can be a frankly terrifying experience, all the work of putting the piece together rests on gently getting the stone in place without damaging it in any way. When I was learning to make jewellery I regularly swore never to set a stone again, but they are just so pretty......

Coral and Labradorite Orbit rings, with bevel settings

Keep an eye on my blog for further insights into stone setting types and techniques in the next few weeks.