I’ve been working in the retail jewelry business for a while now. I love seeing the new designs, checking out what the artists at Chopard and Cartier come up with. I’ve written about various designers, and it’s always interesting to learn what the aesthetic sensibilities of a Roberto Coin or a Steven Webster are. And of course the materials are always amazing. Yellow gold, platinum, rubies, diamonds, onyx. But I don’t actually know how it’s made. Sort of like how I know that a sweater starts with a sheep and people choose colors and spin something and sew the arms and then it ends up at Bloomingdale’s. But I don’t know the actual process. Same with jewelry.
So I did some research, watched a lot of videos and talked to some people who have been in the business decades longer than I have. And it’s really interesting!
The artisan starts with a block of a special kind of wax. It’s very dense, and evaporates under high heat (more about that later). They probably have a sketch of the design they want to create. If it’s a ring, they have a caliper that shows them the exact ring size they’re going for. Often they’ll use graph paper to map out a design, such as a complicated bracelet with a repeating pattern so that it’s consistent throughout the piece. But let’s stay on a ring. So the artist basically draws a profile of the ring on one side of the block of wax. On the adjacent side, she draws the other profile of the ring. Then she cuts out each profile and she’s left with something that’s starting to look like the ring. Then using special tools (but not unlike tools you use for sculpting clay or even cake), she carves grooves, patterns, or whatever details she wants on the ring.
That’s going to be the metal part. For the gem stones, she has these little wax sticks. Sort of like short little wax toothpicks. These are for the prongs. She sticks them into the wax ring wherever a prong should go. If there are a lot of stones, there are even more little sticks, stuck into the ring. It looks like a pin cushion with a whole bunch of pins sticking out. She adds one more extra-long wax stick to the bottom of the ring.
Next, she has a little tube that she fills part way with plaster. She puts the wax ring into the plaster, with the big stick facing down. Then she fills the rest of the tube up, submerging the wax ring. This tube goes into a vacuum chamber to suck out all of the tiny air bubbles.
Then this goes into a kiln (like in art class at summer camp). The wax evaporates. For all practical purposes, it just disappears. And what’s left is the hollow shape of the ring.
Now the gold! So there’s this little container that you put your gold chunks in. On one side of the container is a hole. Then you put the plaster tube on its side, next to the container, with the gold-container hole lining up with the hole at the bottom of the ring tube. This might be a little confusing. Remember the big stick at the bottom of the ring? That stick is now gone, leaving a little pipeline through the plaster tube heading toward the hollow ring shape.
Now the cool part. The two containers (the one holding the gold, and the tube with the plaster mold of the ring) are put into a centrifuge, with the gold container toward the center, and the plater tube toward the outside. The gold is heated up and melted, then the centrifuge spins really fast, pushing the gold from the center container, through the pipeline and into the ring mold. It spins until the hollow ring form is completely filled with the melted gold. Amazing.
Then she lets the gold cool down and pops off the plaster mold, leaving a gold ring. From there, she sands and polishes and steam-cleans the ring. She removes the stick of gold at the bottom, and hammers her stamp into the ring. Now it looks like a shiny ring with big prongs sticking out. She (or likely another craftsperson who specializes in setting stones) places each stone into place and carves little notches in the prongs, then pushes them together to secure the stone. Then she snaps off any extra length of the prong. And then you have a brand new gold and diamond ring!
“Like with any art form, the raw materials can only take you so far. When you look at-- or touch-- a ring by Roberto Coin or Chopard or Cartier, you can see the mastery of the the workmanship. The skill of the execution. There’s a reason why these designers are sought after. Their jewelry is far more valuable than the sum of the materials. They create works of art.” - Art Faramrzi
The process is basically the same for all sorts of jewelry. There is some automating done when you’re mass producing jewelry, but this is more or less how jewelry is made today. And it’s more or less how jewelry has been made for the last five thousand years. From the ancient Egyptians to the Mayans to the folks at Chopard, this is how stones and metals turn into gorgeous, wearable works of art.