What is a custom design?
Custom designing produces a one-of-a- kind jewelry item that is unique and usually worn by only one person until it is passed down as an heirloom. When an artist makes a mold and then duplicates a one-of-a-kind item, it is no longer unique. This is called remanufacturing. If an artist decides to reproduce a unique item in limited quantities, it becomes a limited edition. Usually these are signed by the artist and numbered. If it is available only through the artist, then it is considered exclusive. Limited editions are usually produced to offset the cost of production, splitting the cost of design into several pieces. Purchasing a catalog jewelry item and adding a stone to it is not custom designing.
In the old days, only the upper echelon of the rich and famous could afford to buy and own custom designed and high fashion, fine quality jewelry. With the advent of the discount marts producing substandard gold-wear, fine jewelry has been reduced to, "Honey, would you like a diamond bracelet for Christmas, or a new set of tires for the car?" The truth is, a real one carat diamond bracelet never sold for $89. This is not fine jewelry.
A true one-of-a-kind custom design gives you the right to say, "There are 6.7 billion people in the world, but there is only one of these." At Jewelry by Michael, our finest custom designs are stamped with the JBM signature in a 24K gold circle. These are our 24k signature pieces and our most exclusive designs. Each is different, hand wrought by Michael, and created for the person who is to wear it.
What goes into a custom design?
To start with, usually about one to two days of the life of the designer/manufacturer. It can take anywhere from an hour to twenty hours to carve a single design by hand. Grab a candle, cut off about and inch of it, and with a dental tool or three (a point, a spoon, and a scraper) and some flattened out, reshaped sewing needles, carve that candle piece into the shape of one of the rings you are wearing. Only then can you really know what is involved. It is a little more sophisticated than that, but not much. At Jewelry by Michael, we still do things the old fashion way. Many of todayís designers would not know how to sculpt a wax. They draw a picture, scan it into a computer, turn it into a 3-D image, export it to a model shaping device that "prints" the 3-D image in wax, and voila . . . jewelry. . . and voila . . . the reason jewelry artistry is becoming a dying trade.
Once the wax is carved, it goes through a burnout process. First, we invest it by putting it into a metal flask or tube and then surround it with a Plaster-of-Paris type compound called investment. We leave a small hole where the wax protrudes so that when the flask is put into an oven, the wax has a way to escape the investment. At 1350 degrees, any wax remaining turns to carbon dioxide and the evacuated cavity left in the investment is an exact duplicate of the sculpted wax. Into that we inject molten gold, let it cool, break away the investment and the jewelry item appears in a very crude form. This crude form has to be filed, buffed, polished, and readied for any gemstone setting it might require.
Every gemstone that is set into the ring can require anywhere from ten minutes to an hour to set. If a ring has fifteen pave set diamonds, there is a minimum set time of four hours from start to finish - if there are no interruptions. The average time it takes to make a piece of jewelry (from a finished, wax carving until it is gold) is a hands-on process of about 8 to 10 hours. The work is grueling and tedious and requires a great amount of practice and skill to complete with any kind of perfection. It is not uncommon to have a jewelry item that takes two to four days to complete, and if something should go wrong somewhere in the process, we have to start over, adding time to an already busy schedule. The reason most design jewelers charge thousands of dollars for a single design, is the fact that they can only accomplish one in a day. But when you can own such a piece, you own a piece of art history, made especially for you by a master craftsman.
What is the Time line from start to finish?
Most people have no idea what is involved or what amount of work goes into a single piece of jewelry. From comments made over the years, it is apparent some think that when a jeweler turns on his torch, finished jewelry comes out of the flame. Not so! Design is inspirational, and execution is intense and stressful. When dealing with an heirloom gemstone that has been passed down through the family for four generations, breaking it is akin to killing the family mascot. It might take an extra week just to prepare and get up the nerve to do the setting. Carving or fabricating a complicated, multi-stone jewelry item can also take time. The pitch of each stone, the address of each prong, the level of each layer has to be in perfect balance . . . in 3-D. If one single prong is out of character with the rest, it shows. Complicated pieces are particularly time intensive with many do-overs.
The sad fact about art is that art takes time. It can never be hurried. I remember when I started in this business 42 years ago, there had been a masonic ring designer downtown who made one-of-a-kind rings for Masons. His art was not nationally known, but the waiting list to own one of his pieces was always two years long. Today, years after his death, a well worn "Peatree" masonic ring is still a most sought after item among local Masons.
Design takes time in any business. I often tell the story of my first custom designed knife made by the prestigious Randall Made Knife Company in Florida. I placed my order, paid half up front, and was informed I would get a letter in eighteen months telling me my knife was finished and to send the remainder of my money. I did, and a year and a half after I ordered my knife, I received it just as they said. It came with a note that read,"Any new order placed today will not be ready for 30 months." It would now take two and a half years to get a piece of carbon steel, flattened into a knife blade, cut, shaped, sharpened and fit with a bone handle.
These stories bring to mind the old craftsman from whom I learned brite-cutting, a type of diamond setting. He wouldnít teach me directly, but my first job in the jewelry industry was working for a firm that used him to do their repair work exclusively, so I studied his finished work to glean his style when settings came back to us. He was the best. Because he was the best, he was busy. I was often the one who called him to check if a jewelry item we had sent to him for repair, was finished. The conversation always went like this (and I am one that hates using superlatives, but this is a true story).
"Yes, this is Michael. I am calling about job 2103. Is it finished yet?"
"Do you have it back?"
"No sir, I do not."
"Click . . . hmmmmmmmmmm." (That was the noise of him hanging up the phone.)
Some artists can be funny people and difficult in their dealings.
Because we are always a minimum of two to four weeks out on simple custom orders, and eight to sixteen weeks out on really special designs, people often ask me why it takes so long to make a piece of custom jewelry. The fact is, it doesnít. It takes a day to four - tops. But in front, beside, and behind you are three generations of satisfied patrons, (a base of around 10,000 people throughout the country) all coming in or referring others to our door. Consequently, there is always an invisible line of customers wrapped around the building who know that what they are getting is the best, made by one of the best, and backed by the same. Some of them are in the waiting line with you. Some of them are ahead of you, and some of them are behind. Why does the guy up the street say it will only take him a week or two? Maybe he sends it to one of the big houses that has that "paint by number" equipment of the 21st century artist. Maybe he isnít very good at what he does and there is no one in line before you. I canít say.
I do know this. I could give you silly answers as to why jewelry design involves a waiting period. Things like, God designed us with only two hands or I can work only a twelve-hour day effectively at my age. But the real answer to why it takes so long for a designer to hand-make a piece of fine art is this; It just does. Those who prefer the microwave hamburger over an aged filet-mignon in the hands of an award winning chef might never appreciate the idea of designed and made just for you. After all, we live in an instant, throw-away society. Few really stop to cherish a true work of art anymore. Fortunately, that is all we create at Jewelry by Michael. Itís what we do.
Straight is the way and narrow is the gate, and few there be that find it.
How can I become a Jewelry designer?
Believe it or not, this is a very common question. Although art is fun, there are many things to consider when that art changes to jewelry artistry. Unlike painting or sculpting, where the materials are a few dollars, the equipment used in jewelry artistry is expensive and wears out quickly. The cost of the materials, the metals and the gemstones used in jewelry are high. Every once in a while I ask myself why we jewelry artists do it all. And then I remember. We love it! It is true, I can make more money managing a fast food restaurant. Nevertheless, I cannot wait to get here in the morning after leaving here at 11 oíclock the night before. There is something about creating a work of art that no one else can do, and there is something about the smiling face of someone who can see that artistry that keeps me coming back to the studio. Young people ask me how they can become a jewelry artist. I tell them, "If you are looking to get rich, look elsewhere. If art is really in your blood, and you want to work in the precious metal arena, then lock yourself in a closet until you forget all of the big words you know and your IQ drops to your neck size. Then you will be ready to learn the trade." Beyond that, Google the Gemological Institute of America. They run one of the better colleges for jewelry artistry.
©2008 Michael Angelo and Jewelry by Michael