What goes into the making of a handcrafted, custom design?
To begin, the jewelry item to be produced must first be sculpted from a block of specialty wax made specifically for the jewelry, and casting industries and manufactured to specific standards. Each type of wax renders different results in the carving and sculpting process. Selecting the proper wax is necessary to the development of a quality carving.
Small engraving tools, and implements similar to dental instruments, are most often used for the initial carving process. For the more detailed work, the sculptor will fabricate miniature tools as the need requires. These cutting tools are hammered and honed from fine, steel wire, or sewing needles and straight pins, then mounted into wooden dowel handles for ease of use. Each of the wax carving tools in the hands of a sculptor produces the fine detail that will attract the eye of the jewelry connoisseur.
A wax carving can take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to complete. Carvings that require more than five hours are usually cast and molded for reproduction, and multiple pieces are made. These become our "exclusive designs". At Jewelry by Michael, our exclusive designs are only reproduced in limited numbers. The number decided upon is chosen to offset the cost of production, dividing that cost severally into each of the pieces produced. Rarely are even exclusive designs set with the same gemstones. In this way, no two finished works of art are exactly alike.
When no mold is produced, the piece is considered a one-of-a-kind work of art. There may be others similar, thus the word "kind", but each production is uniquely one of that kind, sculpted and cast alone and without any reproductions. Often times these pieces are conceived around a uniquely cut or uniquely colored gemstone.
Once the wax is carved and complete, a mold must be made. To accomplish this, we use a substance very similar to Plaster-of- Paris. This is called an investment, and this compound is also produced specifically to meet the needs of the type of finished product. Fine detail requires a different mix than does a heavy design, and Platinum requires a different mix than does gold or silver.
In this process, the finished wax is placed in a flask and the investment is poured around it in such a way as to leave a vent for the wax to escape. After the investment hardens the flask is placed into a kiln for firing, and the temperature is adjusted up and down every hour for approximately eight hours until the wax is eliminated from the mold, completely. This is called the burn-out process. Wax at 1350º evaporates, and what remains is a perfect impression where the wax once was.
Into this mold the castor will shoot the molten metal of choice. Each metal is specifically alloyed to the standards required. Each metal has its own melt and cast temperatures. The craftsman must combine his metallurgic knowledge and practiced casting skills. He will shoot the proper metal at just the right temperature into the properly prepared investment mold (also being maintained at a perfect temperature) in order to produce a quality casting. Any one mistake can render the casting unusable. Because the investment mold can only be cast once, any failure along the way can send the craftsman back to the beginning of the process to start all over sculpting another wax.
If all is successful to this point, the metal has been cast, and the mold has been broken away to render a completed casting. However, this casting has a rough texture and a crude appearance that is almost unrecognizable to anyone but the craftsman. It must go through a finishing process to bring it near completion. With fine files, special abrasives, and practiced precision the craftsman whittles the finished piece from the casting. Using finer abrasives, he brings it to a luster that resembles a fine work of art, and it is ready for the stone setter.
Once the gemstones to be incorporated into the design are selected, the stone setter must prepare a "seat" in the casting for each individual gemstone. This seat is a cradle that is cut into the casting using drills and burs, and is shaped and proportioned differently for every gemstone. For quality work, this cradle must be near perfect. It will hold the gemstone level, and support it against the pressure it is about to receive. The pressure is produced by the prongs that will hold the gemstone in place. Each prong is pushed to exert downward pressure against the stone that is supported from behind by the seat. Great skill is necessary to prevent breakage. Too much pressure , or a poorly cut seat and a gemstone, even a diamond, will shatter; too little pressure, and it may become loose and lost later.
Finally the jewelry item is ready for the final polish. Believe it or not, this is the only part of the process the customer actually sees. All of the hours spent in the preliminary steps necessary to producing this finished work of art goes without the customers attention; the manufacturing process is invisible. It is only that final vision that catches the consumer's eye, and that makes this part of the process the most important.
With the finest abrasives, every line, every mark, every little bit of imperfection is polished to perfection before the item is boxed or readied for display. When you visit a working jewelry studio, keep in mind it is more like a museum than a retail store. You are looking at thousands of hours of the craftsman's skill and labor on display. To the master craftsman, each work of art is like a child he has birthed.
Perhaps now you can understand why at Jewelry by Michael, we take such pride in our finished goods. Unlike the handcrafting skills employed at Jewelry by Michael, a large portion of the jewelry seen displayed by other retail jewelry resellers is mass produced overseas using computerized machinery. Very little of the mass production process ever experiences the human touch. Knowing just a little bit about the how handcrafted, fine jewelry is made will also give you a more valuable perspective when you are choosing that finished piece for yourself or for a loved one.
At Jewelry by Michael, our on staff designers, and the outside designers we employ create some of the most beautiful and unique works of art. At Jewelry by Michael, many of the pieces you see on display are truly Jewelry by Michael. Of most of them you can boast; "There may be six billion people in the world, but there is only one of these." Come see us. Jewelry by Michael is not just a jewelry store, it is an experience in fine jewelry.