One of my roles for the last few years has been that of an innovation awards judge for MJSA. This means I cruise the aisles of trade shows in New York, Tucson and Las Vegas, trying to spot new shifts and upcoming changes. This allows me a small identification as a ‘cool hunter‘. This short article is about some of my finds.
In the wide world of the jewellery industry in North America I would estimate that up to 30% of the pieces being made are now digital objects. That is, they exist first as computer files, three dimensional objects created on a computer. It should be noted that an object on a computer that only exists in a rendering program is called a ‘virtual’, but if it is actually a full three dimensional file (created in programs such as Rhino, Matrix, or Artcam, and my current favorite, 3design) which can be output and made into a real object, then it is called a ‘tangible’. The industry leads the art world here by a wide margin, however very few make the process truly their own. Rarely does the filter, the tool, the software disappear, so that the viewer can feel full skill and facility in the service of great design vision.
Lily Yung deserves recognition for being one of only two Canadians to be accepted to work with Canada’s National Research Council through the Canada Council for the Arts to research an art jeweller’s approach to this way of working in craft. Making jewelry this way offers incredible accuracy, fitting, and the ability to outsource your object with accuracy, something new to our world. With this technology, others can make your piece (from molds made from the digital object) with the same quality that you would demand. Issues of ‘mashing’ and sampling, copyright and originality, scanning of three dimensional objects and their recombinations (theft?) are only beginning to surface. We can look to the online world of music downloading, music sampling, writing plagiarism and more for sources of excitement in the coming years.
As mentioned above, I like 3design. It is, however, like Matrix and many of the jewellery specific software design programs, out of my personal budget range. These things start at about $6000, which is why the Alberta College of Art and Design and other schools often choose Rhino, with its $199 student pricing, as a platform to use. In summary, what I like about 3design is that is was designed by jewellers who directed the software designers. The digital tools echo real life metal working tools and processes, it is very ‘mac-like’ in its interface (it thinks like you do, so you can intuitively work your way into the system), and quite uniquely, it works on both macs and pcs very transparently. 3design does parametric modeling, which means that all the steps taken in development are available to see in a ‘tree’. If you change something at an earlier stage of the design process, say the ring size, then the program automatically adjusts all other parts of the object, so that the bezel angle changes to suit the new ring size, accommodating the new configuration. 3design’s rendering tools are really good as well. The files the program produces to make objects from are quite error free and take up much less memory than an equivalent Rhino file (also known for its low error rate).
This machine is a low end CAD/CAM wax mill. (CAD/CAM is an acronym for computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing.) It is special because it is a bridge from the world of standard wax carving to CAD/CAM. The 3dwaxmill carves items from the top down. However, the developer of the system, Jeff Dunnington, also includes a rotating attachment that lets you carve rings and other basics in the round items. If you visit his website, 3dwaxmill.com you will see examples of the work that people have done with the system. The products are industry oriented, but could clearly become extremely The reason it is special is that Jeff adapted the wax mill cutters and added a much thinner one than originally supplied. Then he tweaked the simplistic software that comes with the mill to allow more capabilities than originally intended. If you use it with some hand work it has some pretty amazing capabilities. The wax carver also works as a point by point 3-D scanner, imputing a surface which can then be scaled, altered and so on. The wax cutting system can be taught to a mom and pop jewellery store in several hours, and people can have it up and running much faster than the more complex systems. The whole thing runs about $4,500 for software and the wax mill, making it accessible for the small shop in a way that the $20,000 systems are not. I think the key to using this well is to work with the simple software it comes with (though you can use Rhino and other files with it).
Another option is outsourcing to CAD/CAM. This process can be as cheap as $300 to have someone take your crude sketch and hand you the completed metal object and digital object file.
There is an explosion of alloys and new metal options happening now, partly in response to higher gold prices. These range from Argentium and several other related tarnish resistant and firescale-free alloys to new gold alloys, platinum silver and the coming flood of palladium marketing. Palladium producers have ganged up in the same way that the platinum industry did a number of years ago. This resulted in increased US consumption of platinum from 50,000 ounces a year to well over 200,000 ounces – mostly in response their concentrated marketing and publishing of technical information on how to use it well.
Chris Ploof, an excellent maker, has become the technical director/leader of the palladium group, and much like Juergen Maerz did for platinum, is responsible for disseminating technical information on palladium. Years ago when Juergen assumed his role I asked him why he was not promoting palladium, which I considered a lovely metal. (Forgeable, great for setting and more.) He looked at me and said “I work for the Platinum Guild”. Palladium went from about $150 an ounce last year to about $200 now, and is likely to zoom in price in the future. Compare with platinum at $850 an ounce or so and you can see the attraction. (it was $1,200 not that long ago)….