When all sides of a dangle earring are beautiful, choosing the side to face front can be problematic. Ryan Roberts of Santa Fe, New Mexico, found a solution: A tiny ball hinge set into the pearl at the top of the earring that enables it to slowly revolve while worn. With all perspectives showcased, these palladium earrings set with Tahitian pearls, diamonds, and tsavorite garnets earned Roberts the grand prize in the 2013 Saul Bell Design Award Competition.

Roberts turned to CAD when he realized modeling and casting the earrings, which hold around 650 gemstones, was the only way to craft them in time to meet the competition’s deadline. Relying on the CAD skills of his friend and fellow designer Erik Stewart of Tucson, Roberts turned his hand drawings into an STL file. And considering the earrings’ technical complexity, it was probably the only way he could have brought this time-consuming idea to life.

The three main arms of the earrings are cast in palladiumthe only precious white metal he felt would make earrings of this size (68 mm long) light enough to be wearable. A rough sanding followed by a tumble in the magnetic finisher not only cleaned up the pieces but also helped work-harden the surfaces. He then cleaned up and finished the pieces by hand sanding and polishing. Each of the arms has a high polish inside to reflect the pearl and a unique satin finish on the outside, as the two finishes bring attention to the different sides of the earrings.

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After polishing, he burnish-set more than 400 0.8 mm tsavorite garnets on the sides of the arms in holes laid out in CAD. With stones so small, he couldn’t find an appropriately sized hart bur to undercut the seats, so he had to rely on pressure to seat the stones. “I had to be really careful setting stones that small,” he says.

He then burnish-set 198 diamonds in pre-cast holes on the outside of the arms and on the inside bottom portion of the earrings, leaving the area beside each stone open as a channel to allow for cleanout since there were no holes on the back. He laser welded the arms together along with a hand-fabricated seat between them that holds the 10.3 mm center pearl.

The earring owes its ability to revolve to a ball hinge. The plate surrounding the hinge is epoxied into a hole bored into the 8.9 mm faceted black pearl at the top. A wire extending from the hinge is inserted through a hole in the palladium seat for the pearl and laser welded to the body of the earring, enabling it to slowly revolve. To add even more movement to the earring, Roberts dangled a 10.2 mm by 12.4 mm teardrop-shaped black pearl from the base. He epoxied it to a handmade gem-set finding that loops through the body of the earring.

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After the final finish, in which Roberts touched up the high polish and added his special crumpled finish to the textured areas, he epoxied the center pearl in place. Not wanting the earring to pitch forward, Roberts decided to cut off one-third of the top pearl, making it flat against the ear. He then polished off some of the pearl’s facets so it gradually transitions from faceted to smooth. He drilled three small holes into the flat side of the pearl and epoxied in pins extending from a polished palladium disc with an attached ear post.

Roberts’ earrings are a success on many levels, including his introduction to CAD. He was so impressed with the results of his foray into CAD that he took a class to learn how to model so he can do his own CAD work going forward.

“I think these earrings would have just stayed in my head without CAD,” Roberts says. “This project was difficult from an emotional standpoint. I’d spent 20 years doing things one way as a fabricator. But I decided that if a technology helps me realize my vision, I need to look into it.”

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