With CAD design and a 3D printer, fine jewelry design progresses millions of years into its high-tech future.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
When Chalmers Jewelers decided to open an east side store in December 2017, it joined the hip, entrepreneurial vibe being created along East Washington Avenue. Thus far, it’s been a good bet. The store surpassed its first-year budget and is seeing more east-siders, which was another important goal.
Scott Chalmers founded Chalmers Jewelers in Middleton in 1992, so the downtown location is not only the company’s second retail store, it begins the family business’ second generation, with son Garrett taking the helm as jewelry designer.
Garrett, 32, recalls his dad putting him to work in his store as a youngster, polishing jewelry and cleaning cases. “I was a pro glass cleaner,” he laughs.
He always knew he’d follow in his dad’s shoes, so after high school, Garrett moved out to Carlsbad, Calif. and enrolled in the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), where he became a graduate gemologist and earned a business degree focusing on the jewelry industry.
He also learned all about using CAD,or computer-aided-design, in jewelry design. Soon, he realized that CAD was much more interesting to him than grading, appraising, identifying colored stones, or deciphering between natural or lab-created diamonds.
Using the same CAD program he learned at GIA, Chalmers designs a two-toned solitaire engagement ring. Customers can view tweaks instantly on the wall monitor behind him.
“I was never a great artist, but I had ideas,” the younger Chalmers admits, “and CAD allowed me to create without drawing.” He also sensed that the jewelry industry was about to get more technologically savvy. “The future of jewelry design was heading to 3D printing, and that’s what really intrigued me.”
He returned to the area eight years ago and continued to learn from the company’s goldsmiths in Middleton. “Schooling gave me the basics on how to use the tools,” Chalmers says, “but our goldsmiths deserve the credit for teaching me
the things I didn’t learn in school.”
Recently, we paid a visit to the new store, located at 524 E. Washington Ave., anxious to learn about jewelry-making from its newest ringleader.
Customers will appreciate the small but free parking lot behind the store. Upon entering, sun streams in and champagne-colored stone walls add natural warmth. Glass jewelry cases gleam beneath colorful hand-blown chandeliers from Guatemala.
Custom jewlery accounts for about 60 percent of Chalmers’ sales, we learn.
“‘Custom’ can be a scary word,” Chalmers acknowledges. “The crazy thing is, I can make jewelry here from start to finish that will come within a few dollars of some massed-produced pieces, using the same quality diamonds.”
From top to bottom: 1) Customers watch their design ideas come to life on a wall monitor — in any finish. These particular renderings show the beginnings of a two-toned solitaire design next to an option in white-gold. 2) A 3D printer produces detailed waxes of a final design. 3) Several waxes from previous ring designs are on display. 4) The white-gold solitaire is complete, under glass, and for sale.
Custom work is clearly up to the eyes — and the pocketbook — of the beholder, as well, whether it’s a 100-percent silver ring with no stones for about $500 or, at the opposite end of the custom spectrum, something never tried before.
For example, a while back the company accepted a customer’s challenge to create a dual-purpose ring that could also be converted to a pendant. The team collaborated over the course of two years.
The end result: a one-of-a-kind design featuring a very rare and opaque 24-carat fire opal ring surrounded by rows of diamonds. With a quick turn of two tiny screws inside, it becomes a necklace.
Priced just under $50,000, this piece even comes with its own 18-carat bejeweled screwdriver! “So you’re really buying three items,” Chalmers smiles.
Creating custom jewelry is a two-person operation. Chalmers works with customers to design the piece, and when the final approval is granted, goldsmith Brad McCredie casts the design in his workshop down the hall.
Consultations begin in Chalmers’ office, where clients discuss and tweak their ideas with the designer. Chalmers uses the same CAD program he learned at GIA and as tweaks are made, customers can see virtual 3D images of their jewelry piece come to life on a 65-inch, flat-screen monitor.
With just a few clicks of a keyboard, Chalmers can manipulate every detail, even switching finishes so a customer can compare their design in white-, yellow-, rose gold, or even two-tone.
The 3D printer will print wax models in stunning detail. On his desk, a display of waxes show earlier designs, from simple solitaires to family crests to filigree.
Renderings are sent to the 3D printer in the corner. The machine can print five different waxes at once, but it takes eight hours and is done overnight. When complete, the customer can physically hold and examine the design. Even at this point, tweaks can still be made.
Of the 33 jewelers in Dane County, Chalmers is aware of only a few using CAD in jewelry design, and fewer still, he believes, have a 3D printer on site. “It is a big investment,” he admits, “not only in the printer but in having someone on staff trained to run it.”
When the customer finally approves the wax design, the build process begins.
Ring Making 101
Behind a glass wall, McCredie works his magic. He’s approaching 25 years in the jewelry industry, learning on the job at Voyagers Jewelry Design in Cambridge, and then William Thomas Designs. He joined Chalmers Jewelers eight years ago.
When customers give their design approval, goldsmith Brad McCredie gets to work. From top to bottom: 1) The wax is attached to a base with a red “sprue” holding it in place. 2) A metal flask encases the wax. 3) A plaster, or “investment” is poured into the flask. Once dry, it is placed in a kiln, burning out the wax and leaving an empty cavity, or mold. 4) In the casting stage, tiny gold pebbles are melted into a molten pool and spun at a high rate of speed with a centrifugal casting machine, forcing the liquid into the attached cylinder and mold. 5) McCredie at his work station, cleans, inspects, and places diamonds and gemstones.
Chalmers explains that the gold used in custom jewelry begins as “pure,” or 24-karat gold, which actually is too soft and malleable to wear. Goldsmiths add alloys to achieve a lower karat weight — the lower the carat, the stronger the metal, hence the popularity of 14-karat gold. White gold, for example, is mixed with a nickel-based alloy, making it particularly strong.
McCredie must create a plaster mold of the item being cast, and because the process is very similar to taking dental impressions, the shop uses dental equipment in this part of the process.
He anchors the wax model inside a metal cylindar, or flask, and sets it aside. Plaster powder is mixed with water and the resulting goo, or “investment,” is poured into the flask, completely submerging the wax model.
Any air bubbles that might exist are either sucked out with a tool or broken up using high vibration.
When the investment hardens, the cylinder is placed in a kiln and cooked to a precise temperature depending on the metals used. The heat burns off any remnants of the wax model, leaving only an empty cavity.
Once cooled, the cylinder is attached to a centrifugal-force caster. At its opposite end, metal pellets of gold or silver are melted with a torch into a molten pool and instantly spun by the centrifuge, forcing the metal liquid into the empty cavity.
After cooling, the plaster is shattered, and the rough casting emerges. It will be placed in a tumbler and polished several times before the ring is ready to go.
Finally, McCredie will place each stone one by one, using a 40x magnification light, before its final polish.
Because projects are all done in house, most engagement rings can be completed in 28 days, from start to finish.
Traditional round stones remain the most popular, Chalmers reports, followed by ovals or pear-shapes. The most requested stone recently has been the blue sapphire. “There’s been a big shift,” he says, “because usually it’s the ruby.” Sapphires come in a multitude of colors, and the blue hues can range from lighter denim to deeper royal blue.
“People are beginning to use sapphires as an alternative to a diamond engagement ring,” he says, “because they are more affordable and nearly as hard as a diamond.”
Another trend is the idea of lab-created diamonds. “Lab-created diamonds are, obviously, synthetic,” Chalmers explains. “They have the same chemical composition, but one is made naturally in the earth over millions of years, while the other is made in a lab over a week.” They can also cost 30 to 40 percent less per carat, but their values have been falling.
He urges customers to research the differences, and he shares articles on the company’s website to help consumers decide. It’s a complicated issue, he notes.
“We go directly to Thailand and India to buy our natural gemstones and diamonds. The best cutters in the world are there,” he says, conflicted.
“Diamonds are the economic drivers of many economies, so is it right to shift the money into the hands of scientists?”
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