The principal reason that the diamond industry exists is that diamonds look beautiful as jewelry. For millennia, people have adorned themselves with jewels and body art as a symbol of status and wealth. Diamonds are, of course, the ultimate example of jewelry as a status symbol, and shine like no other gem in the world. The jewelry manufacturing process has, of course, grown much more sophisticated since ancient times, but still uses some centuries-old techniques to forge metal. Jewelry making is a labor intensive process that involves skilled artisans and designers. Let’s look at some of the specialized occupations that help turn polished diamonds and loose metals into beautiful pieces of art.
Whether a piece of jewelry is mass-produced, or is a one-of-a-kind signature piece, it must first be designed to bring to life the conception of the jewelry designer. The designer must be well-versed in a variety of areas, including jewelry architecture, fabrication techniques, supply and availability of raw materials, durability, market trends in fashion, as well as financial considerations such as materials and labor costs, and finished retail prices. This must all be incorporated into their designs, to ensure that the jewelry can be readily made and sold at a profit.
A lot of jewelry these days is presented as a line of products that might include numerous pieces using the same theme or motif. These design concepts usually begin as a creative expression that is first hand drawn at the early conceptual stage. Later, though, the designs might be transferred to computer-aided 3D design software that allows the designer to virtually build the piece and see it from all angles. These CAD (computer aided design) technicians can use software to build a piece of jewelry to exacting specifications, which can cut out some of the painstaking human work in future steps.
Once a design is finalized, it must go to the moulding stage. This is where a cast is created that will allow the molten metals to be formed into the specific shape of the design. Historically (and still today to some extent) this was a done by an individual craftsman who created a 3D replica of the piece carved out of wax. After the wax hardens, it is encased in a mould of plaster or silica that hardens into a “frame” around the wax. The piece is then put into an oven or kiln, where the wax will melt and burn away, leaving behind a mould in the exact shape of the wax design, which can later be filled with gold or another precious metal. The plaster is then broken away to leave behind the finished piece in the exact shape of the original design. This technique is known as the “lost wax” technique, and is still used today. More and more, though, these moulds are being created by 3D printers, which can duplicate the exact specifications from the CAD technician repeatedly. This has helped make major advancements in mass-produced jewelry.
Some jewelry, primarily pieces with no gemstones and using only base metals, can be made by directly melting the metal into the desired shape. In India, the skilled craftsmen who make these pieces are known as ‘karigars.’ They must first heat the base metal, before placing it into a machine known as a ‘patti,’ which is a type of roller that forms the metal into long thin wires. These wires can then be easily manipulated into different shapes, such as the links in a chain bracelet or necklace. They can also be melted to form into a certain shape that the karigar can manipulate, such as a bird or a leaf.
Die striking is another popular method of jewelry manufacturing, which is perfect for small, lightweight pieces, such as the charms in charm bracelets. Like die making for any other industry, it begins with a CAD specialist who designs a die, which is essentially a reverse mould with a shape or name stamped into it. A sheet or piece of metal can be placed under the die, and the shape is stamped onto the metal to produce a finished piece. The piece is then trimmed to remove excess metal, and polished to remove rough edges. This process is not unlike die making in the automotive or tool making industries.
In some countries, gemstone setting looks very much like it did centuries ago. Technology is helping to make the process more efficient, but setting stones is still almost an entirely human-driven process. A stone-setter painstakingly sets each stone into the piece of jewelry in a process that is more an art than a science. There are machines today that help the stone setter to place the stones more accurately and quickly than by hand. They come with computer imaging that shows him if his placement angles are correct, and can hold both the gemstone and the base piece in place so that he can operate more quickly. Machines can do this job, but this is usually reserved only for very inexpensive costume jewelry, where stones are often glued into place by machines.
In today’s retail world, where single-unit family-run jewelry stores are still commonplace, a bench jeweler is usually the store’s owner/operator. A bench jeweler is someone who has knowledge and practice in all elements of jewelry design and fabrication. He or she may often get requests to do jewelry repair, stone resetting or upgrades, and jewelry cleaning and maintenance. Bench jewelers must have a broad knowledge of all elements of making and maintaining jewelry for their customers.
Once a piece is complete, it will be sold through a retailer, which I will discuss next week.
The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity. No one should act upon any opinion or information in this website without consulting a professional qualified adviser.
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Diamond industrialist Ehud Arye Laniado is a man passionate about diamonds. From his early 20s in Africa and later in Belgium honing his expertise in forecasting the value of polished diamonds by examining rough diamonds by hand, till today four decades later, as chairman of his international diamond businesses spanning mining, exploration, rough and polished diamond valuation, trading, manufacturing, retail and consultancy services, Laniado has mastered both the miniscule details of evaluating and pricing individual rough diamonds and the entire structure of the diamond industry. Today, his global operations are at the forefront of the industry, recognised in diamond capitals from Mumbai to Tel Aviv and Hong Kong to New York.