Recently, I got the opportunity to create my first ever piece of wedding jewelry. This job was particularly special, not only because of the sacred meaning imbued into the actual ring, but because of the metalsmithing technique this design required. Marriage of metal involves combining different metals to create a seamless, multicolored design. This technique is a personal favorite of mine, and it was a pleasure working with such nice material for such a special occasion. Take a look at some of the crucial steps I took to create this custom piece!
My friend and fellow designer Gianna Grace actually designed this ring for her betrothed friends, Mak and Owen. The groom wanted a geometric design, and Gianna created a band of irregular, contrasting triangles and quadrilaterals. The designer made a precise rendering on Illustrator, mapping out the composition within our precise size constraints. This allowed us to separate the silver and gold shapes that would make up the design into separate puzzle pieces. It also provided the file format necessary to have these shapes laser cut.
The laser cutting machine precisely cut each individual shape out of sheets of 18-gauge sterling silver and 14-karat gold to the specifications needed. The sheets can be seen after their cuts on the left, with the line-up matching the composition on the right. While maintaining the sequence of these triangles and quadrilaterals, I slightly re-arranged their order from the original layout. You'll see why a few steps ahead.
I started by cleaning up after the machine. I ripped off the "flash", or excess metal from the laser cutting process, from the edges of the shapes. This was done quickly with my fingernails. To turn all these triangles into one seamless band, like in the illustration, all the shapes need to be "butt-soldered" together, or joined by the edges of each 1mm-thick piece of metal. This requires many flush connections, so all touching edges got gently filed down to a smooth, square surface.
The triangles and quadrilaterals were then carefully lined up on a dense charcoal block and joined by soldering them into one strip, perfectly mirroring the printout. "Soldering" involves heating the metal directly with a gas-fed torch and applying chips, or "pallions", of silver solder to melt between the shapes, which are permanently joined after the solder has "flowed", or melted and then quickly hardened, amongst the joints. This strip is the face of the design, but still needed a backing sheet to reinforce it structurally. Another silver sheet of similar thickness and width to the strip was soldered to the back using a similar soldering technique.
To bend this now 2mm thick strip into a round band took a number of different forces. First, the ends needed to be joined perfectly, which requires bending and seriously mis-shaping the form. "Annealing", or softening the metal by heating it slowly with the torch, eased the strip and protected the solder seams from snapping under the pressure of bending. This also caused the gold to blacken temporarily, as seen below. I employed rawhide mallets, tapered ring mandrills, parallel pliers, and sheer muscle (these tools also came in handy when sizing the ring, a few steps later).
The above step is where rearranging the order of the shapes came in handy. I knew I had to eventually join two of these angular edges to create the ring shank, so I chose to begin and end the sequence with the angles that were closest to 90 degrees, the typically desired circumstance when joining a ring shank. Out of structural convenience and general habit, I considered modifying the original rendering by changing these particular edges to right angles, but ultimately didn't want to sacrifice the complexity of the design. As you can see below, it was worth it to maintain the abstract angularity of every connection and preserve its integrity.
After soldering this thick seam and ensuring a strong connection, I worked the form into a round shape that would fit a size 8, as our groom requested. While the steps above were the most careful and precise, the forming and sizing steps took the longest time and the most sweat. This is also where my hunk of metal really begins to look like a piece of jewelry. When I finally filed away at the surface to reveal the seamless marriage of metal, I was so delighted by the sharp contrast and precise geometry I had hoped for out of this technique.
However, by a slight miscalculation on my part, the ring was two and a half sizes too small at this point. This was remedied by both removing material from the interior of the shank as well as stretching the entire form. This had to happen very gradually, as I had to be careful not to crack the carefully constructed solder seams from the first few steps.
There is such thing as a ring stretcher, but I don't have one. Instead, I heated (annealed) the ring by sanding out the inside (this creates quite a bit of friction and heat, as evidenced by the finger cots in the first image) and tapped it gently down this tapered mandrill until it reached the desired size.
Above, you can see the ring transform by the thinning wall and overall shifting proportion of the form. That's a size 5.5 slowly grinding and stretching up to a size 8. To create a comfort fit, the sharp edges, on both the interior and exterior, were also beveled down with the same abrasive sanding tools. This is ideal for wedding jewelry, as it is meant to be worn daily, and for a lifetime. All that was left to do was polish the interior for wearability and uniformly matte-finish the exterior for an everyday, masculine surface. This is a 360 view of all details of this gorgeous ring.
It was a pleasure building this unique ring, so much so that I was a bit sad to send it off. But now it serves as an everlasting part of this couples life together, charging the ring with new meaning. To Mak and Owen, may your refurbished camper van and sense of adventure lead you to great heights. Congratulations!
Please stay tuned for more process posts, including another custom bridal piece, in which I build a whimsical accessory for a tiny, funky bride. Also coming up are diamonds. Get excited!