Up until fairly recently, jewelry production was largely limited to highly specialized individuals, such as silversmiths, goldsmiths, gem cutters and metalworkers. Now, however, thanks to computer-controlled rapid prototyping techniques such as 3D printing and CNC machining, unprecedented opportunities in jewelry production are being unlocked, making it easier for jewelry designers to prototype, visualize and iterate their pieces before moving into final production.
Though more traditional jewelry design practices, such as hand drawing and drafting, are still common, more and more jewelry designers are turning to computer-aided design (CAD) software tools to create unique jewelry concepts. Having a CAD model of a ring, bracelet or earrings means that a physical model can easily be reproduced using a computer-controlled production process, like 3D printing or CNC machining, rather than manually crafting the jewelry item, which—it goes without saying—requires extensive expertise, time and costs.
The ability to rapidly produce a jewelry prototype or a pattern for casting is enabling jewelry designers to focus more of their time on the design phase—coming up with new and creative designs and tweaking them until they are just right. Moreover, rapid prototyping is opening up the possibilities for creating custom jewelry, as jewelry designers can quickly modify the size, form or details of a piece in CAD software and then rapidly iterate a physical model.
3D Printing for Jewelry Design
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a manufacturing technique in which parts are built layer by layer from a polymer or metal material. The industry encompasses a range of processes, including fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS) and stereolithography (SLA), to name but a few.
In the jewelry making world, SLA (or digital light projection) and SLS are some of the most popular technologies used because of their high resolution capabilities. However, FDM can be suitable for producing early stage conceptual models and metal 3D printing processes, such as selective laser melting (SLM), can be used to produce final pieces from a limited range of materials.
- Design freedom
Whether used in-house or through a rapid prototyping service, 3D printing can put a lot of power back into the hands of jewelry designers, by speeding up and improving the prototyping stage and, importantly, by unlocking higher levels of design freedom. The details and geometries that can be captured using 3D design and printing are truly awe-inspiring. Lattices and complex hollowed out structures are particularly interesting uses of 3D printing, which could not be achieved using other manufacturing methods.
Another vital benefit of using additive manufacturing in the jewelry design phase is cost. Thanks to the technology, designers can rapidly prototype wearable pieces from low-cost plastic materials to get a sense of what the final piece will look like. Seeing and holding a physical reproduction of a digital model is crucial in jewelry making, as it enables designers to check the fit, proportions and overall look of the piece in question, whether it is a pendant, bracelet, ring or necklace.
If a design is flawed or not up to the designer’s standards, it can easily be digitally edited and re-printed, all without adding significant material costs or time.
Beyond prototyping, 3D printing is also playing an increasingly important role in jewelry production. This is thanks to an updated take on the age-old technique of lost-wax casting. Lost-wax casting is a process that has been in use for at least 6,000 years and consists of using a wax model to produce an identical replica from a previous metal, such as gold, silver, brass or bronze.
Today, it is possible to 3D print jewelry models from wax-like materials, which are then coated in a plaster material that forms a mold. The plaster mold and wax pattern can then be heat treated to solidify the mold and burn out the wax. The resulting mold can then be cast with the desired metal material and subsequently removed, resulting in a high-resolution, intricate piece. You can learn more 3D Printing resources here.
CNC Machining for Jewelry Design
3D printing is not the only rapid prototyping process that is helping the jewelry industry to evolve. CNC Machining has also come to occupy an important place in jewelry design. Computer numerical control (CNC) machining is a high-tech process which uses software to control various machine tools in an automated way. The process has various industrial applications and is capable of producing parts with extremely high tolerances.
As we saw, much of jewelry making—especially for pendants, rings and the like—is dependent on lost-wax casting, which uses a sacrificial model to create the final metal piece. CNC machining offers a suitable alternative to manual sculpting and 3D printing for the production of the wax master models.
- Master models
CNC machining is becoming an important tool to jewelry makers because of the process’ ability to produce complex, highly detailed geometries. Importantly, the process allows for much higher precision than more traditional hand carving techniques and works at a faster rate.
In creating wax models, a number of CNC tools can be used to finely cut away material from a material block, including fine mills and turning tools. However, compared to working with metals, some factors need to be taken into consideration when milling wax, namely, heat. Some CNC machines integrate cooling systems to prevent the deformation of master models, which can result in more precise wax jewelry models. Water jet cutting can also be used to produce wax models that are accurate and high quality.
For producing jewelry made from plastic, more standard molding processes are typically used. In this case, CNC machining can be employed to carve the negative imprint of the jewelry model into a block of material—usually metal. Injection molding plastics can then be injected into the machined mold to produce the final piece.
CNC Machining is most cost effective for producing flat jewelry pieces—such as a flat-backed pendant, though it is also possible to produce more complex pieces. This use of CNC Machining for producing a mold is also conducive to large-volume production.
- Engraving and finishes
Another significant benefit of using CNC machining for jewelry production is its engraving capability. As a computer-controlled, highly precise technology, CNC mills can engrave detailed patterns or words onto the surface of a finished piece of jewelry—which when done manually is prone to errors or imperfections. Alternately, engravings can also be milled into the wax model before casting is done.
Various tool attachments for CNC machines can also be used to post-process and polish pieces of jewelry. By using different lathes and brushes, CNC machining can impart a variety of finishes on metal jewelry items, including satin, matte or gloss.
At RapidDirect, we also offer a range of professional post-processing solutions for metal parts that result in aesthetic, high quality surface finishes.