Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 7 (July 2000)

Screen Gems

Technologies are replacing traditional methods of jewelry making

By Audrey Doyle

When Nancy Attaway began her career as a freelance jewelry designer and gemstone cutter (facetor) in the late 1980s, she made her one-of-a-kind pieces the way jewelry makers had done for thousands of years. After conceptualizing a design on paper, she either hand-carved a wax model of the piece and cast it in gold, using the ancient method of lost-wax casting, or she fabricated the piece by hand, a laborious process that involved melting the gold, rolling it into sheets and wire, and shaping and soldering it before setting the gemstones.

Last October, however, the Albu querque artist and owner of High Country Gems tried a different approach. While visiting friends who also are jewelers, Attaway and her husband learned how computer-aided design and manufacturing technologies could be used to make jewelry. After researching the available tools, Attaway purchased a copy of SolidWorks CAD software and loaded it onto her NT-based PC. She hasn't looked back since.

Today, instead of creating jewelry by hand, she and her husband design each piece in SolidWorks, then e-mail the file to a service bureau in Florida. There, using a Sanders Prototype ModelMaker II rapid prototyping machine, the service bureau translates the file into an accurate 3D plastic model and, from it, builds a gold cast of the piece. A few weeks later, Attaway receives the cast, ready for her to polish and set her stones into. "I love working this way," she enthuses. "It's much faster and more accurate than the way I worked before. I can't imagine going back to my old methods."
Instead of using time-honored but time-consuming design processes such as wax casting or hand fabrication, jewelry makers are now employing a variety of CAD/CAM packages and prototyping devices.

Attaway is part of a small group of jewelry makers who are turning to CAD-related technology to create their wares. Although the idea of using such tools in jewelry making isn't new, an increasing number of people in the trade have begun to rely on these methods.

Some, who like the 3D models that a rapid prototyping machine produces but don't want to pay tens of thousands of dollars to buy such a machine, are sending their CAD designs to service bureaus for output. Others, whose tight deadlines prohibit them from waiting a few weeks for the model to come back from the service bureau, are using CAD/CAM packages to design and output models from their own computer numerical control (CNC) mil ling machines.

Regardless of the method they're using, jewelers now adays are jump ing on the digital bandwagon. "We first saw interest in CAD tools from jewelers around 10 years ago," comments John Har vey, director of communications at the Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America (MJSA; Providence, RI), a nearly 100-year-old trade association that represents 1500 jewelry manufacturers and suppliers across the US. In the early days, he says, the software was engineer-oriented, and most jewelers found it too difficult to use. What's more, a fully configured CAD system cost more than $100,000, while a rapid prototyping machine cost between $250,000 and $500,000, making such solutions prohibitively pricey.

Although the MJSA doesn't keep statistics on exactly how many jewelers in the US are using CAD nowadays, Harvey says the association knows it is a growing trend based on what it sees at the trade shows it sponsors. "Not only are we seeing more jewelers who were trained using traditional methods coming over to digital technology, we're also seeing more jewelers who are just entering the field relying on these tools because of the benefits they provide."

Several factors, including less expensive and more accessible technologies, in addition to the proliferation of service bur eaus and lower priced CNC milling machines, are behind the move to CAD technologies. Today, most CAD packages are Windows-based, making them more user friendly than past offerings. The software market also has seen the evolution of sub-$1000 3D modeling and animation packages (for instance, autodessys' formZ) offering powerful 3D design capabilities, as well as at least one package (Jewellry's JewelCAD) targeted specifically at jewelry designers.

In addition, software and hardware prices have dropped to the point where a fully configured system, including a milling machine, can be had for around $20,000. As for rapid prototyping systems, they still hover in the $50,000 range, even for desktop units. But a quick search on the Web yielded close to 200 commercial service providers throughout the US that offer rapid prototyping technologies-among them stereolithography, selective laser sintering (heating without melting), laminated object manufacturing, and others-to customers such as jewelry manufacturers.

Using a modeling package such as Robert McNeel & Associates' Rhino, Ges tel's SolidThinking, Alias|Wavefront's Stu dio, or SolidWorks, jewelry makers can send their designs to service bureaus that handle the outputting. The end product the jewelers receive can be in the form of a wax or plastic model ready for casting, or-as in Attaway's case-the final cast, ready for finishing.

The other option, for companies with tight deadlines that prohibit them from waiting a few weeks for a model, is designing in such CAD/CAM packages as Vision Numeric's Type3, GraphiTech's Cima grafi, or Delcam's ArtCAM Pro and carving wax models directly with their own CNC milling machines. Although such machines can't produce undercuts (cuts made on any part of the model other than what you see from the top, looking down) without the operator physically rotating the part, they can produce a model in as little as an hour and can be purchased for less than $5000.
Delcam's ArtCAM Pro allows designers to easily create manufacturable models for jewelry designs as complex as this ring.

Jewelers are also turning to CAD/ CAM because, like Attaway, they recognize that such solutions offer clear benefits over conventional methods. The traditional lost-wax casting process is time-consuming-depending on the complexity of the piece being designed, a wax model can take several days to carve-and requires a highly skilled wax carver, the likes of whom are few and far between today. After the wax model is carved, it is used to create a mold (which, in most cases, can only be used once) that is then used to form the final piece. On average, the entire process takes 12 hours from the time the wax model is finished. By designing a piece on the computer and outputting a model via milling or rapid prototyping, jewelers can obviously eliminate this wax-carving step.

Also, because the output machine is creating a model based on the dimensions it receives from a computer, the models are as accurate as the CAD files from which they evolve. One of the limitations of hand-made models is that they can vary in thickness in places, which can create porosity problems in the casting process and affect the weight of the final piece, an important factor in the jewelry business, where materials are expensive. If a jeweler designs a piece in a CAD system, however, he or she can control the thickness of the model to exact specifications.

In Nancy Attaway's case, designing the settings for her gemstone pieces in SolidWorks enables her to create accurately dimensioned settings that are customized for each gem. This is crucial because she works with irregularly shaped gems-among them, tanzanite, aquamarine, tourmaline, and rhodolite garnet. To prepare a gem to be set into a piece of jewelry, first she must cut the bottom of the gem so that it's uniformly balanced. Then she must measure the angles she cut into the gem and use those dimensions as a guide when designing the setting.

Before she began using SolidWorks, Attaway would carve each wax-model setting according to the measurements of the gem that was meant to fit into it. This required careful, time-consuming carving, and the results weren't always successful the first time around. If a stone didn't sit in its setting properly-if it was too high or unbalanced-Attaway had to re-create the setting from scratch. Now she can input the measurements directly into the software. "Now that I'm using SolidWorks, I can customize each setting so that the gem fits into it like a glove, and the setting time is cut in half-from an hour or two by hand to 30 to 45 minutes on the computer."
Long-time jewelry designer Nancy Attaway used to carve wax models by hand for her one-of-a-kind pieces. She now uses SolidWorks to bypass the wax carving step.

Taking the service-bureau approach to models from the start of his career is Philadelphia-based freelance jewelry designer Douglas J. Bucci. A 1998 graduate of Temple University's Tyler School of Art, Bucci studied jewelry design there using Rhino. At school, his finished designs-along with those of his fellow students-were e-mailed to various rapid prototyping ser vice bur eaus a round the country, which would send back the finished 3D models within a few weeks.

It's a work flow that Bucci still uses today to design and manufacture his custom and production pieces. "Rhino lets me create just about anything I can imagine," he says, citing the software's ease of use as one of its main benefits: For instance, making changes to a 3D model is a quick and painless process, as is duplicating a design. If he wants to create a pair of earrings, he creates one and mirrors it to create its mate. To make earrings to match a pendant, he simply scales down his pendant design. Another benefit, Bucci says, is Rhino's low price tag. "For less than $800 you have a package that lets you create beautiful and accurate designs."
Using CAD/CAM packages such as Cimagraphi's GraphiTech, jewelry makers can output directly to on-site milling machines.

According to Bucci, he prefers this work flow rather than buying a milling machine primarily because of rapid prototyping's ability to create undercuts. "With this technology, I can get full, 360-degree models, which means I'm not limited in the design of my jewelry. I can cut pockets into prongs, and add details that I could never do easily in CNC machining, unless I created the model in separate stages."
Freelance designer Douglas Bucci uses Rhino to design jewelry pieces such as this ring. Bucci then sends the design file to a service bureau for rapid prototyping.

Another factor in favor of service bureaus is that they allow users to keep up with output technology without investing heavily in it. "This technology changes so fast. It's like computers; the minute you buy one, it's outdated." And although some rapid prototyping vendors offer leasing programs, Bucci says he doesn't consider that an option. "You can lease [a rapid prototyping] machine, but that would cost me more than I spend sending designs to service bureaus."

Bucci's enthusiasm is echoed by Michael Zindell, another Philadelphia freelance jewelry designer and graduate of Tyler School of Art, who designs using Rhino and outputs objects via service bureaus. But Zindell adds to the benefits listed by Bucci the ability to create finished pieces in the actual materials that the rapid prototyping machines use to create models. If he wants to create a durable necklace, for example, he might make it in nylon. "If I want color, I opt for fused deposition modeling plastics, and for flexibility, I like SOMOS elastomer materials," he says. Meanwhile, if he's designing a metal piece, he looks for a service bureau that offers Sanders prototyping services and can supply a wax master he can cast.

The approach of using CAD for design and a service bureau for output is not for everybody, however. Take Ira Bernstein, co-owner of The Touch, a jewelry manufacturer in Waltham, Massachusetts. In the jewelry business for 20 years, Bernstein, like Attaway, used to create his pieces by hand-carving wax models, or by hand fabrication. About two years ago, he invested in a CAD system of his own-Delcam's ArtCAM Pro CAD/CAM package, which he uses to design his pieces, and Model Master's Art2Part milling machine and accompanying software, which he uses to output the resulting wax models.

Rather than designing custom, one-of-a-kind items, The Touch specializes in making pieces for retail chains, small jewelry stores, and galleries. Bernstein says, "On average, we output about 200 pieces per year using our system, which is five times more than what we were outputting be fore." After sketching a design on paper, Bern stein re-creates it in CorelDraw and exports the design into Art CAM Pro. There, he models the design, us ing different colors to designate the various shapes he needs. For in stance, say he's designing a pendant and he wants certain areas of his design to be round and reach a height of 1/8 inch. He can assign those attributes to a certain color-for in stance, blue. Then, wherever he clicks blue on his design, he'll get a round area that reaches a height of 1/8 inch. "It's an easy way to model," says Bernstein.
Artist Michael Zindell uses the rapid prototyping materials themselves as the media for his stylized pieces, such as the pollen container at left, and the neckpiece above, both created in nylon.

When the piece is designed, Bernstein uses ArtCAM Pro's machining tools to create a tool path, specifying which tools to use to cut which parts of the piece. Then he views a prototype of the model on his screen the way it will appear after it has been cut. When he's happy with the tool paths, he saves the file. ArtCAM converts it to a format the Model Master mill understands, and then he mills the model.

Bernstein's setup cost $17,000, and he says he is pleased with its capabilities. "When I started looking into this, rapid prototyping systems cost too much money. The milling machines were more affordable."

As for going to a service bureau instead of purchasing a rapid prototyping system, Bernstein says that for him this method would have some drawbacks. "With a service bureau, I can't have the cut model in front of me in 20 minutes. Also, I like to customize as I go along."

Regardless of the method jewelry designers use today, it's clear that CAD systems are working for them. "Hand-fabricated pieces [made from sheets and wire] were a strong seller for us for 15 years. But about four years ago they started to become less popular and our sales went down," says Bernstein. "It's only because of CAD/CAM that we've been able to rebuild ourselves to a position we were at three years ago."

"The clients I create one-of-a-kind pieces for are intrigued by the fact that I use CAD to design jewelry," concludes Bucci. "To them, it's even more special than a piece created by hand. And because I have the CAD file with all the design data in it, if someone loses the piece, I can remake it. They're thrilled with that."

Audrey Doyle is a freelance writer and editor based in Boston. She can be reached at


Alias Studio
Toronto, Canada

ArtCAM Pro
Delcam plc
Birmingham, UK

Venice, Italy

GraphiTech Software Solutions
Bnei-Brak, Israel

Jewellry CAD/CAM Ltd.
Hong Kong

Robert McNeel & Associates
Seattle, WA

SolidWorks Corp.
Concord, MA

Vision Numeric
Brussieu, France

Rapid Prototyping Systems

CNC Milling Machines
Datron Dynamics
Novi, MI

ModelMaker II
Sanders Prototype
Merrimack, NH

Art2Part milling machine
Model Master
Canton, GA