Building a sustainable studio, Part 2: Building the jewelry.
Silver scrap, left to right: sterling silver, fine silver error pieces,
fine silver from fired leftover clay
In Part 1 of this series I talked about the ins and outs of responsible stone sourcing. Now comes the next fun part: pairing stones with precious metals to make the jewelry!
Typically the materials I start out with for, say, a pendant or ring are sterling silver sheet (.925), fine silver bezel wire (.999) and lots of times some sterling silver wire. These days it's pretty easy to find suppliers who carry these materials that are made up of recycled scrap. There are a few big players in the jewelry making world known to be reliable sources, and those are the ones I choose every time.
When making a piece, I figure out the design I want to execute and then shape the bezel wire around my selected stone, snip the ends, file them and solder them closed into a ring to fit around the stone. Then I begin positioning the bezel on the silver sheet to determine how much sheet to cut to make the backplate (exactly what it sounds like—the back of the piece). More times than not, the backplate is roughly sized so that embellishments can be added around the stone, or, the shape of the stone is most likely round or oval, and so square corners will need to be sawn or filed off to give me the shape I want.
The little trimmings of corners or mistakes in sizing are not lost, as they can be used to make the embellishments for the pieces later in the design process. Nothing is wasted!
Clean scrap: All of those steps mentioned above create scrap! Silver scrap is valuable, both in that it can be collected and sent off to the aforementioned suppliers to be refined and recycled into new silver sheet or wire, etc., and in that the little trimmings of corners or mistakes in sizing are not lost, as they can be used to make the embellishments for the pieces later in the design process. Nothing is wasted!
This garnet ring features examples of embellishments made from clean scrap silver.
Dirty scrap: Sounds scandalous, but it's not! Every speck of dust from my bench pan is collected and saved up also. This would be considered "dirty scrap" as it can also contain shed grit from sanding papers or silicone wheels. When I wipe down and clean any surface in the studio, even the paper towels are kept and sent off for refining, because they have picked up that silver dust. During the refining process, the silver particles are separated from any other materials and recycled into new silver.
You may have heard of another commonly used tool in a jeweler's studio called a pickle pot. This is typically a small crockpot that holds and heats an acid/water mixture that is used to clean silver during and after the soldering process. Since the pickle pot can contain metal particles, it shouldn't just be dumped down a drain, which can contaminate water supplies. When it comes time for me to make a new batch of pickle, I sop up what's left of the old pickle with paper towels and—you probably guessed—add them to my dirty scrap.
Metal Clay: I hope you're still with me! Another material I use in my designs is Precious Metal Clay (PMC). It consists of reclaimed particles of pure silver in an organic binder that gives it its clay form. This is what I use to make pet portrait, paw print and handwriting necklaces, as well as some embellishments that can be soldered on, like the flower on the ring in the photo above.
PMC pieces are formed when the clay is wet and pliable, then dried, shaped and filed, and then kiln-fired. In the kiln the organic binder sinters, or burns away, which leaves the particles of silver to cling together to form fine silver (.999). I typically save up a few orders at a time to fire in batches, which helps save energy vs. heating up the kiln over and over again.
As with other silver, the filings and dust from dried PMC pieces are collected and reused to make slip, which is essentially a silver paste, that is used to join PMC pieces together before being permanently joined during firing. Sometimes I end up with bits of unused clay that has dried up. These can be used to make slip or popped into the kiln and fired and then used for embellishments in its pure silver form. It's very versatile!
Being able to reuse and repurpose bits of silver in my designs makes my materials go farther and keeps my costs down, and I love that these things are put to good use and not wasted!
Next up: Packaging and shipping.