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Handmade Jewelry in the Digital Age

While digital aids provide jewelers many advantages, like the ability to sell their own jewelry online via sites like Jewelspan and create work in ways not possible before, some tools will always remain the same.


Along with the ability to sell our own jewelry and art to a global audience via sites like Artspan and Jewelspan, the Internet opened up the discussion of all things jewelry-related. Charles Lewton-Brain was a major force behind that – or, as he puts it, “the flux.”


Frustration with the secrecy that surrounded jewelry-making inspired Hanuman Aspler and Lewton-Brain, a studio jewelry maker and educator, to launch the Ganoksin project in 1995. Ganoksin is now the world’s largest education web site for the jewelry, gemology and metals field. Along with an extensive online library and image galleries, Ganoksin gave birth to the Orchid community, an active network and discussion board for folks in the jewelry trade.


Fold-formed sterling silver pendant by Charles Lewton-Brain

Fold-formed sterling silver by Charles Lewton-Brain


Orchid attracts established jewelers, but there is plenty of discussion there, as well, among serious hobbyists and those new to ecommerce and the jewelry arts. “When we started in early in 1996, our premise was to break down the boundaries of secrecy. Historically, in the jewelry world, particularly in other cultures but also in the West, everything’s been secret,” says Lewton-Brain. “We did quite well. There were articles, there were books, all sorts of spinoffs from those initial actions. Hanuman and I felt that none of that would have happened without our existence. We were the flux.”


As a goldsmith, Charles Lewton-Brain is best known for inventing fold-forming (a beautiful example is pictured above). Jewelry artists on Jewelspan who practice this technique include Shannon White, who works with fold-formed copper.


Fold-formed pendant by Shannon White

Fold-formed copper pendant by Shannon White


Lewton-Brain is also an internationally renown scholar and educator in the jewelry arts, teaching at the Alberta College of Art and Design since 1986 and co-founding the Lewton-Brain/Fontans Centre for Jewellery Studies in 1991. His articles in Tips from the Jeweler’s Bench are an invaluable source of information for jewelry artists.


While computer software and hardware have expanded by leaps and bounds, jewelry making itself still depends on some very old-fashioned tools. Goldsmiths who’ve been around a while often say it’s worth paying a premium for good chasing hammers and pliers made in Germany or Switzerland.


At one point, some believed CAD-CAM and digital automation would mean the end of handcrafted jewelry. If anything, the past decade has proven the opposite. Endless focus on digital technology has created a hunger for handmade goods. The growth of Artspan since 1999 is a good example, with over 4,000 artist websites, many of them specializing in handmade craft.


Lewton-Brain believes design software works best when used by people who understand the basics of jewelry-making. Designers need to know how to make things with their hands, he says, in order “to understand physicality, materiality, the nuts and bolts of casting and shrinkage and flow.”


After testing several computer-aided design systems in his role as educator, Lewton-Brain has come to the conclusion that people often spend ten times longer casting something via computer than if they had taken wire and a piece of sheet and soldered it. “I’ve got my ideas in two minutes,” Lewton-Brain says. “If I muck around on the computer, it’s going to be three hours.”


“What happens is that because of the ability to scale – that is, zoom in – people spend untold hours on beautiful details that when you actually print it out or have it carved, disappear completely. So the most interesting thing, I think, that’s going on now is issues of not understanding what you’re doing, but in getting lost in the cool.”

Nevertheless, he believes there’s a place for digital aids, and not just in industry jewelry. Even designers who have no interest in production lines, he says, “can easily produce one-offs at this point, with machines that produce more castable materials.”


To artists looking for affordable computerized aid, he recommends hybrid systems such as Jeff Dunnington’s 3D Wax Mill, which costs $5,100 – a steal compared to systems designed for larger production, which can run $30,000. Dunnington’s system combines a fairly simple digital wax-carving machine with very basic software. “If you go to his site and check out the gallery, you’ll see some really remarkable things done really low-tech, and on the premise that part of it’s done by hand and part of it’s not,” he says.


Those who choose to make things the old-fashioned way can often command a premium with proper marketing. “Any time something is displaced by technology – and I don’t think that a lot of jewelry will be displaced by technology – the survivors who embrace the change and romanticize their older approach, do really well,” says Lewton-Brain. This happened when vinyl sign-cutting machines put sign painters out of work in the mid-nineties, he points out. “Those who stuck with it and romanticized the sign carving and the sign painting are charging $1800 a sign now.”


Likewise, photographers who refused to trade their darkrooms for digital production are now promoting themselves as “film photographers” and goldsmiths who make their own mokume gane instead of buying it ready-made do well to describe the process and history behind it on their websites, preferably with photos or video.


“Any time you have a shift in technology,” says Lewton-Brain, “if you romanticize and educate about the older things, you can charge more.”


This article was reprinted, with permission, from a feature Cathleen McCarthy originally published in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and adapted for her blog, The Jewelry Loupe.



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