Last time I mentioned some beautiful opals a friend of mine wished to have made in to a special commission for his wife; here’s the process behind the project…
To begin with, I drew up a selection of design ideas based on Amy’s taste. From my discussions with her husband I knew she loved vintage clothes and jewellery and preferred long, hooked earrings with some movement to those with studs. The design that we settled on drew heavily on Art Nouveau influences, with an elegant wire framework and decorative granulation adding a nod to my own style of work.
With the design settled, I began work. The first step was to build the bezels for the opals to sit in.It’s important to make them exactly the right size for a snug fit so I labeled the stones ‘A’ and ‘B’ with bits of masking tape to make sure they didn’t get mixed up or turned upside down – if that happened the bezels would no longer fit properly! I cut two thin strips of paper and wrapped them around the edge of the oval stones to determine the length of silver I would need.
I then measured the lengths in silver, remembering to add on a little extra to accommodate the thickness of the metal. I decided to make the walls of the bezel in 0.4mm fine silver, which is softer than sterling silver and would make setting the stones easier.
After cutting the lengths, I worked the strips to fit the stones using round nosed pliers, and soldered the join. I sanded down the top and bottom edges of the bezel wall so that they were perfectly flat and the top edge was just a little higher than the edge of the stone.
To complete the bezels, they needed to be soldered on to a base plate. I always think it’s a bit of a shame when jewellery which is detailed at the front is plain and boring at the back, so I added a subtle texture to the 1mm thick silver using a tiny ball pein hammer.
I cut two squares from this textured sheet and soldered each of the the bezel hoops on to the smooth, plain side…
…and then carefully cut away the excess with a piercing saw, leaving just the finished bezel setting.
I checked the fit by inserting the correct stone in to each one (tip – it’s good to lay a length of cotton thread or dental floss under the stone before doing this so you can easily lift it out again if it’s a bit tight!) and gave the settings a sand and a polish.
The step was to build the wire framework which made up the body of the earring. I started by wrapping some 1mm round wire around a small mandrel (my soldering pick) to create a spring-like form. When removed and cut lengthways, this would create several small jump rings.
I took two of these jump rings, tightened the joins with pliers and soldered them closed.
Next, I straightened some more 1mm wire and carefully cut the lengths I needed to make the rest of the frame work. I used my original scale drawing as a template. These wires needed to be gently curved using a large former (I used a wooden bangle mandrel) to give a graceful line. I then filed the ends of each wire to the correct angles using small needle files and assembled the pieces along with the settings and the jump rings, ready to solder.
When all these elements were soldered in place, it was time to make the granulation. I took a few small ball burs and hollowed out some small hemispherical holes in the surface of a charcoal block. I then cut a variety of small lengths of wire (ranging about 1mm to 4mm) and layed them over the holes with some flux painted on. When the heat from the torch becomes sufficient to melt the metal, the silver shrinks up in to a ball and cools in the hollow beneath it.
I sorted out the granules I wanted to use from the selection of different sizes and used some pieces of soft jewellers’ wax to keep them safe and organised. Blue-tack works well for this too – anything to stop them from rolling around and getting lost and mixed up!
I carefully lined the granules up on either side of the earrings and used solder paste to solder them in place; the paste itself acts as an adhesive when positioning them – very handy when working with tiny balls of metal.
With both of these done, it was time to move on to the final stage of construction…
I cut some more lengths of wire (0.8mm this time) and heated the ends to melting point with my torch until the silver balled up to form header pins.
I then used round-nosed pliers and a variety of small mandrels to bend and form the wires to create ear hooks.
I soldered on the extra granules and sanded the ends of the wires smooth…
…and now all of the pieces were ready to be polished and assembled! After polishing, I set the stones using a pusher and a burnisher (no photos of this stage I’m afraid as it’s impossible to do with one hand), working the metal at opposite sides around the stone in order to give an even finish. After some final sanding and polishing, they were nearly done.
The very last things to do were to get them hallmarked and then plated in the rich 22ct gold we had agreed on. Here they are, finally finished. I’m pleased to say that Amy loved them!