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Defining the Word 'Handmade'

Everyone has their own definition of what it is to create something handmade. I want to use this post to point out that jewelry has always been made with tools. The relationship is one between mankind, the material, and the innovative tools that were/are used to create the piece. I (may) define the term ‘handmade’ differently from other jewelers and that is why I wanted to write about this topic.

So, let’s get into it.

In the jewelry world, there are a ton of tools that you can use to create your designs. A part of my personal agenda when I went to my local community college for classes was to test out all of the tools that they had in the storage room. I wanted to know which tools were going to be the most effective in creating quality work.

I quickly found out that you didn’t need too many tools to make the work that I create, but you do need the right tools. I regularly use a saw frame to cut through my metal, a variety of steel files to correct any flaws, a range of pliers to create a specific detail, the torch to solder everything together, hammers to form the metal, and a little polishing wheel to give the work a high shine.

Admittedly, I do own a lot more tools than just this short list but sometimes I need to add a little extra something to the design and those other tools come in handy.

All of the tools I use are relatively basic and most of them have been used for centuries, if not thousands of years. Some tools are motorized and they get the job done so quickly and efficiently, there’s no way I could live without them. I don’t use the computer to create my jewelry. There are design programs that many big name companies use, but they’re on a different level from where I’m at and I haven’t found a specific use for it in my work.

Within the handmade jewelry community there’s a dividing line between those who use pre-made sheets of metal and those who creates their own. Many suppliers have the option of buying your metal (silver, gold, base metals) in pre-made sheets and you can purchase them at standardized thicknesses.

The other option is to purchase what’s called casting grain and you can pour the grain into an ingot, or a thick bar, and then squish the metal to your desired thickness to create your own sheet. This is useful, and more economical, for when you’re working with gold. You can purchase the exact weight of the piece that you’re going to make and also be able to alloy the metal to your desired karat. To alloy your metal means that you are combining the pure metal (ie gold) with another metal (ie copper, nickel, silver) to make it stronger, to adjust the metal color, or to make it more cost effective.

Personally, I prefer to use pre-made silver sheets and wire. My main supplier uses 100% recycled sterling silver and they remove any impurities that can come with pouring your own ingots. I’m also very uncomfortable around molten metal. It took me a few years to finally get used to working with a torch, and I’m still not at ease with the idea of hot liquid metal. No thank you, haha!

With this set of tools, I look to my sketches and turn them into wearable, functional jewelry. The sketch is normally just something quick so that it jogs my memory to the vision I had in my head. When I decide to make the piece, I'll come up with a plan on how to create it like a mental step-by-step guide. If there's a part that seems off, I'll rework the design in my head or turn to my jewelry books to look for examples from the past.

I think this is the part where the magic actually happens. You have the vision for the jewelry piece, put it to paper, but it's the moment of reverse engineering where you're taking the design apart in your head before making it. I think that's what makes something uniquely handmade, when the maker can have that vision, then figure out how best to make it, and then create it by using their preferred tools and techniques. Each maker's experience with the 'handmade' is unique to them, and in that way I think it's kind of special.

In the next post, I'll be talking about casting because I feel it ties into this post and I'd like to debunk some of the myths around the process. That's it for now, stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.


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