The Art Of Creating Custom Jewels

We buy it, we wear it, we pass it down through generations – but how does the fine jewelry we treasure come into being?
“I’ve never thought of my jewelry as trophies. I’m here to take care of it and to love it, for we are only temporary custodians of beauty.”
– Elizabeth Taylor
gold ring

Tiburon master goldsmith Keith Bartel takes a break in his shop and shows off his designs and the tools of the trade.

WHEN IT COMES to commemorative treasures, there is nothing quite like a portable precious adornment. The unmatched allure of fine jewelry is easy to understand on a surface level: as human beings, we are and always have been magpies by nature, drawn to all things aspirational, valuable and, most important, shiny. In addition, wearable trinkets offer a symbolic, lasting means of marking memorable occasions. But in a consumer market dominated by trends and fast fashion, what separates a piece of truly fine jewelry from just another accessory? And aside from the valuable materials — gold, platinum, diamonds — what justifies that higher price tag?

Kristina Saxen of Sausalito’s Lulu Designs Jewelry is an expert who can answer that question. A longtime jeweler and recent graduate of Rhode Island School of Design’s prestigious Jewelry and Metalsmithing program, Saxen has traditional and contemporary skills in all areas of jewelry-making and is putting her acquired and natural artistry to use as a design partner at Lulu. “You need knowledge of metals to successfully execute specific designs,” says Saxen, who metal-wise works primarily with 14-karat gold at Lulu, as well as sterling silver. “If you’re operating on an elementary figure-it-out-as-you-go level, you’re limited to the constraints of your materials. But when you learn how to manipulate metals into exactly what you imagine, the possibilities are really endless.”

While Saxen mastered her craft at school and under the tutelage of mentors, many metalsmiths follow an even more traditional path. Jeffrey Levin, a goldsmith and co-owner of maker-haven The Poet and The Bench in Mill Valley, was born in South Africa, where the jewelry trade is decidedly old world. When he decided he wanted to work with metal, Levin did what Europeans have been doing for centuries: he spent three years as an apprentice, learning at the bench (a specialized worktable) alongside a seasoned journeyman, then became a journeyman himself before striking out on his own. Interestingly enough, this step-by-step real-world instruction didn’t exist for jewelers in the United States until recently. Master goldsmith Keith Bartel of Tiburon is a Marin native, and after developing a passion for the art form during a jewelry class at Redwood High School he forged a European-inspired path of his own. “The master I chose to study with was Alan Revere, who originally studied in Pforzheim, Germany,” says Bartel. “I was an apprentice, I was a journeyman, and after four years I started my own business. I’ve definitely put in the time and acquired the experience to call myself a master goldsmith.”

jewelry making

So what are these learned metalsmithing skills, exactly? To describe it simply: metal jewelry pieces are formed either through casting (creating a master mold from which copies can be made) or fabrication (cutting and forming a piece directly out of metal). Most fine jewelers favor fabrication, allowing for pieces that are truly one-of-a-kind. Knowing your metal is indeed the first step, confirms Janet Alix of Mill Valley’s Alix and Company: “We work with sterling silver, many different karats of yellow gold, white gold, rose gold, platinum and palladium,” she says. “We’re goldsmiths — we utilize many materials.” Differences in fine metals go way beyond aesthetics: Saxen and Lulu work primarily with 14-to- 18k gold, rather than softer higher-karat metal that a simple bang might more easily scratch. Platinum requires extreme heat for manipulation, so doing repairs while stones are in place is impossible — diamonds will frost over and the piece will be ruined. Similarly, sterling silver is an excellent conductor, making set stones susceptible to high temperatures and reconstruction a real challenge.

So how do you transform a lump of mineral into an eye-catching bauble? With a lot of heat and a selection of triedand- true tools, some of which are depicted in Renaissance paintings, Alix points out. These include hammers for shaping — each varying slightly in shape and size, designed to force metal in different directions — plus pliers and, most important, fire. Whereas metalsmiths of yore would surround an oversize flame source in groups, trying to modify the temperature with bellows, today’s jewelers work solo with handheld torches. Fueled by butane, propane or a combination of propane and bottled oxygen, most torches offer adjustable flame sizes and temperature, enabling jewelers to manipulate pieces and target tiny specific areas. “It’s kind of exciting, the melting and transforming of the metal from solid to liquid to solid, and then shaping and forming — that’s all very intriguing to me,” Bartel says. “Most of my work is based on techniques that are hundreds and thousands of years old.”

But newer techniques now prevail, notably for merging of metals: Modern jewelry-making employs soldering, “a way of bonding two metals with the help of an alloy that makes a bond at a lower temperature than that at which the metal melts,” Alix explains. That means jewelers can create joints and secure separate items without jeopardizing the integrity of the piece. “In ancient times, they didn’t know about solder, so they relied on fusion welding for everything,” Alix adds. “Fusion happens at the temperature at which the metals are beginning to melt. And just as they begin to flow together, but before they lose shape and form a big blob, you pull the heat away.” It was a “difficult and delicate technique, the failure of which means all your work is for naught, and [artisans] had so much less control.” Another modern innovation is a laser welder, a machine that wields a concentrated, narrow beam of heat, permitting precise, intricate repairs and designs not possible before.

After pieces are heated, cut, formed, hammered and fused, jewelers use files and polishes to make the works look like new. “The shiny, finished metals you see in stores — there’s a whole process to get the metal back to that state,” Saxen says. “Files get rid of the rough marks, which kind of hides the crude steps of the actual process, so it’s more of a mystery.”

jewelry making

Asked what separates fine from fashion jewelry, local makers cite a number of factors. “There’s a level of care to be found in a piece of fine jewelry. Even with technology, you can only rush a handmade piece so much,” Saxen says. “When customers see an aspirational piece in real life, they know that it began as a creative fantasy. Aside from the materials, what makes it worth the price point is that, to the person who made it — brought it into being through a process that’s only accessible after years of training and experience — it’s priceless.”

Fine pieces are designed to serve as family heirlooms that hold many stories over time. But most of all, Alix notes, they’re made to be enjoyed.

“A lot of people have regular lives, and we want to make things they aren’t saving for once a year — what’s the fun in that?” she points out. “I really advocate that people wear their stuff, especially if it’s special. Life is short. Wear your jewelry.”

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This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Custom Creations“.
Categories: Fashion, Style, Beauty, Feature Story, Local Business, People+Places, Shopping