First, a little 2020 update:
I had a plethora of personal and business goals for this year, one of which was to write and publish a blog post every month – I released my first one in March, and then…well, we all know what happened. Suddenly, even though I had infinite amounts of time, I had absolutely no energy or motivation to write about my work or my business. Truthfully, I had no desire to be present in any part of my role as a self-employed creative. I allowed myself to just STOP (if you know me, you know how difficult I find it to rest) and take each day as it came without forcing myself into anything. A few months of cleaning (so much cleaning), cooking, catching up on reading, walks in nature and zoom chats, I started to feel that itch again. The drive to create, to explore, to get back into the business. Or maybe it was boredom as I ran out of rooms to deep clean! Either way, I have slowly started to get back into the swing of things in the last month or so, and you might have seen me on Instagram being present on social media again, making tentative steps towards exploring ideas and getting myself reacquainted with my work. Despite this, I am desperately missing my bench, working with metal and making shiny jewels for my lovely customers. I’m happy to say I will soon be able to get back into the studio, for the moment I’m thinking one day a week. In the meantime, I thought it was the perfect time to write this blog post, which has been sitting in my drafts since last year, to reminisce and remind myself a little about what it’s like to saw and file and emery and solder and polish. It’s a step-by-step of ‘How It’s Made’, and I picked my favourite silver object I designed and made last year – the Cocoon Brooches. I’m writing it for someone who knows nothing about jewellery making, so fellow jewellers might find my explanations a little too detailed, but I hope it’s still interesting.
Last year I made a move towards only using wire and sheet made from eco silver, making another step towards running a more sustainable business. I haven’t been shouting about this too much, as I still have some back stock made from regular silver, but all new work from the beginning of 2019 has been made using this eco friendly alternative. Eco silver has the exact same properties as brand new sterling silver, but is 100% recycled, traceable and audited. It’s made by melting down discard silver from the jewellery, giftware, medical and electronic industries. Although this option is a little pricier, I believe it is the future of all jewellery, as silver mining is environmentally damaging and unethical. The vast majority of jewellers already recycle their silver scrap (small, unusable pieces and dust), so it only makes sense we also make a move towards using recycled silver in our work.
My silver wire pieces are all made from square silver wire. I really enjoy the flatness and graphic look of square wire (as opposed to round or oval wire), although it can be a nightmare to file as you need to work on each side of the square individually. The first step in making the Cocoon Brooches is to cut the individual wire components. I always make a ‘frame’, in this case a rectangle, then measure the inside length (using metal dividers and a metal ruler, labelled in the tools photo) and cut the wire that will go inside the structure. I use a jeweller’s saw, with very thin saw blades that cut neatly, without creating much silver waste (also in the tools photo for reference).
Once all the individual pieces of wire are cut, I arrange them inside the frame - usually I will solder one half of the components at once, followed by the other half. Soldering is a process of joining silver together using silver solder, which is a silver alloy that has a lower melting point than silver itself. The solder melts with the help of flux, which can come in many forms but in my case is a thick white paste that acts as a cleaning and flowing agent. I heat the flux and solder using a hand-held torch until the solder melts completely, creating a strong joint. Once all the pieces are soldered the structure gets cleaned in a pickle, which is a warm acid-based solution (I keep mine warm in a tiny slow cooker). This removes all oxides from silver, making it nice and clean again.
FILING and BENDING
Once everything is soldered together, the longest job begins – filing. At first, I use a coarse file (like the half round file in the tools photo), followed by rough emery paper, which is similar to sandpaper. It’s the hardest process on my wrists and fingers, as it’s very long and repetitive, often ending in blisters! The aim of filing to is make the silver smooth, but also to make the solder joints ‘disappear’ – all excess solder is filed away to the point the joint itself is almost invisible.
Once the structure is completely filed, I start bending it by hand. This technique means each piece is completely unique, as each fold is slightly different. I use heat from my torch to make the silver malleable - this is a process called annealing - and bend it in stages until it’s a shape that I’m happy with.
Once I decide on the final shape, I attach the silver pin backs by soldering them to the wire on the back of the brooch. For the Cocoon Brooches, I use two silver tie tack pins to make sure the brooch is secure when worn. The last step is to polish the whole structure, I tend to use a barrel polisher which has small bits of steel called ‘shot’ in soapy water. The whole polisher rotates and spins at a really high speed to polish the silver.
Depending on the weight of the piece, certain works have to get hallmarked by law if I'm selling it as silver jewellery. The Cocoon Brooches fall in this category, therefore before or after polishing they make a trip to the Assay Office in Edinburgh to get a set of hallmarks. I will publish a blog post all about the details of hallmarking at some point this year.
And that’s it! I hope detailing the process shows just how handmade my silver pieces are, and how much work and love goes into each and every jewel.