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 journal 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 very little 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, and focus only on my part time job. If you know me at all you know how difficult I find it to rest and not fill every minute of every day with work, but in such difficult times it was essential to me that I took each day as it came without forcing myself into anything for a while. A few months of excessive cleaning, cooking, catching up on reading, walks in nature and zoom chats, I started to feel that pull again. The pull to create, to explore, to get back into my business. Or maybe it was boredom as I ran out of rooms to deep clean! Either way, I slowly started to get back into the swing of things over the course of the last month or so. You might have seen me be more 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 beautiful shiny jewellery for my lovely customers. I’m happy to say I will soon be able to get back into the studio, although only on a limited basis. I cannot wait to return to the space I love so much, to give my tools a purpose again, and to create exciting new work. In the meantime, I thought it would be the perfect time to write this journal post, as it has been sitting in my drafts since last year. It's a chance reminisce and remind myself about what it feels like to get lost in making as I saw and file and emery and solder and polish precious metal to create something new. I hope you enjoy my first 'How It's Made’ post, which will certainly turn into a series. I decided to start by detailing the process of bringing to life my favourite silver object I designed last year, the Cocoon Brooch.
Last year I made a move towards only using wire and sheet made from eco silver, taking a step towards creating a more sustainable business. I haven’t been shouting about this too much, as I still have some stock made from regular sterling silver, but all of my 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 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 more expensive, I believe it is the future of all precious jewellery, as silver mining is environmentally damaging and unethical. The vast majority of jewellers already recycle their silver scrap, so it only makes sense we also make a move towards using recycled silver in our work.
All of the work in my Silver Collection is made from square silver wire. I really enjoy the flatness and graphic look of square wire, as opposed to round or oval wire which tend to be more commonly used. The downside of the square profile is that 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 long wire coil into individual components. The process of cutting or sawing metal using a jeweller's saw is called piercing. I always make a wire frame, in this case a rectangle, then measure the inside length using metal dividers and a ruler, and cut the small lengths of wire that will go inside the structure. I use extremely thin saw blades that cut neatly without creating much silver waste.
Once all of the individual pieces of wire are cut, I arrange them inside the frame. I will usually solder one half of the components together 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. This means the solder will melt and join the silver parts together before the silver reaches its melting point and the piece is ruined. This can be quite the balancing act as depending on the type of solder, the difference in melting points can be quite small and the danger of melting a part of the piece is ever present! The solder melts with the help of flux which can come in a variety of forms. I use 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 a thorough clean in a pickle, which is a warm acid-based solution. A pickle works best when it's kept at a high temperature, so I keep mine steadily warm in a tiny slow cooker. The acid removes all oxides from silver, returning it back to a lovely, clean state.
Once everything is soldered and clean, the longest and often quite tedious job of filing begins. At first, I use a large coarse file, which is followed by rough emery paper, a type of sandpaper designed specifically for metal. It’s the hardest process on my wrists and fingers, as it’s very long and repetitive, often resulting in blisters! The aim of filing is to is make the silver smooth, but also to make the solder joints ‘disappear’, as all excess solder is filed away to the point where the joint itself becomes 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, in a process called annealing, and I bend the silver in stages until it’s a shape that I’m happy with.
Once I decide on the final form, I attach the silver pin backs that make the sculptural piece wearable 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, meaning the shot continually hits against the silver and in conjunction with the soap polishes it to a lovely finish.
Depending on the weight of the piece, certain jewellery described and sold as silver have to get hallmarked by law. My Cocoon Brooches fall in this category, and so after the final process of polishing they make a trip to the Assay Office in Edinburgh to get a set of hallmarks. These indicate the maker of the piece, usually by their initials, the metal the jewellery is made from and its purity, and the Assay Office that has hallmarked it. There is also an option to add a small letter to the end that indicates the year when it was hallmarked.
And that’s the last step! I hope detailing the step-by-step process of making a Cocoon Brooch shows just how handmade my silver pieces truly are, and how much work and love goes into each and every one of them. If you would like to own or gift a Cocoon Brooch, you can have a look at the design currently available in my online shop.