Inside the Creative Process of Master Jewelers
When it comes to artist-designed jewelry, fantastical creations are difficult to top. There’s a brooch in the shape of a mouth, with lips made from rubies and teeth from pearls—two clichés made dazzlingly literal. There’s an 18-karat gold flower, sporting mechanized petals that unfurl to reveal a diamond-coated bloom. The showstopper, however, is a ruby-encrusted heart, ingeniously crafted to look as if it’s actually beating.
But what did it take to bring these surreal masterpieces to life? As I mounted the steps of 2 East 63rd Street in Manhattan on a recent fall afternoon, I was about to find out. L’École—a Paris-based school of jewelry arts, founded in 2012 with support from French jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels—had temporarily set up shop in this historic Upper East Side mansion with a slate of courses, offering a multifaceted introduction to the world of fine jewelry.
I had signed up for a hands-on look at the techniques used by professional jewelers like Carlos Alemany, the man responsible for realizing Dalí’s bejeweled visions. Hand-crafting a piece of fine jewelry is, unsurprisingly, an intensive process, and a two-hour course wasn’t long enough to test out every step. So, after donning our white jeweler’s coats at the door, we listened as our two instructors outlined the initial stages of the jewelry-making process.
First, a designer sketches the ring (or necklace, or bracelet, or brooch) according the artistic director’s vision. All of this is done in close collaboration with the stones department (which helps source the gems for the project) and the research and development department (which ensures the design is practically achievable). Once the design is in place, an artist is tasked with representing the ring in gouache—an exactingly realistic, painted version of the jewel that gives a sense of volume and three-dimensionality. Once the gouache is complete, it’s up to the jeweler to translate the image into a three-dimensional wax mold.
Our assignment that afternoon was to carve a simple, scalloped necklace charm. I took a seat at one of the jeweler’s benches situated around the room, adjusting my stool so the wooden tabletop was level with my armpits. Each bench features a central, semicircle cut-out, with a leather sling positioned underneath to catch any fumbled works-in-progress. But the focal point of any jeweler’s bench, I learned, is a humble piece of wood clamped to the tabletop. This “bench pin,” as it’s known in the U.S., generally features a narrow “V” taken out of one end—but jewelers fine-tune and customize their personal bench pin to suit their particular working methods.
To create our molds, we were shown how to gently file away at a thin plate of green wax, bracing it against the bench pin to prevent slippage. Each drag of the triangular file sent a cascade of emerald-green filings into the leather sling.
Once the mold is finished, jewelers employ the ancient lost-wax casting technique to replicate the piece in precious metal. From there, they continue to refine it; in some cases, jewelers use a simple box cutter outfitted with a thin blade to saw away at the metal. As part of our course, we were asked to cut a straight line through a thin, flat piece of silver (a surprisingly rigorous test of upper-body strength, as it turned out). But our instructor demonstrated another, more skillful use of the saw: la mise à jour, which describes the way metal is cut away behind gemstones to allow light in from the underside of the ring or necklace. These cuts can be square or honeycomb-shaped, depending on the design, and are eventually polished to ensure even more sparkle.
Next, the stones must be slotted into position and set. We experimented with bead setting: Using a small, pointed tool known as a burin, we scraped up miniscule strips of silver that required a magnifying glass to see clearly. These strips can then be manipulated to secure a gemstone in place; in the process, they’re rounded and smoothed into the aforementioned “beads.” This is just one of several setting methods, one of which—the “mystery setting”—is engineered in such a way that the stones appear to be holding themselves in place. (It’s a Van Cleef & Arpels signature.)
Then, finally, it was time for a last round of polishing. For the more visible sections of a particular piece, polishing can be done with a small machine that sports circular brushes in various sizes. But for the difficult-to-reach sections, polishing is done by hand with ribbons that vary in width; the thinnest resembles nothing so much as dental floss. We were each handed a delicate silver turtle with a matte silver finish and experimented with hand polishing. Beginning with an abrasive, red polishing paste, I rubbed a tiny section until it gleamed, then switched to a finer yellow paste to amp up the shine even more. It can be a painstaking process, our instructor explained: The polishing must be done consistently to ensure that each section achieves the same level of shine, or else the metal will look patchy.
With that, we’d explored the final technique of the afternoon. But experimenting is one thing; mastering these skills is another matter entirely. To graduate from apprentice to jeweler, one instructor explained, it takes between three and five years. To become a master jeweler, it’s another 10 to 15 years of study. By the time the bell rang to signal the end of our class, I’d learned enough to understand that those two hours were just a drop in the bucket. Dalí’s jewels may be whimsical, even fanciful—but they’re also a dazzling testament to the dedication and endurance of a master jeweler.
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