The more things
change in the world of jewelry, the more they stay the same. Advanced
tools like centrifuges, vacuum molds, and electroplating can be
found in many of the larger workshops in India. Directly alongside
them however, you will find the basic wooden jewelers bench with
tools not much different from those of the Mughal Era silversmith.
The sound of
hammering, filing, and sawing would be as familiar to a silversmith
from 1706 as it would be to one in 2006. And make no mistake: modern
tools are no replacement for craftsmanship and technique. Anyone
who has ever tried to solder a joint without having solder run to
the lowest point on the piece will attest that there is nothing
like experience when it comes to making beautiful jewelry.
in India takes place all over the country, but without a doubt the
center of the silver making business is Jaipur in the arid northwestern
state of Rajasthan. Summers are hot, and the city of 2 million has
its foundation firmly built on the manufacture of stone (mainly
marble for architectural purposes) and precious metal jewelry.
of making jewelry begins with the smelting of fine granules of silver
and silver scrap from previous melts into a liquid form. This is
usually done using a gas furnace. The work is hot, and can be dangerous
in the event molten metal is spilled. The liquid is then either
cast using the "lost wax" technique, or it is extruded to make wire
or rolled to make silver sheeting.
In the casting
process, a master piece is created of the jewelry design to be created.
Duplicates are created by pouring hot wax into rubber molds. Once
the wax has cooled, the duplicate is removed from the rubber, inspected
and cleaned manually, then adhered to a large spindle called a "tree."
The trees are placed in steel cylinders, then liquid plaster is
poured in around the tree. Once the plaster has set up, the cylinder
is placed in an oven to allow the wax to melt and drain out.
At last the
mold is ready for the molten silver. There are several variations
on the casting theme. The traditional method calls for the silver
to be poured into the mold, and allowed to cool. Using a vacuum
to remove the air before pouring the silver in makes for a better
final product, as the silver fills the mold more completely and
air bubbles are less likely to form. Similarly, using a centrifuge
forces the silver down into the mold and allows air to be expelled
more readily. Of these variations, vacuum casting is most prevalent
among larger Indian jewelry manufacturers.
to casting is extruding the molten metal to create either wire or
ingots. In the case of wire, the metal is repeatedly stretched and
reheated to obtain the desired thickness and consistency. Repeatedly
pulling, bending or hammering a piece of silver causes "tempering"
or hardening of the metal. Reheating below the melting point makes
the metal malleable again. Tempering creates a harder piece, but
too much tempering results in a brittle piece that breaks easily.
the bar is pushed and pulled repeatedly through rollers under extreme
pressure and occasionally reheated to keep it from becoming too
brittle. Like pasta through a pasta roller, with each subsequent
pass the silver is pressed thinner and stretched longer. This process
is repeated until the ingot is flattened into a long sheet of silver
that is the required thickness.
in two forms, wire and sheet, intricate handmade jewelry is created.
Wire can be twisted, shaped, squared or pulled into fanciful shapes
of great complexity. Silver sheet can be cut to desired widths,
pressed into shapes using jigs, and soldered to form three dimensional
designs, balls, boxes, clasps, tubes and more. Finally, silver solder
is used to fill in seams, close shapes, adhere designs and hold
stones in place.
are added to a piece, they are generally fixed using either prongs
or bezels. Prongs are easy to use and can accommodate a slight variation
from piece to piece and stone to stone. For bezels, a thin piece
of sheeting is cut to a narrow width, then curved to fit a specific
stone exactly. No other stone will fit exactly right once the bezel
has been created. Of all the skills a silversmith can master, the
making of a tight bezel is one of the most important: too loose
and the stone falls out, too tight and the stone can crack or the
casting has often been looked down upon by Indian silversmiths,
not because it is less "handmade," but instead because it requires
almost as much labor as an entirely handmade piece. The cast piece
needs to be cut from the tree, filed, checked closely for defects
and it requires the additional capital outlays associated with casting
equipment plus extra training for those who do the casting. It would
seem that a cast piece would be less expensive to make than a completely
handcrafted piece, but in fact the reverse is true!
After a piece
has been "created" using either casting or smithing, it looks nothing
like a finished product. The entire piece is covered with black
soot from the torch and with white scale from heating either in
the mold or in from the torch.
Each piece undergoes
a detailed finishing process that is mostly manual in nature. Workers
check for problems with solder, joints and detail. Rough spots are
filed, seams are smoothed to make them more attractive. Any problems
with the piece at this point will only become worse with the finishing
The next step
is polishing using an electric buffing wheel and rubbing compound.
This solves some problems and creates others. It creates a brilliant
sheen on the relief surfaces, but lower spots, as in between filigree
or in tight spaces like around the base of a bezel or inside the
band of a ring.
In the past,
handwork and caustic chemicals were the only tools available for
cleaning tight spots, and each had their limitations. Now however,
there are some new options on the table. The first is ultrasonic
cleaning. As the name implies, sound is used (in conjunction with
a mild detergent usually) to clean the places where tools cannot
reach. The result is better than either handwork or chemicals alone,
but the silver still tends to look a bit off-color in contrast to
those portions polished by the wheel.
and larger silver companies now employ an electroplating method
that coats the entire piece (except stones) with a thin coat of
.925 silver. The result is stunning. There are no dark marks anywhere,
the solder joints are all the exact same color as the rest of the
piece and it is more resistant to tarnishing.
Of course each
step along the way adds cost, not only for labor but in the case
of buffing, in lost silver. A typical silver ring will lose about
1/2 gram of silver weight during buffing. The silver coating at
the end of the process adds only a small amount to the finished
cost, since only a few micrometers of silver are added.
from primitive body adornment to current high tech jewelry making
has been a journey of 5000 years. Who knows what technology will
offer us going forward, or what beauty new techniques will allow
us to create.