Technology Steps In to Aid an Old-World Craft

New York Times, September 17, 2012

 LAS VEGAS — To catch a glimpse of modern-day alchemy, jewelers who attended the JCK Las Vegas trade fair in June ventured past glittering displays of diamonds and gold to an equipment pavilion at the back of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. There, a machine resembling a hulking 1970s mainframe computer beamed a highly focused laser onto a plate of atomized metallic powder and, over the course of 24 hours, grew a selection of gold rings.

The Mlab machine on display at the booth for Romanoff International Supply Corp. provided many passers-by their first glimpse of a form of 3-D printing known as additive manufacturing.

Unlike traditional “subtractive” methods of cutting and drilling metal, the $289,000 machine lays down successive layers of powdered metal into which a laser beam melts a traced cross-section of the desired shape, building up the object according to instructions imported in a computer-aided design, or CAD, file.

Pioneered by the medical, dental and aerospace industries to build prosthetic parts and aircraft doors, the technology has recently found its way into jewelry via companies in Italy, Germany and Britain — including Mlab’s maker, Concept Laser, a division of the Hofmann Innovation Group in Lichtenfels, Germany.

“Until now, people have been creating things that could be extracted from a rubber mold,” said Frank Cooper, technical manager of the jewelry industry innovation center at Birmingham City University in Britain. “This technology allows you to ignore all those rules.”

Laser-melting machines let designers create complex shapes they “couldn’t make any other way,” said Eddie Bell, a director of Rio Grande, a jewelry equipment and findings manufacturer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “You can make very intricate parts that are hollow, and since you’re building them layer by layer, you can put structures inside of them.”

Fans say the process avoids two flaws common to conventional methods of jewelry casting: There is virtually no waste, and the finished jewels are porosity-free. They also say it facilitates customization: A unique piece can be built literally overnight.

The advent of 3-D printing is the latest development in a technological revolution that began about a decade ago, when jewelry-specific CAD software first became available.

“We introduced Matrix, one of the most popular CAD software programs for jewelers, in 2001 and people did not beat a path to our door,” said Jeff High, founder of Gemvision, a company in Davenport, Iowa, that specializes in computer-aided design and manufacturing products for jewelers. “Over time, the technology got better, and we noticed about 2006 that we started seeing a major influence in the market.”

In 2009, when the financial crisis stranded millions of dollars of unwanted inventory in jewelry showcases across the United States, the ability to design made-to-order pieces gave jewelers with CAD capabilities a leg up on the competition. Instead of committing their cash to costly merchandise — made even costlier by the rising price of gold — many retailers began to display prototypes made of inexpensive base metals that could be customized using CAD, and manufactured in precious materials by vendors offering CAM services.

“The jeweler doesn’t have to pay for the jewelry and the manufacturer doesn’t have to make the jewelry unless they have an order,” said Peggy Jo Donahue, director of public affairs for Manufacturing Jewelers and Suppliers of America. “You don’t want to guess what people want. Now you don’t have to.”

Thousands of retailers in the United States are familiar with the benefits thanks to CounterSketch Studio, a program that allows jewelers with a rudimentary understanding of CAD to customize basic designs.

“They start with a predefined style very easily altered on the fly, and they perfect that style to exactly what the customer wants with respect to shape, size and price point,” said Matt Stuller, founder of Stuller Inc., in Lafayette, Louisiana, which manufactures designs created by CounterSketch Studio users.

While Stuller has been at the forefront of the just-in-time personalized manufacturing movement, scores of companies have followed suit.

“Increasingly, all jewelry makers who sell at wholesale will need to develop a system that allows them to adapt existing designs to accommodate young people who want to customize their jewelry,” Ms. Donahue said. “But it requires the ability to re-tool their factory. You go from making 1,000 of one thing to making 1,000 things one time each.”

Brash young design firms, like Nervous System in Somerville, Massachusetts, or Kraftwürx in Houston, are already harnessing the power of 3-D printing to offer mass customization online. On their sites, customers can create their own 3-D printed jewelry in materials like black nylon, acrylic and sterling silver.

Most high-end jewelers, however, still shy away from discussing their technical know-how, preferring to talk of old-world craftsmanship.

“Look at JAR,” said Rahul Kadakia, director of the jewelry department for North and South America at Christie’s, referring to Joel Arthur Rosenthal, considered by many to be the finest living jeweler. “It’s all still done by hand because there is a prestige and romance and an enigma knowing that someone spent one month, two months, six months working on this piece — and that’s the way it’s been forever.”

Executives at Dior, for example, say technology comes into play only when “the hand of man might fail.” As an example, they cited some of the gold lace work in the house’s new Dear Dior collection, calling it “so fine that we have been obliged to resort to using an extremely precise laser in certain cases.”

For Mr. Bell, of Rio Grande, however, technology and artistry need not be mutually exclusive. Despite their commitment to old-world techniques, the makers of today’s priciest jewels are also high-tech believers, he said.

At the annual Baselworld watch and jewelry fair in Switzerland, “go to the equipment section and look to see who’s there,” Mr. Bell said. “They’re there. They’re keeping up — they’d be crazy not to.”