A day in our studio
You may not know, but there is A LOT that goes into crafting each 31Four piece. Every piece starts as an idea and then each of these steps is done in our studio by our team.
The idea first takes life as a sketch–ideally in our artists’ book but paper napkins do in a pinch!
Our Chief Creative Officer Jay takes the first step in making the idea a reality by creating a 3D model using CAD software. This is really important because it helps us ensure that the piece will meet quality standards for jewelry by measuring weight, thickness, etc. The 3D design is then printed into a 3D model on one of our four 3D printers (sometimes a few times to get it just right!). Again, this is really important to ensure no areas are too fragile or thin to stand up to the metal working process. Each 3D model has to be specially cured using UV light. This is when we start the ancient art of lost wax casting. Sometimes we 3D print using a special wax that can go right into the metal melting phase but usually we create a mold first. This is done by melting silicone around the 3D print and then cutting the mold open. This is much harder than it sounds because getting the cut right is essential to avoiding unnecessary seams in the final piece.
That mold is then injected with melted wax–if all goes well, the melted wax fills in all the spaces of the mold so that when it cools you have a wax model of your piece. It doesn’t always go well! The entire lost wax process is a mix between science and craft–although there are lots of steps we can take to set the piece up for success, the process also has a little bit of a life of its own. Bakers can probably relate! If we are making several pieces at once–for example, if we are making a pendant–we will create multiple wax models and put them together on what is called a wax tree and put them in a canister (called a flask) for casting.
If we are making wedding rings, only the bride and groom’s rings go in the flask. A water and silica mixture called investment is poured over the tree. There is a rubber cap we place on top–and you can see little flecks of the silica mixture on them now. The pouring must be done carefully because the weight of the investment (the powder and water mixture) can actually damage the tree on delicate pieces. As it dries, the investment hardens around the mold and then we are ready to move into casting!
First we take the 3D print that we have made, and place it in a metal flask on a wax rod. We encase it in a powder and water mixture called “investment.” This is a silica based mixture that once we add water to it almost immediately dries! It actually happens within 8-9 minutes. This phase is so important because we have to mix it perfectly, then vacuum it to make sure all the bubbles are removed, then pour it over the model, then vacuum it again, and then let it dry. We have to work very quickly here. Literally every second counts. If it starts to dry while we are working with it we ruin the entire mixture–and possibly the models we worked so hard to make.
The flask hardens completely in two to three hours. Once it hardens completely, we place it in a kiln for the burnout cycle. This is where we raise the heat from 300 degrees, to 500, to 700, to 1000, to 1405, and then hold it at 1000 before pouring it. (for our platinum orders, platinum actually has to go up even higher–closer to 2000 degrees– just for the flask–this is because platinum pours at almost 4000 degrees. Almost half the temperature of the sun.)
Next the flask is set on top of a vacuum machine. We turn on the machine and ensure that it is pulling at least 27 In.Hg, which is the measurement for vacuum power. The recommended pull is 25, but we like to get a little higher than recommended–29.9 is a perfect vacuum.
Now there is a super hot negative space where the model used to be, inside the flask, That’s where we pour the molten metal. The flask now has almost a perfect vacuum sucking air through it–and cooling it, so we must act fast again to melt the metal. We have a couple ways of doing this, but the most interesting is using a medium-duty welding torch (also known as a blow torch). The blowtorch is about as long as a baguette of bread. With it, we light a small flame, then bring the flame bigger, then add oxygen slowly until the flame is blue and roars. Under heat the metal turns black, and then very shiny, and then the metal goes from super hard beads (or cubes in platinum) to something that looks like melting ice cubes, to a liquid that moves around very easily when shaken. Then we heat it more just to be sure, and then we pour it into the flask.
Next, we watch. We watch the puddle of molten metal at the very top of the now-full-flask. It is glowing red hot now. We wait for it to turn to a dull red, what used to be called “cherry red” back when Maraschino cherries were only found in big cities and cherries most people knew of were almost black. That’s the real meaning of cherry red. And that’s the color we call it. Black heat. It is still hundreds of degrees. But no longer glowing red in a dark room. What we call the puddle, which has hardened now, is a “button.”
We take the flask outside to a giant aluminum kettle big enough to make soup for an entire elementary school–we bought it from Orange County Public School surplus, so at one time it was used for preparing large meals. The kettle sits full of water under a statue of the Blessed Mother. We maneuver our giant blacksmiths tongs to plunge the hundreds-of-degree flask into this kettle of water, which boils immediately on contact. We move it back and forth to increase the flow of water to the model. This shock of cold water on hot metal is what separates the investment from the jewelry.
What comes out is a tree with beautiful, raw, rustic piece of precious metal that we have formed, and will soon become wearable jewelry.