Manufacturing jewellery by 3D printing is a trend on the rise. By 2020, the market for 3D printed jewellery is expected to reach US$11 billion. However, it is still a small fraction of the US$316 billion industry of 2016[i]. Not all jewellers are embracing 3D printing’s potential with similar levels of enthusiasm. Some have a misconception that technology will take away their jobs, which are based on traditional jewellery crafting.
The design world is using 3D printing to create everything from personal accessories to lampshades. Watchmakers have used the precision it affords to create intricate mechanisms and entire watchcases. But while there are jewellers championing this new technology, others view its use disparagingly.
One technology prints directly in precious metal, using 3D printers that fire out fine layers of gold dust to build up a solid object. But the process is expensive. More commonly, jewellers use 3D printers to produce wax or resin moulds of models created using Computer Aided Design (CAD). These are then cast in precious metal via lost-wax casting – the moulds are placed into a plaster cast, into which molten metal is poured, dissolving the wax and leaving the solid metal object.
A level of disruption
Like many industries, 3D printing threatens a certain level of disruption. Established jewellers can adopt 3D technologies, but if they have not already done so, they will definitely face challenges from the service bureaus, small-scale jewellery makers and shops.
3D printed jewellery has been a pricey option in the past few years. Now producing it is getting more economical, fast, and precise enough to make it more mainstream. For instance, instead of using 3D printers just to make wax models of designs to be cast in gold or platinum, Mario Christian Lavorato’s company – Daniel Christian Tang – uses 3D printers to make the end products.
For jeweller Raymond Graff, the secret to harnessing technology is to combine it with traditional techniques. “CAD and 3D printing are tools. You have to be a jeweller to know how to put those components together into a piece of jewellery,” he says. “Everything is still handmade and hand-finished. Bentleys are renowned for being handmade, but some components of a Bentley are made by machine using the same technology that we use here.”
Some brands have dipped their toes in the technology. Chanel, whose autumn/winter 2015 couture collection included a tweed jacket created using selective laser sintering – a form of 3D printing – admits to using the technology, albeit sparingly, in its fine jewellery workshops.
“3D technology is a tool to help interpret a complicated design, for example, a very intricate clasp or a perfectly symmetrical piece,” explains Georges Amer, Chanel purchasing and development director. The house uses it to produce multiple interpretations of a particular handmade design, including its lion’s head, so it is uniformly asymmetrical no matter what size or form.
But Amer points out that 3D printing is the exception, not the norm. “We encourage the development of the best traditional jewellery-making skills by asking our craftsmen to create a piece entirely by hand.”
Eddie Bakhash, CEO of American Pearl, says that with 3D printing, he no longer fears competition from cheaper overseas manufacturers.
“Now, with the advent of our platform, we’re no longer taking off-the-shelf parts and welding. There’s no jeweller at a bench with a blowtorch. The cost and labour savings is phenomenal. And we’re empowering consumers to make jewellery in real-time,” says Bakhash.
A customer can access American Pearl’s site to create a unique piece, whether a $400 pair of earrings or a necklace that goes for six figures. American Pearl’s CAD/CAM software platform outputs a digital file that is perfectly proportional, taking human error out of the equation. The company then produces a 3D printed model of the piece of jewellery, made of thermoplastic wax.
The customer’s chosen metal is then poured into this digitally-designed, precisely-proportioned mould. Once it hardens, the shopper’s gemstones are added and set by an expert jeweller, based on his or her exact online specifications.
“Everything is made in New York City,” he says. “We’re empowering consumers, and bringing jobs back.”
Bakhash now aims to find and exploit every niche in the jewellery industry using 3D printing, starting with charms – and aided by an unusual and rather ingenious design method.
Between 2015 and 2016, the jewellery retail sales on the internet grew a 15% year-on-year growth, reported Global market research company Euromonitor International. This was US$19 billion, up from US$9 billion in 2011.
According to Jasmine Seng, personal accessories industry analyst, “Technology is the answer for future growth of jewellery and personal accessories. Industry players should collaborate with wearable technology (eg. smart watches) innovators to drive organic growth for their companies.” Indonesia is expected to be the fastest-growing country for jewellery sales at 7.8% from 2016-2021, followed by India at 6.9%.
3D printing in jewellery is catching up with this growth, although in spurts and starts. In the meantime, it is still the technology for trailblazers and market leaders – supported by institutes of higher learning and by individual designers, hobbyists and enthusiasts.
Watch how 3D printed jewellery is made here:
Editor’s Note: This is Part One of a two-part article on 3D printed jewellery. In our next instalment, Ginkgo3D takes a look at how this process is taking off in Singapore.
[i] From http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160718005552/en/Jewellery-Records-316-Billion-Sales-2016-15