Handmade rings are romantic, and beautiful. For jewellers, they are a type of functional art. Even the plainest metal bands are inherently special, perhaps not in form, but at least in their purpose. After all, they are a symbol of enduring love.
Until recently, these rings were made exclusively by hand. Machines are still used to facilitate metalwork and fabrication, but the design, the detail, the polishing - all done by hand in most cases. But this has a limitation, and that is the human hand can’t do complexity. Yes, it can do beautiful, but complex, customised jewellery it cannot. At least, not without great effort, and at a great price.
This is because, with traditional lost-wax casting, the jeweller hand-carves the original pattern in wax. This takes considerable time and expertise.
3D printing is changing that. No more is the design and production process that makes customised jewellery an expensive privilege. 3D printing enables jewellers to conceptualise and prototype rings quickly. Digital tools can be used to personalise creations while a customer waits. 3D printers can manufacture dimensionally accurate wax casts, which when processed, result in retail-grade final pieces.
It’s safe to say that 3D printing is disrupting the jewellery industry. Its potential is being witnessed by small, independent jewellers and large houses alike, and there are a number of ways this is transpiring.
Among the sea of rings on show in high-street jewellery stores - many of which are carbon copies of each other - there has been a boom in the number of people wanting customised jewellery. And we’re not just talking inscriptions - we’re talking bespoke jewellery that is completely unique.
Until now, this was an expensive privilege. It was also a time-consuming one, with a workflow spanning at least several weeks. The jeweller would have to draw the design by hand, and possibly digitally. They would then hand carve the original pattern in wax. Most of the time, a prototype would come first.
Now, with digital tools like CAD, jewellers can design customised jewellery for customers without being burdened or limited by hand carving. How? Because it’s possible to 3D print any designs drawn in CAD from a castable resin using a printer like the Formlabs Form 3. Breakthroughs in castable photopolymer resins are setting new standards for the quality available, with Formlabs leading the way.
3D printing enables jewellers to utilise tricky overhangs and complex geometries and shapes that would be otherwise impossible to create by hand. It should be said that this isn’t possible with a fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printer. It’s only possible with printers that print resin. SLA (stereolithography) is the most popular enabler.
The Form 2 and Form 3 (read our Form 3 guide) are great examples of printers that have found success in the industry thus far. They can capture extraordinary design details and fabricate models in a matter of hours. Most prints take less than a day.
While beautiful jewellery can attract a buyer into a store, it is the experience the buyer receives that defines the jeweller, and 3D printing is enabling jewellers to improve customer experience in a variety of ways.
Firstly, the jeweller and customer can discuss the design together, and in just a few hours, the customer can have a 3D printed prototype of that design to try on. This immersive, personal experience is unique to 3D printing.
Secondly, the process from design to production is a lot faster. Traditionally, the process takes several weeks, and with some prestigious jewellers, several months. 3D printing has dramatically shortened this time. It’s perfectly possible for jewellers to design and print, cast and finish rings within the space of one to two weeks.
Customers can also have confidence in their ideas coming alive. For too long, prospective customers have been told ‘no’ by jewellers who do not have the capability to create by hand what their customer asks for. 3D printing allows more complex designs to be created, allowing a wider range of customers to be satisfied.
Small and large series production
3D printing can just as easily be applied to small series and even mass production. This is achievable by using vulcanized rubber moulds, which can produce wax patterns that were originally 3D printed in quantity.
“With the quality that you can get with SLA and Formlabs technology for printing these jewellery pieces, you can jump straight from the 3D printed part to a master mould,” said Formlabs' Jewellery Vertical Product Manager Amos Dudley. “The surface finish is already so smooth that it doesn't require very much finishing. You can use that as the rubber mould for creating the final wax parts that go into production.”
Jewellers can use this process to create a series of 5 or 10 rings at a time, to keep in store during the season. It means they can offer both truly bespoke and exclusive designs, catering to every budget (more would be charged for a truly bespoke ring, and less for one of the house-exclusive rings made in production).
Naturally, this is giving small jewellery houses and independent jewellers a competitive advantage. The ability to design and 3D print prototypes in a matter of hours and transform them into physical models within a day is revolutionary to workflow. The traditional design and production process seems so old fashioned in comparison. This is why many are calling 3D printing a true industry disruptor.