5.13.2010

Behind the Scenes: Thinking Big with Sterling Charms


I've always been drawn to the idea of making multiples. In art school, I couldn't imagine creating one painting that would go away forever...never to be seen again. Ouch! My choice of studying printmaking allowed me the opportunity to prolong my attachment to an image, and when I learned how to make molds for sculpture and cast them in metal, well I was a born junkie :)

Last fall Hint Jewelry grew to the point where my two hands were no longer able to keep up with charm production. I decided it was time to move into the next phase of my business and begin having some of my most popular charm designs cast in sterling silver by another craftsman.


hand sculpted metal clay models by Beth Hemmila (Hint Jewelry)

This was an exciting step for me. People kept asking if I was worried about losing control of the process or becoming disconnected from my artwork, but I couldn't grasp what they were saying because honestly getting my charms cast in sterling has always been a fantasy of mine and is the deepest honor for me. To send one charm out and have another craftsman reproduce fifty of them is intensely gratifying.

The first step in the lost wax casting process was making my final version of a metal clay charm model -- the one that will be cast in sterling silver over and over again. This ignited some powerful and confusing feelings. Which perfectly imperfect version should I choose? The choosing in itself was a practice of letting go and took me about two months to sort out.


urethane molds sterling charms lost wax castingurethane molds and wax models
Once I sent my metal clay models to the caster, he created two-part urethane molds for each charm. Then wax was poured into each of the molds multiple times to create the number of charms I requested. See how the pink wax version of my lion charm has a handle on it? That's called a sprue and acts like a channel to funnel molten metal.

Imagine fifty of these wax lion charms all attached to one shaft like branches of a tree. This wax tree is then encased in a plaster-like substance called investment. The investment mold is heated to a high temperature so the wax burns away, leaving empty spaces shaped like my charms. Molten sterling silver is forced into these empty spaces. The investment mold is broken (never to be used again), leaving a metal tree of lion charms instead of wax. This is how multiple lost wax castings can be done all at once instead of one charm at a time. Every time I want another set of charms, the metalsmith has to pour another fifty waxes, construct another wax tree, and create another waste mold.

Also, an enormous amount of clean up has to take place before my sterling charms are finished -- sprues have to be cut off, rough edges have to be ground down smooth, and charms are polished and given a patina. Lost wax casting is an incredibly labor intensive process that was developed in ancient Egypt. There are no shortcuts. If you would like to see someone at work, here's a YouTube video that explores the process of casting one ring.



Here are the sterling silver versions of my charms all polished up. I just love them! They are really luxurious and because sterling is an alloy they feel stronger, less malleable and more grounded.


Here are Hint Jewelry's sterling charms with a patina, which I think adds more depth and character. It makes the small details stand out better.



And finally a consistent backside that allows me to feel completely at ease :)

When your business starts to blossom, instead of thinking of strategies for how to manage to keep it small and contained, consider thinking big by looking for the people and resources that can help make this happen.

For more musings on business and jewelry see my whole Behind the Scenes blog series.

11 comments:

  1. Wow, the patina I definitely agree!.. Your original ones had a earthy look that I love... The sterling here has a refined look...I like both depending on the look one would want to achieve.

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  2. That is such a great post! I had no idea about that process. It makes so much sense for you to do that. And I am so glad that your business is getting to that point. That is where we all hope to be. Thanks for sharing. Enjoy the day! Erin

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  3. Wow! How exciting, Beth! I loved learning about the process and I'm so happy you decided to take this big step. The designs still look like they were created by hand and I think I can still see your fingerprints on the backside which I really love. Good luck with this and let us know how it goes selling these charms!

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  4. I'm so happy for you, Beth! The sterling looks gorgeous! Was a little worried about the sterling since I love the look of fine silver, but the charms with the patina are amazing! Am going to have to compare them side by side :) Congratulations on this amazing step!

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  5. Yea Beth... what an awesome step in your career.

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  6. Wow they turned out gorgeous!!! I'm so excited for you, taking your business and art to a whole new level :D They look stunning ^_^

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  7. Very interesting post, Beth; thanks for the thorough explanation of the lost wax casting. I am delighted that your business is growing so and that you have found a way to retain quality and meet the demand, but still keep the personal look and feel of Hint that we all know and love :-) Congratulations!
    Karen

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  8. Interesting post, as I find myself thinking about casting some of my own designs. Any recommendations on how to choose someone to do this process?

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  9. wow... I love the process too... So interesting and great pics... I'm happy for your progress with Hint- that's awesome. Your sterling silver charms look great and I love them best with the Patina too... :)

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  10. Really unique casts. Congrats on you sterling step forward!

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  11. Thanks everyone for enjoying this post and my new charms!

    Leslie, I sometimes wish I had kept more of my fingerprints :) Thanks for encouraging me to stay true to my nature.

    Erin, glad you discovered a whole new process.

    Vickie, deciding on who would cast these charms took quite a while. First look local (if you metal arts guilds they might know someone). Also, you can look through metalsmithing magazines for companies that do larger scale casting.

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