Today we are going to answer some common questions we receive regarding the jewellery making process. Creating jewellery is something a lot of crafters might experiment with and there are so many materials one can use, however silversmithing requires specific training and equipment.

Olivia attending her silversmithing course 2010

After completing her Textile Crafts degree from University of Huddersfield in 2009, Olivia still hadn’t quite found her vocation. Knowing that she wanted to continue being creative yet not necessarily wanting to resume where her degree had finished, she pursued a few other avenues of learning, eventually taking a silversmithing course in 2010, and that was her ‘Eureka!’ moment.

After that session she bought her first jeweller’s soldering hand torch, a supply of silver and began to experiment to hone her style and define products. Initially making pieces for herself, then after positive feedback, branching out and creating gifts for others. Slowly over time OnlyWillow grew into a fully-fledged business and Olivia was able to reinvest in more specialised equipment, further expanding her abilities and design capabilities. Now she has an established studio set up within her shop in Kirkby Stephen, although during lockdown it is temporarily relocated to her home in Winton, Cumbria.

So, what does the silver jewellery making process look like from start to finish?

Normally the first step in the making process is to create a design. This begins with sketches, bringing something from your minds eye into reality can take a lot of planning, especially if you want the physical item to be accurate. Sketching allows you to not just see a piece but to think about the actual practical process, where to start, what order certain pieces need to be made in, what size it should be, how it could be constructed… Making notes along side a design are also vital. You may design a piece but not actually create it until much later, and those notes can come in handy.

Some designs may require a prototype and to practise parts of the design or detailing, especially when working in an expensive medium like precious metals. On a time sensitive deadline, a practise run can make all the difference, as any mistakes can be learned from instead of requiring to be fixed. All lessons learned should also be added to the sketch and notes. During her degree, Olivia learned to keep detailed records of each piece made and to note the process and materials in something called a Technical File, with the idea that at any time you should be able to look back and use those notes to replicate the piece you made. A lot of Olivia’s designs are bespoke, one off pieces, but the techniques used can be repeated.

Soldiering on with some soldering

Next, it’s all about the materials; OnlyWillow’s main precious metal supplier is Cooksongold. They are the UK’s largest jewellery making supplier, with a range of over 20,000 products available. This enables OnlyWillow access to any of the resources necessary to create our exclusive pieces, and most importantly, allows you to choose any design option you wish. Certain bespoke designs can require specific components, unique to that project and therefore need ordering specially. This can extend the completion timeline, but ensures you get exactly what you want. The main range of OnlyWillow products are made from 925 Sterling Silver, yet Cooksongold can supply gold, rose gold and platinum. Some of these have begun to be incorporated into pieces and are also available on request.

A sample of multiple pieces in various stages of completion

One great aspect of a company such as Cooksongold, is they provide a recycling service for any scrap material. This reduces the waste created by OnlyWillow as a business. As a rule, Olivia tends to keep any scrap or leftovers from a make for at least 6 months, as like any true crafter/hoarder, there is always the belief that no matter how small, it could come in useful for something… eventually. Some of her favourite makes have come from pieces in the “scrap pot”, and during a particularly inspired mood, Olivia may rummage through and see potential in a certain form or shape, without a specific design already planned. Almost like a sculptor, viewing a piece of marble and working to free the form trapped inside.

The OnlyWillow Silver Bee, fresh from the mould

Certain designs require moulds, which allow finer details, but also the ability to replicate, for example a matching pair of earrings. In this case, the object is carved by hand then cast in clay. The clay then becomes the mould into which molten silver is added and shaped.

Some pieces are created from silver wire or sheet. Shapes can be hand cut from the metal plates, for example a heart, which is then personalised, stamped with a message perhaps, and turned into a keyring. Wire can be easily manipulated into many shapes or added to a piece. When creating a unique piece, the process can involve multiple additions or removals before it is finished, with a cycle of pickling and polishing at each stage.

At the end of each stage of the making process, the piece is added to a pickling solution. This removes any residue flux or impurities from the metal and can take up to an hour. It is then polished, usually by hand during the process, but lastly in a tumbler for the final polish when the piece is completed. Polishing throughout the process helps to visualise if the piece is progressing as intended, it can highlight areas in need of more work or if parts have been successful.

Before the final polish, an oxidising finish can be added. The piece can be submerged in an oxidising solution that reacts with the silver turning it completely black, or the solution can be painted on in certain areas. The during the final polish, the outer surface oxidised layer is buffed away revealing the bright silver, but some small crevices remain black and this adds definition or an aged look to a piece.

A tidy studio, fully stocked and ready for the next project

The complexity of a design affects the amount of time taken to create a finished product. When in the studio, Olivia can work on multiple pieces at a time to save time waiting while something is pickling or polishing.  As a general rule we give a timeline of three weeks for each order, especially if designing from scratch and to allow time for supply delivery.

Finally, the items are packaged and wrapped by hand, ready to be posted or, before lockdown, locally collected at the shop.

We hope you found this enlightening regarding some of the finer details of silver jewellery making and you’ve gained a greater understanding into the complexities of silversmithing. If you are feeling particularly inspired, once lockdown is over, we recommend looking into courses you can attend in your local area, maybe you will have your own Eureka! moment.

Don’t forget to check out last week’s blog, Offers and Winning, for your chance to win a free necklace! Competition ends Wednesday 13th.

Stay Safe and Shop Local where you can.

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Written by Siobhan Green.