Often times as a jeweler, the most enjoyable aspects of working on a one-of-a-kind piece are the less stressful moments of finishing up a project. Making sterling silver chains from scratch is something I find relaxing and often cathartic; it’s a very different aspect from the conceptually-driven mainstay of my lockets/necklaces. In this case, every detail is caringly done from a single piece of round silver wire, and when complete, this handmade chain will be the suspension means for one of my new lockets.
Using a jeweler’s saw and winding the sterling wire around wooden dowels of various sizes, I create round jump rings that are first silver-soldered closed then pulled into ovals by using chain-nose pliers. My favorite pattern at the moment is alternating oval links with smaller round rings, with every fifth or so link attached to a triangular link that is painstakingly hand-fabricated also from round sterling wires. I measure 12mm for the top piece, score it in half, bend, and silver-solder it to a second fabricated element that is 16mm for the bottom piece. As much as I’m an American girl raised in the English system of measurement, I prefer to use the metric system of mm and cm measurements when doing metalwork, as it allows me to be more precise.
Using a “third hand” (metalsmith’s term for interlocking tweezers attached to a metal base) I place a fully assembled section of my chain onto the soldering pad and line up the opening of the jump ring near the top as I get ready to use the torch to silver-solder the smaller round links closed. The trick here is to assemble the chain on the soldering block as I move along, due to the oval links already being soldered shut and the seams lightly filed/sanded.
The part where it helps to be the most fastidious is in the placement of the silver solder pallions directly over both sides of the round link. This assists in the chain links being neatly soldered and knowing that the chain will be sturdy and unlikely to catch on clothing or pop open. As I move along the chain, I get into a routine where I place the solder pallions, heat the entire link with the torch, melt/flow the solder onto the link, then switch to the next link in the chain using tweezers only, as the overall chain will still be extremely hot. One needs to be very careful during this part, as wrong placement of solder or the use of too much flux can cause the solder to “jump around” the link’s opening. Jewelers learn early on to become rather ambidextrous, holding the torch in the left hand while constantly repositioning the tiny solder pallion with a soldering pic or steel tweezers in the right hand.
Once a reasonable amount of chain length has been fabricated and soldered together, I pickle and clean the piece, using a brass brush and mild soap to bring out the shine of the sterling silver. In this photo, about one-half of the final chain is complete. Now it’s back to the soldering block to finish the other side/half of the locket’s chain. Once both sides of the locket’s chain is complete, I place the chains in a rotary tumbler with a light burnishing compound added with pieces of steel shot. The tumbling of the silver chain against the pieces of steel shot work-hardens the chains and creates a brilliant glistening finish that’s really difficult to match by other means. While there’s quite a lot of “shop talk” about metalwork here, Rio Grande Jewelry Supplies in New Mexico, USA has extensive information on their website and is a fabulous place to look up specifics regarding the tools and materials jewelers use.
Meanwhile, a few rooms away and as this is all taking place, I have a soon-to-be eleven month-old “studio assistant” named Ivan. As you can see, he is an extremely “dedicated artist” and helps me maintain that level of low-key calmness that is imperative to my well-being as a metalsmith and studio jeweler. Ivan is a most loving male cat and a treasure to have with me during my workdays. Every artist should be as lucky as I am.
All images, creative concepts and objects pictured in this blog entry are copyright-2013 Patricia Sullivan / artdoesmatter and may not be used or duplicated without my permission.