Is CAD the future of jewellery design?
(CAD has now been embraced by the jewellery industry, many years after its inception)
In the 21st century it is plain to see that computers have entered every aspect of our lives, and jewellery is no exception. What is less clear is the degree to which consumers are prepared to tolerate standardisation within a market so driven by emotion, uniqueness, romance and the human experience. When most people think of jewellery being made they often conjure up images of the archetypal master craftsmen bent over his bench and making use of tools that would not have been out of place in the workshop of a medieval jeweller. Indeed when you visit many of the workshops in London’s Hatton Garden or Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, this is often what you find! There is something seductive about this notion and people seem to have been less willing to except the march of technology in this sector than any other. How many people give a moment’s thought to the fact that the car they drive every day was mass produced by robots?
(The traditional image of the jeweller at his bench)
Wax casting, the traditional method of crafting a metal object based upon a wax model, dates back to the time of the ancient civilisations and is still in common use to this day, as is the Archimedes drill, a hand drilling device invented in the 2nd century BC by the man himself. In the twenty first century jewellers now have the addition of a vast array of modern new tools and instruments to help them. Examples include laser welders, enabling different pieces of metal to be attached with a level of precision and on a smaller scale than was ever possible before. However by far the most profound development has been the development of Computer Aided Design (CAD). CAD owes its origins to the Cold War space race of the 1960s, when for the first time hand working and machining tools simply weren’t precise enough for the creation of supersonic aircraft and hypersonic spacecraft. These early machines were paired up with industrial milling machines that were adapted to work based upon computer created tool paths. The first major civilian use of the technology was to be found in the car industry from the 1970s onwards and their use has cascaded across all areas of manufacture in the decades that followed.
(The usefulness of CAD really came to the fore with enhanced computing in the 1980s)
CAD took a major step forward in the 1980s, as computing power rapidly developed, and it played a central role in the design and development of the space shuttle programme. Surprisingly jewellery was one of the last product design fields to utilise CAD technology, where it came into use even after fine art and sculpture took advantage of it. Crucially there are many misconceptions regarding what CAD actually is. Chief among these misconceptions is the notion of “handmade” jewellery and the fact that many people perceive fine jewellery as craft and design rather than product design. While there are common threads between the creative elements of craft, fashion and fine jewellers, the tools and techniques employed by each are often very different. In fact how many craftsmen actually use their hands and simple tools to create their work? Very many wood sculptors use power tools and chemical treatments to make the wood more pliable and even craft jewellers use a lot of wax casting, soldering tools and a vast array of small, powered tools in order to complete their work.
(CAD can enable 3-D printed models to demonstrate the appearance of piece)
When we reach the level of precision required of a fine jeweller it would be logical to suggest that he or she would need every ounce of help they can find to assist in the creation of pieces from designs as perfectly as possible. This is the key advantage of CAD, precision! However, akin to any other tool, it must be used skilfully in order to achieve the desired results. Herein lies the next common misconception regarding CAD, the notion that it is a short cut or an easy option, it isn’t. The ability of a CAD-aided craftsman to see how a design will look on a screen before they even pick up their first tool is one of the fundamental strengths of this technology. As the millennial ‘PlayStation’ generation, raised from a young age on computer gaming, begin to form an ever increasing percentage of the workforce the degree of literacy with these forms of technology is rising. This has also had the effect of opening up a whole new realm of possibilities regarding the development of affordable bespoke design to a new era of choice obsessed consumerism. It has also had the effect of de-risking bespoke creation for the small business, as they can now take an idea from a client and agree the perfect desired outcome before any gemstones or precious metals have been purchased or fashioned.
(CAD programmes are now more user friendly and offer greater functionality than ever before)
However, the level of skill required to complete a CAD designed piece is no less than traditional methods. To give you an example, if you were purchasing a bespoke suit you would expect the tailor to know how suits were made before he or she ever showed you a design. Jewellery is in this regard no different. When CAD is used correctly it can allow a designer to create intricate details and touches that may be very tricky or even impossible by traditional means. CAD designed jewellery works to best effect when combined with the traditional artisan skills of the master jeweller. Where technology and artfulness meet the results can be spectacular. A CAD based bespoke designer can give the customer more control over the eventual outcome than ever before, without diminishing the skill of his or her craft. When placed in this context, the new romance of being able to tap into your imagination to feed directly into a design is plain to see. This is made possible with the near limitless potential of CAD.