Costume jewelry, different from fine jewelry, by its name means jewelry that compliments fashionable outfits. The term first appeared in a New Yorker article in 1933, and since then the materials used and production techniques have went though kaleidoscopic evolution with time.
> Although miles away from fine jewelry in terms of value per unit, costume jewelry also has its huge appeal on global market. In 2009, imports of costume jewelry to the United States of America totaled at some $1.6 billion. This shows the growing popularity of these affordable accessories.
> Sadly, most people only care about what the jewelry is made of, and who ( the brand) made it, though it’s the process of making it that essentially defines quality and craftsmanship. So let’s find out how most of the costume jewelry is made.
> This is done with pencil and paper, as the designer’s idea of an earring, a necklace, a bracelet, a bangle or a ring is formulated in his mind and in drawing. The inspiration can come from nature, classic vintage pieces, archive of the company’s collection, other forms of art, or out of thin air.
> At this stage the choice of alloy and gemstones is roughly oriented, which would be finally determined based on advice from modelers or engineers.
> Details of the finished product is illustrated and polished at this stage. Professional artists draw further enriched diagrams of the item from all angles. This helps the later work, since it’s more realistic than the pencil draft.
> Most of the final corrections are made in these diagrams.
3. 3D Modeling and Rendering
> Modern manufacturers of costume jewelry has long introduced Computer Aided Design（CAD） technology. With the help of the software, jewelry modelers generate photo-realistic renderings of the desired work.
> The design should be perfected during modeling and rendering.
4. Wax Model Carving
The first mold, or master model of the entire production process is created out of wax, sometimes resin or other materials. Computer Aided Machining (CAM) is used in milling the wax block. Milling machines specifically designed for jewelry work together with the hands of expert wax carver to ensure zero disparity from the 3D model.
5. Lost Wax Casting
> This technique of casting the metal part of the jewelry has a history of nearly 5000 years. Now with the advanced mechanic engineering and improvements made by metalsmiths, the process of lost wax casting can achieve the finest detail and most solid quality possible.
>The wax is, of course the central agent of the casting, and it’s used twice throughout the process. Lost wax means the wax model, mind you, not the master model, eventually melts away.
> The process can be divided into 13 steps:
1) The master wax model, soldered onto a wax stick, is tightly pressed in between two pieces of soft molding rubber, which after vulcanizing are left with the impression of the master model, then cut back into halves or more. The duct left by the wax stick is for wax injection;
2) Liquid, molten wax is injected by machine into the vulcanized rubber mold. When cooled, the wax turns into the exact shape of the master mold. This step is repeated to created a few or dozens of “flexible wax models” ;
3) The flexible wax models are fixed onto a wax cylinder called the “sprue”, which is held by a round rubber base.
4) Now the “wax tree” comes into shape, which is placed inside a cylindrical metal flask;
5) A certain mixture of plaster-like material, in the form of “investment power” is thoroughly mixed with water, resulting in the “slurry”,;
6) The slurry is filtered ( be rid of lumps) and poured into the flask containing the wax tree, and dries up, usually in a vacuum chamber to avoid air in the investment, which leads to porosity and cracking;
7) The flask goes inside a kiln, which slowly and gradually heats it up to 700 to 1700 degrees Celsius (depends on the materials in the investment, wax and alloy), this step is where “Lost Wax Casting” gets its name from, for the wax is melted and discharged through the gauge in the center of the rubber base. It takes as long as overnight, and eventually a cavity is formed inside the investment, catching fine details of the wax models;
8) When the investment mold is ready, alloys of the jeweler’s choice are melted and ready for casting. In the world of costume jewelry, inexpensive yet non-toxic alloys are used, which usually have similar color of gold or silver. Gold-looking alloys can be: brass, Everdur silicon bronze, manganese bronze, brass, etc.; while silver-looking alloys can be: zinc, lead free pewter, Britannia( 92% copper), bismuth alloy, etc..The choices are vast, while lead and cadmium are avidly avoided due to the latest laws and regulations.
9) The melted alloy is pour into the cavity from the top of the sprue, then the cast is carefully fixed onto a centrifugal device, either manual or electrical, rotating at a controlled rate, ensuring complete filling of the molten alloy into all parts of the cavity;
10) Soon as the alloy inside the cast cools down and hardens, the cast is dipped into cold water and quenched;
11) The investment plaster is knocked away and separated from the metal, which has completely replaced the wax and is now the so-called “jewelry tree”;
12) The individual jewelry pieces are cut off the jewelry tree and cleaned of the remaining investment, then buffed by hands or machine with soft fiber surface;
13) The full metal jewelry pieces or metal part of the pieces are re-polished by hands or machine and cleaned for final look.
> Typically, costume jewelry is plated with rhodium, gold, silver or copper. The electroplating process achieves better luster and hygiene ( preferably silver plated copper, especially for items related to piercing, e.g. earrings, studs, belly rings. ).
> Electroplating is a technique that puts a thin layer of metal(usually rhodium, gold, silver, platinum, copper, brass, palladium or ruthenium) onto the surface of a jewelry piece, so that the original appearance of the jewelry is enhanced and the artistic effect is achieved.
> The process consists of five steps:
1) Cleaning is needed before the electroplating process in order to achieve the desirable result.
A suitable acid is applied to remove the oxides which may exist on the surface.
2)An environment has to be created for the electroplating: a piece of equipment called "rectifier", of which an anode constituted of the metal layer connected to the positive terminal, a cathode constituted of the piece of jewelry connected to the negative terminal, and a tank containing dissolved metal bearing salts called “electrolytic cell”.
3) The anode and cathode are immersed in the electrolytic cell which is then powered on. When the electrical current passes through the cell, the bearing salts catalyze the metal to dissolve and then gather on the cathode to which jewelry is attached.
4) The rectifier is powered off, the jewelry removed from the tank, ready for the next step called “electropolishing”.
5) Electropolishing equipment includes a cathode and ananode both composed of stainless steel, titanium, etc.. The bath is electrically heated up, then a system stirs the liquid in the tank to smooth and brighten the jewelry’s rough surface.
7. Stone Setting
> Gemstones used in costume jewelry are non-precious ones, often manmade, e.g. cubic zirconia （high quality ones highly resemble diamonds), manmade crystal, amethyst, quartz, topaz, citrine, ametrine, pearl, jade, turquoise,garnet, etc.. The two types of gemstone surface are faceted and cabochon.
> The process of fixating gemstones on jewelry is called stone-setting. For costume jewelry, stone-setting techniques are not much different from that of fine jewelry. Some new-fangled costume jewelry use adhesive. Conventionally, gemstone settings fall into five categories.
> The bezel is a miniature round cup that holds the gemstone. It’s bent into the shape and dimension of the stone, which attached to the jewelry by inserting into the bezel. The stone’s top raises over the bezel’s opening.
> The most common setting, for it saves the most metal in making a gemstone piece. Prongs refer to the teeth-like metal branches that are burr cut at the ends, fitting the angle of the stone. Also, this setting allows the gemstone to show its radiance in more entirety.
> This setting is more often than not for small stones, often found in costume jewelry. One or more rows of stones are lined up in the metal made in the shape of channels, slightly chiseled on the inside edge to keep the stones in place.
Bead Settings (Pave Setting)
> The surface of metal is chiseled and then cut with a ball burr, this way tiny holes the shapes of gemstones are made. The stones are fit into the holes, and usually glued, too. Since the surface is almost covered by bead-like tiny stones, this type of setting is also called pave setting.
> This setting at first look is similar to bead setting. However, the metal surface around the gemstone is push to encircle the stone, till it’s flush with the metal surface.
> Acrylic and other plastic, leather, wood, etc., can be seen as parts of a costume jewelry piece, adding to its exoticness.
> Some alternative materials such as acrylic, are much more malleable than metal and gem. Therefore, they can be carved, molded, cut, chiseled, bent, milled, knitted, ..... into countless shapes. And the time and effort it took to make them are insignificant compared to that of metal.
> In today’s costume jewelry market, booming even more due to diminished buying power under the recession, there are generally two ways on the internet to acquire the costume jewelry to your heart’s desire.
> One is service provided by made-to-design jewelers who materialize your ideas. On their websites you can find inspirations to design your own unique jewelry. It takes a jewelry enthusiast to communicate well with such websites for satisfactory results. The known made-to-design websites are:
~ Green Lake Jewelry
~ U Design Jewelry
~ Design It Jewels
> Browse through finished fashion/costume jewelry section of online stores. Usually the manufacturers offer the best deals and largest number of choices. Take Beyond Jewelry Limited for instance, the company is based Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, China. It is capable of creating 10 new designs per day. The array of options for any costume jewelry lovers is, beyond a doubt, vast.
> So next time when you go shopping for costume jewelry online, bear in mind how they are made, then you may have a keener eye in observing the quality and craftsmanship behind their luring rays.