Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pop Goes The Pendant

A couple of months ago I got an email from an shopper, (from Belgium!), asking if I would be able to make her a bracelet like the one worn by Megan Fox in the Transformers movie. She sent a blurry screen capture of the bracelet on the actress. It was a pretty simple design, just a heavy link chain in sterling silver with a big key hanging from it. I decided to rent the movie to get a better look at it, to be sure that I got it right, and in the whole film, I don't think there were more than 45 seconds of screen time with that bracelet. I went ahead with it and, from what I could tell, it came together quite well and she was very pleased with the product.

She was so pleased, in fact, that she emailed me again and asked if I might be willing to make another piece for her. This time, she had better pictures. It was a pendant that is worn by the lead actress in a television show called the Vampire Diaries. I've never seen the Vampire Diaries, (I don't have cable.) But from the pictures it looked like a fun challenge. The design is sort of complicated, lots of little pieces. In the show it is a locket. In my version, I had to simplify it. I didn't have the time, (or the skills) to make an exact replica.
My Belgian friend agreed to the simpler pendant design and decided that she would like a different stone instead of the garnet, she wanted a lapis lazuli cabochon instead. I found a stone for her and went about fabricating the many pieces of the pendant. The main pendant is made of two sterling silver discs, domed and soldered together. The embellishments on the piece are silver balls made from balled-up wire, and wire pieces with balled-up ends. So to make the piece, I started with shaping the silver discs. Then I made lots of silver balls of different sizes by melting short pieces of wire, on a charcoal block, until they rolled up into balls. Next, I cut several lengths of sterling wire and melted each end to create a ball-end. Each of the wires were then shaped and cut to fit the pattern on the pendant in the picture. The bail for the necklace was another wire, balled at both ends and shaped to fit atop the piece.

When you work with metal and fire, there are lots of things that are important to know. It is easy to set things on fire, or melt things unintentionally, or burn yourself when working with torches. Sometimes this is part of the learning process. This is why people get paid lots of money to make jewelry. This is why people get trained by folks who already know this stuff. Well, I have gotten some training, and I have done some reading, and I have burned myself and melted a few things I didn't mean to melt. This pendant was a new lesson for me and one I will not soon forget. I am writing this to pass it on to you folks who may try this sort of thing at home.

After I got all my little pieces shaped, balled, domed, cut and such, I took the now domed, silver discs and soldered them together to create a round silver pillow shape. It came together nicely. I filed off the excess solder and refined the finish a little so that I could begin the process of soldering on all the little pieces that I had made. Setting up the pieces to solder, I realized that I would need to get several parts set so that I could solder many down to the piece at one time. This would require sweat-soldering the little parts, which is basically, melting solder onto each of the individual pieces, so that they would solder onto the larger piece when it was heated to soldering temperature. When you are attaching little parts to a larger part, you have to get the larger part hot enough to melt the solder on the little part, without melting the little part into a puddle on your larger piece. This can be a challenge. Sweat-soldering would give me a little more control over all those little pieces and I could get nearly all of them set up on the pendant and get them soldered down at one time. The less I had to heat that large piece, the better. Each time you heat a piece that has been soldered already, you have to use a different solder with a lower melting point, to avoid melting the last solder. It is a complicated thing to have many pieces to attach because you can only heat the thing so many times before you mess up something that you've already done. So, I was a little stressed as I was getting this all set up. I do a lot of praying, (and cursing), when I'm soldering.

Well I had it set up very well, I had about half of my little pieces set upon my little silver pillow and I had two torches going. I swirled the flames around and around trying to heat up the pillow nice and evenly. It was just beginning to glow and then, BANG!!! and someone screamed, (maybe that was me) It sounded like a gun went off! My pendant had disappeared right before my eyes. All my little pieces were gone. My heart was racing. Frantic footsteps pounded up the stairs and River found me there staring at my soldering bench in disbelief.

River asked if I was ok and I checked myself and realized I was. I looked all around my soldering bench and found my silver pillow hiding behind some fireproof soldering brick. My pretty little silver pillow popped! I had soldered the two pieces together and left no hole for air to escape. So stupid! What a rookie move! I didn't think about it, but you can't heat most things that are air-tight without them popping. Air expands as it heats. That air inside the pendant expanded enough to break the soldered seam on the pendant. Wow.

I looked all around the floor and found some of the little wire pieces that I had made, but I ended up remaking several of them. I had set a deadline for myself to get the piece done, so I needed to get back to it but I was frankly a little skittish after that. I knew logically that if I left the seam open, it would not be able to explode again, but fear is an emotion, and emotions aren't logical. I set up the piece again, with many of the little pieces carefully placed and soldered them down. After soldering all the pieces on, I felt a little calmer and a lot smarter.
When I was finished with it, I was glad to be done. Even though it wasn't a perfect replica, I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

I got an email last week from my friend in Belgium. She wrote again to say that she loved the piece and that she has gotten lots of compliments on it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bi-metal Meltdown Part Deux!

They say that your prayers always get answered, though the answer may not be the one you wanted. When I finished working on this ring, I was praying that the bi-metal wedding band would not have to be sized up again. I really wasn’t sure the ring, or I, could take it. But, the answer to my prayer was, ‘Tough luck’.
I bought a ring sizer so that I would be able to do this again if I had to. I got one of the inexpensive Rathbun ring sizers that they sell at Rio Grande. It is a simple design, using percussion to stretch the ring from the inside out. I was psyching myself up for the arrival of the ring. “It will be easy.” I said to myself, over and over. All I have to do is stretch a little and anneal it, stretch a little and anneal it and stretch a little more. I would just be careful and go slowly. That was all that I needed to do.
So, when I got the ring, I annealed it and stretched it a little. I was so afraid to break the ring that I wanted to be sure to anneal it every few attempts at stretching. As I did this, that little, slightly noticeable gap became more and more noticeable. Each time I hit the tool with my hammer I prayed that the ring wouldn’t break. It seemed to take forever to get it to stretch even the tiniest bit. I got it up about a quarter size and I decided to stop there. I polished it and fretted over the noticeable gap in the gold band. I hammered the band to try and force the ends of the band closer together, but it didn’t help much.
I showed it to River, my quality control inspector, and she immediately found the gap. She gave me that look that says, ‘I know you can do better than this’ and I knew I had to figure it out. I had no idea how I could fix it, but I knew that I wasn’t going to deliver it like that or pay someone else to fix it. I just had to do what Yoda taught me. Just try, and if you mess it up, fix it.
I thought, maybe I would flow a little gold solder in the gap and that would reduce the appearance of the gap. No such luck. I couldn’t get the solder to flow. It just stuck to the ring at an odd angle that turned the ring into a wannabe box cutter. That wouldn’t do. I pickled it and fluxed it again. I applied my two little torches to heat up the metal to the point that it would flow the solder but not the gold. It got that scary look like the gold would melt right into the silver and before I could take the torches away I heard the snap. The ring broke, right at the gap. The seam of the ring opened right up. Aaaaagh!
I was so frustrated. I wanted to blame my quality control department for the awful fate that had befallen me, but Yoda loomed in my head, ‘just try and fix it.’ I threw it in the pickle pot and stewed over my fate for a few minutes.
Then I took it back to my bench pin and sawed through the seam with the solder and the porous silver. I filed the ends so they would match up neatly and I wrapped it in wire to hold it closed while I, once again, soldered it closed. It looked like hell by now and the gold was even further from touching. I have learned that gold and silver do not expand at the same rate. At that point I had to stop and walk away.
When I come up against a problem when I am working on anything, I have learned that I have to stop when I reach a certain level of frustration. I just can’t think about it anymore. I have to walk away and do something else, anything else. I just have to trust that the answer will come. It always does.
I left the studio and went to go make dinner. While dinner was cooking, I scoured the internet for advice on soldering gold to silver. I found an article that said use silver solder, not gold. It flows at a lower temperature than gold. That might be the answer, I thought. I finished making dinner.
Back in the studio I took a small cutting of gold and soldered it to the band with silver solder. It worked just fine. It looked ugly, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed with files. Hopefully the silver would hold out. It did.
I went at it with files and emery boards and my flex shaft. I worked on it until I couldn’t see the seam anymore. It took a while, but after all of that, I finally reached satisfaction. I took pictures and called my client to come pick up his ring. I took all the pictures of the bad side of the ring. I could barely see it. Can you? Unfortunately, the quality control department was unable to review the product before delivery. The client was happy with the ring, but it still felt a little tight. Let us pray…

Friday, April 3, 2009

An Honor to Honor Young Gay Rights Activists

My friend Naomi is organizing this Gay/Straight Youth Summit for kids in Reno tomorrow. She has been working on this project for months with the assistance of some great young advocates that she wanted to honor with a special award. So, much to my surprise, she contacted me and asked if I could make them a piece of jewelry with a gay rights theme. Sure I could!

Naomi and I protested together at a couple of rallies after Prop 8 passed in California. I had made a lapel pin that expressed my frustration with the inequity that we as gay American citizens face. My sign that I carried in marches around the State capitol, in San Francisco and in our home state of Nevada displayed the same symbol. Not equal, not yet. (c)2008 (Disclaimer: I know that this isn't a not equal sign. The slash goes the other direction. I corrected that, but this is the only photo of the pin I have right now.)

I wanted the pieces for the gay youth advocates to be more positive than that, so I came up with another concept with some of the same symbolism, but a more hopeful approach. It felt good to make those pieces for such a worthy cause. I am honored to be able to be a part of honoring youth in service to their community.

Lapel pin for Gay Youth Advocate and Straight Youth Ally

The symbolism of this design involves the following components:

The circle with the equal sign incorporated expresses that we are all part of a whole and we are all equal. The inverted triangle is a reference to the gay rights symbol derived from the pink triangles emblazoned on the sleeves of gays in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and early 40's.

The pin is made of sterling silver with a copper accent. The copper triangle is oxidized by flame to bring out the bright colors. As the gay flame lights up and brings out the color in our world.

Designed by Susan Mika Coyote of Suz Coyote Studio

Bi-metal meltdown! Part 1

So, I made this wedding ring, my first piece combining gold and silver together. It was surprisingly challenging. I assumed that I could just solder the gold to the silver and it was a simple as that. Not. I set up the ring stock with the silver band on the bottom and narrower gold band on the top. I used gold solder, thinking that would make my joints look better and make the gold stand out more against the silver. Well, the first thing that happened was that when I heated the perfectly aligned, fluxed pieces, the gold piece slid sideways and became attached, off center to the silver piece. Nice. So I heated again and pulled the gold off the silver and took another stab at it. I just couldn't get it to be centered and the solder was not flowing. I began to get nervous. I had to call my mentor for help. I didn't want this to be FUBAR.

So, I contacted my personal metal smithing Yoda. He was more than happy to help. I went down to his studio with my catawampus piece. He took a look and went to his soldering bench. He lit up his big acetylene torch and heated the piece until it looked like it was going to melt into a pool on the soldering pad. He pulled off the gold and I cleaned up the pieces so that we could take another try at it. I wanted to know what the "right way" to do it was.

After I finished filing and sanding off all of the leftover gold and solder, he laid the two pieces together, just as I had done originally, and then he held them together with self-locking tweezers. Ah, that was it! Of course, you have to clamp them together to keep them straight! Well, not so much. He had a heck of a time getting the solder to flow, just as I did. I thought it was my lame little torch, or my lack of information, no, just my luck. Again he heated it until it looked like it was just going to melt away, in my head I was praying that I wouldn't have to go buy more gold to make this ring again. Finally, it was soldered on fairly well, and I took it and cleaned it up. When I was cleaning it I noticed, that it was not straight, (Even when Yoda did it the "right way" with a tweezers). The gold was just going to be crooked I thought. What can I do to fix it? Yoda said to me, 'that's what files are for'.

So I filed and filed until it looked straight enough to me and then it was time to move on to the next step of cutting it the proper length, shaping it into a ring and soldering it closed. I asked Yoda, what his technique was for assuring the measurement was correct. He did as I do, and got the Bible according to Oppi Untracht. We looked up the proper length and he cut it. I was hoping for a little tip, there was none. In the construction industry they say "Measure twice. Cut once." I think those are good words to go by, (and easy to remember). Yoda was a pro, so I had no doubt that he could measure and cut without my assistance. Not that day. I guess that I could have said that thing about measuring twice, but I didn't. It was about 2 full sizes too short. Aaaaagh, now what!

Yoda didn't sweat it; he just went about soldering it closed. "Then we can size it up with the ring sizer" he said. The silent prayers began again. It took about 10 tries to get it up to the size that it was supposed to be. Every couple of times that you stretch it in the stretcher it needs to be annealed so that it doesn't break. When you hammer on metal it stiffens, when you anneal it, (heat it until its red), you rearrange the molecules in the metal so it becomes malleable again. So, stretch a little, anneal, stretch a little more, anneal, etcetera until you reach the size you need it to be.As Yoda stretched the ring the barely noticeable join in the gold of the ring became a noticeable gap. The gold didn't expand at the same rate as the silver. So the silver would stretch more than the gold therefore, gappage. I have a somewhat critical eye, so I am not a good judge of my own work when there is a flaw. I tend to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But, I couldn't do that with this ring. I had a client waiting for it and I needed to get it done. I was not going to disappoint him or his wife, who convinced him to have me make his replacement wedding ring. This was the ring I had and I was going to have to make it work. I was going to save the baby and the mother and then take a bath.

I thanked Yoda for his assistance, paid for his time and took my pathetic looking project (FUBAR),home to my studio to see what I could accomplish on my own. I always learn from Yoda. Sometimes it's not the lesson I intended, but that's life, eh? What I knew when I left there that day was; I knew what I needed to know in order to do what I had to do. I just hadn't the confidence of a man doing it for 30 years. It's not always possible to avoid mistakes; it is about being able to fix them.

With time, files, my flex shaft and some emery boards I turned that ugly expensive piece of metal (FUBAR),into a pretty ring, with a slightly noticeable gap. I presented it to my client and he was very happy with it. It was a little snug, but he had lost the last one because it fell off. So he decided he would give it a try and let me know if he needed it to be sized up again. (Again with the silent prayers.)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Shop Renewal Clearance Sale- 50% Off

I have a nice selection of bracelets, necklaces and earrings, and sets, made with semiprecious beads and sterling silver beads and findings. I really love finding pretty beads and combining their metaphysical energies to create pieces that are beautiful but with a purpose. I have a real affection for handmade sterling silver beads from Bali, so you will see them in most of my beaded jewelry.

I started making beaded jewelry about 15 years ago. As I have learned more about the stones and beads in my jewelry I have developed new interests in metal work and other styles of jewelry. So I am shifting my focus. And as I do, I am letting go of a lot of the pieces that I have made in my 'beaded period' at incredible prices.

Every piece of beaded jewelry in my shop is now on sale at 50% off. I have never had a sale like this and I'm excited to see what will happen.Here's the link:

I'll be adding more sale items soon, so bookmark my store and check back again.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Customer is Always Right

It is magical, in my opinion, to take an idea and turn it into physical object. As I've said before, I really enjoy making things for people. I love collaborating with a client to create a piece that they will cherish. Most of the time, the design process goes really quickly. I am able to capture the intent of the work relatively quickly, draw up the design and then I'm on to fabrication.

I have had one especially tricky customer. She has such a clear idea of what she wants that it should be simple, but for some reason, it usually isn't. You build a relationship with a person in the process of creating. In this case, the relationship predated the creative process by about 10 years. I guess that has something to do with the added challenge.
This summer, when River and I were going to get married, (again, this time legally, for the time being anyway) I wanted her to have a wedding ring that I made her. (Besides, I lost her last one on our trip to Hawaii.) So I asked her what she wanted.
Of course she had a perfectly clear picture of what she wanted. Something "butch" but also with "bling". She picked out the ring stock, and the stone. I told her, 'there is no way that will look good.' We discussed it further and I decided I would give it a try. (I buckled.) I was sure it was going to be a disaster. She wanted two big thick rings next to each other, but not touching and a great big white topaz on top. It would look heavy and awkward and would be a never-ending embarrassment to me, or at least until death do us part.

The concept was simple but the execution would prove to be rather challenging. The rings were formed on a "finger-shaped" mandrel which is a sort of rounded square. This would add to the already boxy design we had going. If you're going to do it, you might as well go all the way.
So, to attach the rings together, yet not allow them to touch, I used the setting for the stone as the only point of contact. I had a heck of a time getting those rings attached to the setting with proper contact, straight and evenly spaced. It took about 6 tries, soldering, unsoldering and re-soldering, but eventually I got it right.

During the finishing process, I had a lot of cleaning up to do around the setting and that left the bands pretty scratched up. I filed and sanded down any stray solder. Then I brushed the whole ring on a bench grinder. I liked the look. The brushed finish saved me the drama of having to polish it to a perfect shine and I liked the contrast of the brushed metal and the shiny stone. So, I set the stone and showed River. She loved it. I had to admit that I liked it when it was finished. It certainly suits her and she has gotten more compliments on that ring than on the expensive diamond rings we had made for us years ago.
One evening when we were out to dinner a woman approached us as we were leaving the restaurant. She actually grabbed River's hand and said she had been staring at her ring all through her dinner and had to get a closer look before we left. So, I guess River's idea was a good one.

Didn't they use to say, "The customer's always right"?

Yes, Honey, lesson learned.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

It's not an Orange and Purple Snowman...

I love making presents, even if, maybe especially if they are for someone else.
So, at Xmas party a friend saw my jewelry, River's wedding ring, and said she wanted to have me make something for her.
A few weeks later she contacted me and said she wanted me to make a pendant for her friend's birthday. Yeah!
So the process goes like this:
She wants a cabochon that relates to her friend.
I send her pics of all my cabs with recommendations, She decides.
I make a 3 cool sketches with the moonstone cab that she wanted.
Brandy loves the sketches, but remembers that she and her friend already got matching moonstone pendants. (Bummer)
Brandy picks a couple of new stones. So, back to the drawing board. This time with the computer, fewer steps. ( I like the second round of designs better!)
Brandy pics a design and we are off to the races.

So I went into the studio and started fabrication on the piece. I marked up the sheet using the stones as templates. the made bezels for each of the stones. I roughly cut out the sheet backing and soldered the bezel down to the sheet. This sounds a lot easier than it is. The small one went quickly, but the larger one took about 5 tries to get the solder to flow all the way around. I trimed the edges of the backing sheet and shaped them into ovals to match the cabochons. Then, filed, sanded and polished until all the edges were even and smooth. The I shaped the tubing into a curve. (Again easier said than done.) Tubing will collaps when you bend it unless you fill it up with something that will prevent that from happening. Some use pitch, some use ice, some use wire. I decided to combine two things and use bamboo skewer, shaved down to fit into the tube, then for added drama, I soaked it in water and froze it. I bent the tube, and it still kinked. But in the end I think it turned out alright. Maybe I will try pitch next time, (or purchase a piece of bent tubing.) I challenge my self by using the most basic of materials. I am beginning to understand that sometimes shortcuts are more about efficiency than laziness.

So I hope that Brandy and her recipient like the pendant. I am happy with how it turned out. What do you think?