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.