“Ever hear of ‘crawl, walk, run?'” an exasperated instructor once asked, “Ever TRIED crawling first?” I can hear her now, over my latest fiasc…er, learning experience: Making deliciously enameled and jeweled jewelry boxes that are themselves jewelry.
Most creatives start simply, with an easy class project, slavishly following the teacher’s directions. They practice, practice, practice until–one day–they have the skills to make something great.
Not me. While other beginners are running scales, I’m playing Scarlatti. Very badly.
I call this “learning the hard way.”
Frequently my most important lesson is that I need a good grounding in the basics. Yet my try-fail-try-fail-try-fail cycles teach me what NOT to do, and–most important–how to recover from nasty mistakes. That’s something that would happen far more slowly in the crawl-walk-run scenario.
Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
The right way to learn to attempt enchanting enamel-and-jewel boxes:
- Practice silversmithing: Cut out a bunch of flat, simple shapes and maybe a few frames, a finding or two, and possibly some tiny details.
- Take up silver soldering, and attach all those things to all those flat blanks. Then dome them.
- Take some classes in metal vessel forming (like maybe anticlastic raising), stone-setting, hinge- and clasp-making, and engraving. Use that to dome the flat, soldered shapes.
- Learn to enamel, then make ninety-leven-thousand enamel sample pieces, to understand how enamels behave when thicker, thinner, and on different substrates.
- Now attempt your first box, in a cheap(ish) metal like brass or copper. Practice all those new metalsmithing techniques on them, so you don’t waste precious silver, until you’ve nailed it.
- Carefully test out your design plan on the first box.
Uhm…no. Not when your mantra is, “I want it NOW, and I want it DELIVERED.” By step 3; my brain would be all “been there, done that, burned the t-shirt, so MOVE ON,” and I’d wander off to start creating planets from scratch or something.
IOW, I have the attention span of a gnat, which will probably prevent me from ever becoming a real artist.
So I’m making four–FOUR–lidded silver boxes, complete with a large stone set in the lid and pendant or pin findings on the back. I want to add enamel–cloisonne and champleve–on the interior and exterior of box bases, add some patina, polish them up, and craft jeweled, handmade chains for them to complement the design.
Oh yeah: What the heck am I talking about?
Last September I had this idea for making enameled silver boxes, set with my favorite cabochons. I was thinking along the lines of the glorious confections crafted by the Faberge family in pre-revolutionary Russa, only at my skill level or just beyond, not theirs.
Like Faberge, though, I wanted more than just a pretty tschotke. I wanted them to be actual, functioning jewelry boxes. The idea was to integrate jewelry into the box itself, such as making the box lid into a pendant, complete with its own necklace. The pendant’s chain would store itself neatly inside the box, giving me…
(wait for it) Jeweled jewelrybox jewels as jewelry
Whoa. Say that fast ten times.
At a casual glance, these boxes might look simple, but in reality, they’re massively complex, requiring high-level skills I’m pretty sure I don’t have:
- Engineering a structurally sound box with relatively thin walls (i.e., a 3D hollow form)
- Securing the lid on the box
- Controlling shrinkage rate and volume when firing the metal clay
- NOT making the box look as if it were drawn by a drunken toddler
- Setting fragile, non-fireable stones
- Preventing enamel stain/clouding on silver
- Enameling vertical surfaces without having all the enamel slide to the bottom
- Foiling a textured/champleve enameling surface so that the damn foil stays UNDER the enamel
- Setting cloisons firmly in my enamel base WITHOUT distortion
- Achieving a consistent, even enamel-to-metal surface
Naturally, this is what I choose to do with my spare time.
For those who haven’t been here before, this blog is the equivalent of my lab notes; it journals my forays into making stuff, detailing recipes, processes, and experimental outcomes. It’s been invaluable in the last 15 years or so, giving me a place to turn when I’ve misplaced instructions or forgotten exactly which colors gave me that thing that I love. I suspect there’s no one on the planet that has reread these posts more than…me.
To avoid turning this post into the jeweler’s equivalent of War and Peace, though, in this part I’ll talk about the processes I used to create a usable, not-ugly box out of persnickety metal clay. Later on, I’ll talk about the really tough parts: Building out the rest of the box, including a pendant lid, enamel, and matching custom chain.
Maybe. (Remember: Attention span of a gnat)
If you learn from these posts, please help me learn, too: Add any helpful tips, observations, and critiques in the comments below. I could use ’em.
Easy part: Coming up with design ideas
To be practical, the boxes would be relatively large, as metal clay boxes go, since they need enough volume to hold the pendant chain. I could save a LOT of money by making them in bronze, and there are some gorgeous examples out there (Aussie Gold Bronze being one).
Unfortunately, many of my favorite enamel colors turn sludgy-brown in contact with a base metal, or the metal contains enough zinc to make enameling well-nigh impossible.
I’m having enough trouble just getting a decent enamel coating on fine silver and gold. I’m sure there are methods for enameling on bronze, but with absolutely no idea how to go about that, silver it is.
At a reasonable wall thickness, each box will average around 1.75 OUNCES of silver (probably one reason you don’t see many of these). That’s almost exactly the amount in a 50-gram packet of silver clay.
Have you SEEN the cost of silver lately? Ulp.
Let’s talk materials and prices: Today’s silver price is around 90 US cents per gram, so 50 grams of pure silver would run about US$45.
A 50-gram packet of silver clay is typically a little more than 2.5 times the market price of the metal, so that’s gonna cost me around $120. Add in false starts, discarded “learning experiences,” and extra for fabrication–you do a lot of routine trimming and sanding with metal clay–so make that about 2 ounces/56 grams for each box.
$135 just for the metal clay. Ouch. I need to make every sculpt count. Heaven only knows what I’d have to sell these for to make a profit.
Sterling silver clay contains less pure silver, of course, so you’d think it would be substantially cheaper. It’s not; I’d only save about $8 by going the pure sterling route. (I’ll talk more about the sterling vs fine silver question a bit farther down the page). Either will work here, even though the copper in sterling silver tends to contaminate and cloud the enamel, because I’m going to be adding a base of 24K gold foil beneath the enamel that should act as a barrier.
$135/box–not counting the cost of stones, enamel, stone-setting bezel wire, gold foil (another OUCH, with gold at around $1,800/ounce)–is ‘way expensive for experiments. Fortunately, I’d purchased a stash of silver clay when prices were a fraction of today’s AND my vendor had a great big sale going on. It brought the price down to about $48/box. Whew.
Plus, unfired silver clay is completely reusable. You just grind it up (I keep a traveling coffee grinder just for this purpose), add distilled water and a little lavender oil, and massage it back into usable clay. It’s not quite as good as fresh clay, but certainly works in low-detail areas.
This still wouldn’t be a cheap project, however, so I minimized waste by doing most of my designing and functional tests in cardboard and painter’s tape. The little paper boxes I created (AKA maquettes) let me validate the design in 3D, make alterations, color it, photograph it, and cheaply try, try again until I was satisfied. I also had sculpting wax and polymer clay standing by to test basic shapes and make internal scaffolds to support hollow paper forms.
Doing it that way helped me eliminate clumsy concepts and maybe 60 percent of truly dumb mistakes, so that by the time I pulled out that precious clay, I had a pretty good idea where I needed to go.
Choosing stones and shapes
I started with the easiest: An simple oval box. I chose a thin oval, picture jasper cabochon or, more accurately, an “Ellipso Planetary Orb Jasper” cab of about 7 carats.
It’s not an expensive stone, but its striations of blue, green, aqua, and saffron are striking. Better still, its colors lend themselves to the easiest enamel colors. Warm-toned enamels are MUCH harder to work with.
Enamels continue to be my bete noir, so anything I could do to simplify that part of the project would help.
The stone’s colors flowed in cloud-like patterns, which gave me the idea for echoing the design on the box base, layering enamel and possibly cloisonne wire to continue the pattern. I called it Cloudbox.
It would be sensible to finish Cloudbox before moving onto the next but… remember: Attention span of a gnat. I had enough clay for five boxes, so:
- Rainbox. Its lid would contain a simple, raindrop-shaped Amazonite, and echo that in slanting champleve raindrops down the enameled sides of the box. Again, the gorgeous aqua colors are the easiest enamels. Whew.
- Rubyflower. Someone gave me a beautiful little ruby crystal. I think it’s actually a cleavage, not a naturally grown crystal, with roughened faces, and uneven hexagonal edges. I wanted to echo those edges with flat panels I could enamel, which got me to thinking about delicate little opaline drawings of flowers, rather like old botanical illustrations. I’d duplicate the crystal’s shape with a hexagonal box. By then, I’d hope that my enameling skills had progressed enough that I wouldn’t screw up the purples, magentas, and red tones I envisioned.
- Twistbox. The fourth box came later, for an inexpensive, triangular gem silica cab. Normally a big piece of gem silica is anything but inexpensive, but this was mostly clear quartz with a few beautiful turquoise swirls. I thought my boxes were TOO conventional, so for this one I wanted a twisty, rising, organic shape.
I stopped there; I liked Twistbox so much I decided to rethink the whole conventional, symmetrical box thing. If I ever get to Box Five (which will use a cushioned rectangular Pietersite), it’s going to be more sculpture than box.
Making the box bases
The cardboard maquettes let me play around with size, volume, and basic shape, giving me an idea of how the stone would perch atop a hollow silver form. I can think about bail designs and how I’d actually attach a chain to a box lid.
Maquettes don’t, however, give me insight into the nitty-gritty details of metal clay box construction. At some point, I need to actually try building the box. For that, I needed to set some basic requirements:
#1: NO ENAMEL ON THE LID! I’d leave the lid pure metal with a set stone.
I’ve learned from sad, costly experience that enamel spatters during firing. Even if you’ve dried the damn stuff like a desert, carefully cleaned every single spec off your metal, the piece will emerge from the kiln with tiny little glassy specks in the wrong places.
The great enamelists figured this out long ago, which I think is why they tend to make their enamel/metal confections into a single, homogenous surface with smooth, shiny metal spaces: They can just grind everything down at the same time, ensure that metal is totally bare, and then polish. Done.
I tend to make tiny, detailed carvings with more crevices and undercuts than flat spaces; it took trying to enamel exactly ONE of those to learn never to do that again. (A year later I’m STILL trying to get the enamel out of the detail.)
Besides, the lids to these boxes would need to fit the box, and even the tiny layer added by enamel could alter that fit. Keeping the lids metal-only would allow me not only to trim the fired lid, but also to add more metal clay if necessary.
#2: Engineer for enamel. Sharply angled or square corners are problematic for enameling. It’s tough to get the enamel to stick on a thin, sharp area, and even tougher to keep it from chipping off an exposed corner during the finishing process. Worse, even a successfully enameled corner is easily chipped when someone handles or drops the finished piece.
I’d minimize the edge problem by adding thicker silver borders, ensuring that no enamel edge was left exposed. That would make these champleve boxes, where the silver defines and protects the enamel void. They’d be just barely higher than the anticipated height of the enamel, allowing me to grind down the metal to match.
Rainbox, for example, had a slanted, pointy termination, rather like the prow of an oceanliner, with raised raindrops cascading down the sides at the same angle. I added raised bars on either side of the point, which made that feel of movement even stronger.
Cloudbox turned into an extruded eye shape when viewed from the top, and I added a frame to the edge and matched it with a thicker, flatter base to give it some grounding. That gave me plenty of grind-back room.
I also added champleve frames/borders to each of the six panels in the Rubyflower box, which hopefully would strengthen the relatively thin panels and minimize distortions.
Simple, straight-sided joins can come apart in the kiln–firing metal clay causes significant shrinking–so hopefully the thicker borders would both protect the enamel and keep the box from coming apart.
Twistbox was the most challenging to make. Metal clay has about as much structural integrity as hair gel, so even thick, heavy slabs won’t stand up on their own. I wanted the box to twist almost in a triple helix, rotating as it grew, offering up the stone to its wearer.
Easy to envision, bloody difficult to reproduce in metal clay (or paper). I tried building a hollow cardboard mockup, intending to simply drape the metal clay across the sides, let it dry, then put it together. Failed three times.
I cut a bunch of cardboard profiles exactly the same size as the intended top and simply stacked them, rotating each one in the stack. Could NOT get that to work. In retrospect, I should have stacked about 250 pieces of cut paper and tried again, because the cardboard I was using was too thick to give me smooth transitions. Anyway, wasted (recycled) a bunch of clay in the process.
The waxes I had on hand were too stiff to bend properly. Frustrated, I grabbed a handful of polymer clay and started sculpting. It worked. FINALLY.
The polymer was soft enough to let me mold and shape easily, and when I had the extruded fat triangle I wanted, I applied gentle pressure to rotate and twist the sides.
Then I rolled out sheets of fine silver metal clay and draped them across each side of my form. I let them dry naturally–heating them would also cure the polymer clay, so I just let them sit overnight. Then I trimmed each side, joined them together, and added edge borders using thicker bars of clay.
I added a bottom to the box, which wound up looking rather flat and boring. Instead, I added a thick, inset base and rounded it back, away from view. Hopefully, this would help give the appearance of floating.
Choosing the clays
As mentioned, there are trade-offs in your choice of metal clays. While my primary deciding factor was the fact that buying more clay was prohibitively expensive, there were still considerations in what I did choose.
Metal clay typical comes as a 92.% or 96% sterling silver as well as a nearly pure 99.9% silver (fine silver).
CoolTools’ EZ960 and Aussie Metal Clay’s 960 Sterling are 96% silver, which I think (don’t quote me) makes them a bit easier to fire and also easier to depletion-gild when you want to remove the copper from the surface for enameling or soldering.
I had a good-sized stash of the Aussie 960 and a couple packets of Aussie 999. I planned to use the 999 for the panels to be enameled, and the 960 for structural members such as reinforcing champleve frames and lid/pendant backs.
Why? Sterling is quite a bit stronger than fine silver clay, so it’s an excellent choice for anything that must bear weight, i.e., clasps, bails, hinges, rings, pendant forms that might take a lot of punishment.
However, it also contains copper, which can react with the chemicals in warm-colored enamels (and even some clear) to form an ugly greige cloud in the final piece.
Fine silver (999) is a better choice for enameling, especially with the gorgeously luminescent lead-based enamels such as Hirosawa, Nihon Shippo, and Ninomoya. Even then, warmer-toned golds, yellows, pinks, oranges, purples, and reds–and sometimes even the browns–need at least one layer of silver-neutralizing clear enamel (called flux) and probably a layer of thicker gold foil between the metal and the glass. The separation prevents discoloration, and the foil adds amazing depth and shimmer.
960 and 999 look very much alike in the final piece (or at least I can’t tell much difference), but they’re supposed to be be tricky to use in the same piece without cracking or coming apart. Honestly, I’ve never had much trouble in that direction, but I’ve certainly been warned off trying it enough times.
Best-laid plans and all that; early on, I made a silly mistake with labeling that wound up mixing most of my silvers together. Drat. These boxes wound up being constructed of a hybrid clay that’s probably closer to 98% silver than anything. If I choose to use the standard “925” sterling hallmark, it’ll be an understatement.
Not a huge deal, since I’d planned to coat the to-be-enameled areas in foil, anyway, but a continuing reminder not to get sloppy.
Refining and firing
Fabulous as it is, metal clay is really sucky to work when it’s wet. It doesn’t hold its shape well and it’s sticky stuff that drags at your tools, so adding fine shape and detail is an exercise in frustration. You can add a release–olive oil, CoolSlip, cornstarch–to the clay, but that can degrade the material.
The trick is to relax and work in stages. Get the shapes as close as you can, rough in the detail, but keep your dimensions loose and a little tiny bit bigger than you’ll need.
Just get it 90 percent of the way there, and let the clay dry naturally if at all possible. When the clay is leather-hard or dryer, you can easily trim, shape, and carve to the final design.
Same goes for 3D constructions: Build in slow, careful stages and take your time. For these, I constructed simple copy paper templates of each side of the box, rolled silver clay slabs to the right thickness and cut out pieces with the templates. I draped the pieces over the model I’d made and let them dry thoroughly.
Then I assembled each piece with metal clay and slip (watered-down clay), let THAT dry, and added other components and decorations.
At any point I could fire the pieces. As long as you don’t polish them (which makes it harder to stick things together), you can add wet, unfired clay to a fired piece. When you have really delicate You can add wet, unfired clay to a fired piece, especially if you haven’t polished it yet. The fired clay will be rigid, which can make it much easier to attach delicate parts.
I reserved the fresh clay for the fiddly, more detailed list and structural frames and used recycled clay for the wide, smooth and flat areas. Recycled clay has more of a tendency to chip or come off in chunks, which gets progressively worse as you continue to recycle. I used my smaller sculpting tools to shape curves, disposable surgical scalpels to create perfectly perpendicular frame edges the same width along the entire edge.
The final trim ensures that any area where enamel meets metal is perfectly perpendicular to the horizontal enamel surface. Wherever enamel will meet metal; enamel shrinks as it cools; if it meets up with undercuts or slopes, it can crack or chip.
Once I finished trimming, I went over each box with a disposable cosmetic applicator dipped in distilled water, rubbing down and smoothing the surface to clean things up. This is an essential step (I think) because it evens out the clay surface and moves clay slip (diluted clay) into undetected nooks and crannies that might otherwise pit the final surface.
Some metal clay artists suggest this as a final refinement step, but when I’ve tried that the fired clay had a rougher appearance. It almost looked as if I washed part of it away, the way you would expose aggregate in concrete, leaving a sandpapery surface.
Metal clay is metal flour held together with an organic binder that burns out between 700F and 1100F, leaving tiny voids between metal particles. As a result, metal clay is more porous than cast/sheet metal, which makes it weaker, more prone to cracking when you try to shape it after firing, and harder to solder. Burnishing compacts those voids a bit and slightly hardens the surface, giving it a smoother appearance.
I embedded each box in a ceramic container filled with prefired garden-store vermiculite. The silver clays I used do not require a two-stage firing and don’t need to be oxygen-deprived as reqired by bronze, copper, and iron clays, so only a single firing is necessary.
However, hollow shapes like boxes can still distort or collapse during firing; by embedding them in vermiculite I can at least partially prevent that. I’ll switch to much finer alumina hydrate flour for very delicate tendrils and other detail–it provides good cushioning and support without trapping and potentially breaking the piece.
I used a pretty conservative schedule for these:
- AFAP 1100F, hold for 30 minutes
- AFAP 1650F, hold for 4 hours
- Off/freefall to room temperature
This is longer than the recommended schedule, but the four-hour process time seems to help strengthen the piece, probably by giving the metal more time to sinter (melt together) and collapse some of those binder voids. I don’t really need the initial hold, either–in glassmaking this would be considered the “bubble” squeeze, but I like to do it to ensure that every scrap of the binder is gone and I’m giving the clay more time to sinter.
The inside and at least part of the outside of each box will be enameled, so it’s not really necessary to bring the box to a high, smooth polish. They still need to be prepared for the final, post-enameling finish, however. I ran them through a few sizes of abrasive wheels with my JoolTool, getting it to a reasonable polish, and shaped a couple of areas that distorted during firing.
So far, so good. In the next post, I’ll talk about the MUCH harder step: Crafting lids that looked good, followed the design intent of the box base, were easy to enamel, and actually FIT THE BOX.* That’s a lot harder than it sounds.
* In reality, the lids and boxes are constructed together and fired in the same batch to ensure they shrink at the same rate. It never really seems to work out that way, however–there’s always some distortion or uneven shrinking that mean you spend additional time refining, refiring, and fitting. It’s a whole lot harder than making the box base, and worthy of its own post.