Silver Drops Blog

An Exploration of Silver Jewelry Design and the Life of a Designer

One time I was mailing a ring to my wonderful casters at Race Car Jewelry and I learned a valuable lesson.  The engagement ring I was making had a very expensive stone in it and I wanted to insure the package for the amount of the ring.  Before I went to the UPS store I did my usual routine, I packaged up the item, wrote the address on the envelope and placed the box inside the envelope.

I did package it more thoroughly then I normally would for the casters, the important part is that I sealed it completely.  When I showed up to the UPS store on a Monday afternoon I asked for the amount of insurance I needed and the owner of the franchise, helping a different customer, heard the amount and immediately walked over.  I won’t lie I was bit upset when he asked me to unpack the item, show him the stone and then allow him to take a photo.  Then he asked me to scan the documents proving the quality of the stone for him.  Part of me was put off because he and I knew each other pretty well.

I realized that moment I had been really naive.  And he told me that this is a good idea because if it did go missing this will protect me more.  So I unpacked the item he took a photo we repacked it again placed it into a higher quality security box, shipped it and when I got home I emailed him the documents.

In the future if you have to insure an item in the mail for a more then lets say a thousand bucks make sure that you can show the item to the store owner, bring paper work showing the value and go in the morning when less people are at the shipping location.  This way you can avoid the hassle and keep yourself safer.

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The last year has been a humbling process in life.  I finished graduate school (not in the arts), found a job and then moved to a completely new small town in a new State.  Starting a new career and living in a new city combined with no one in my nearby social network meant that some things had to be put on hold.

For me, my jewelry making was put on hold.  I had to focus on different goals.  These goals included learning a new job, getting acquainted with a new area and making friends.  All of which are challenging when combined with working full time and without the flexibility of the student life and part time work. .

Putting things on the back burner is fine for a short time.  The difficult stage is when do you put those goals back on the front burner?  I have found it is very easy to keep saying, “I will get back to that next weekend.”

The problem is that it becomes “next weekend” to infinity.  The only solution then is to set a date.  And, fortunately I always have found that after I take a break from the arts I slide back in perfectly fine.

Perfectly fine is not complete accurate.  The knowledge and skills are still there but the strength may disappear.  Those little muscles that have been toned for months may have gone a bit slack.  Before this break I could saw for hours before my hand became weak; now it may be thirty minutes.  In time those muscles will come back.

In addition a break can also give some good distance, causing a fresh look at the style of the types of pieces that I work on or new techniques upon which to focus.  This distance can also create some ideas for marketing and goals for the business side of the jewelry making.  Breaks are sometimes what a jeweler needs.

Just remember to get off the back burner and to work.  Which is what I am going to do right now.

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The pickling of silver while working on it is really important.  The main reason to pickle silver is to clean it in order to solder it.  Often people confuse clean with polished.

Polished silver is not clean silver.  This may seem confusing, but let me explain.  After silver has been cleaned in the pickle by acid all the oxidized material on the surface is removed.  Oxidized silver looks black instead of shiny and copper oxidation looks green.  Non-oxidized silver looks white in color.

When you polish silver you are actually adding a chemical, generically called rouge, which does deoxidize the silver but also actually adds more chemicals to the silver to make it look shiny.  Why is this distinction important?

Clean silver from which the oxidized material has been removed is what you want when you solder.  The oxidized material and any other stuff, like finger grease, will interfere with how the solder flows and reacts.  I even use steel wool to remove oxidized material from the solder before I cut it and then melt it.

If you try to solder polished silver problems can often occur, which can make soldering difficult.  The chemicals that make the silver shine are not neutral and some them can be toxic when burned.  Not only will the chemicals mess up your solder flow and heat distribution they can also cause health problems.

The best way to keep this straight is to remember clean silver is for soldering, polished silver is for the display case.

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When I first started doing metal work I was in a studio owned by a school.  They had a strict policy about food and drink in the studio.  This policy was the same when I was taking classes at Lil Street in Chicago.  Although, the rules were bent for water bottles or tea it wasn’t that big of deal.

The reason for this policy is because school studios are usually set up with a series of large tables that have nothing on them where the majority of the work is done.  This work includes sawing, filing and sanding.  Then there are a bunch of workbenches set up with flex shafts and then a few stations under vents for the torches.  All the dangerous chemicals were at the torch stations and because those areas were in high demand the students didn’t spend a lot of time at them.  As a result I would leave my beverage at my table station and not bring it to the torch or flex shaft stations.

Now flash forward a few a years, and I have a studio set up in my home.  I don’t have three or even two workspaces I only have one.  This is where I saw, file, sand, hammer, drill, grind and solder.  That means there are lots of nasty chemicals that could make my life very unpleasant if I happen to drink them.  All the containers for the chemicals have warnings like “If ingested call poison control.”

At the same time during long periods of work it is nice to have water or something to drink.  My golden rule is nothing that can be ingested or imbibed can be on the workbench.  If I have a drink its kept on the floor, a chair or and end table near my work space.  This way my mind knows that anything on the bench is not to enter my body.

I know it is easy to start bending rules.  At the same time when working around chemicals that can kill you, its always better to play it safe.  This is even more true if you live alone or your workspace is far away from other people.  If you do accidently poison yourself it might be difficult to find someone fast enough to help you.

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When I first started selling my jewelry there was only one real way start and that was at Art Fairs.  Some people were starting email lists but the idea of an artist with a website was laughable.  Amazingly, finding art fairs were almost all word of mouth.  Artists would learn about fairs that were advertised in their area in newspaper, posters or from other artists.

The Internet changed this world.  I know many artists who sell enough online that they never go to art fairs anymore.  At the same time it is hard to resist the lure of being able to make $500 to $10,000 in a weekend versus over the whole year.   These little boosts can make a huge difference in the bottom line for a year.  But, do your research before you decide to participate in a fair.  There are many hard and soft costs involved in doing an art fair.

The Kind of Fair

Before you select a fair you need to know your market.  If you don’t know who buys from you, then don’t just starting signing up for fairs.  Talk to your customers and do some research.  Different fairs have different mentalities.

The first fair I ever did was in Colorado and was hosted at Colorado College.  This art fair had a mixture of some very high end and some medium end items.  It also allowed some venders that other fairs would not have allowed, such as people selling CD’s of their music.  I did this fair for 2 years from 2003 to 2004 and did pretty well.

I also sold at the Community Art Fair next to the 57th Street Art in Chicago in 2005.  This fair was much more high end compared to the one I did in Colorado.  One of the big differences with the Community Art Fair was that many of the customers expected to use credit cards because so many of the items were so expensive.

In 2008 I did a horrible art fair, which was horrible for several reasons, but one reason was my items were not the right market.  Most of the people who came were very hippy and could not afford my work.  I had a similar experience at an art fair in Bloomington.  Although I did well in the sales at the Bloomington fair the primary audience consisted of people who were part of hipster and alternative scenes, and once again they could not afford my work.

I have realized over the years that my main market is women in their mid 20s to early 40s with good incomes.  They tend to be liberal but are mainstream liberal.  I do not sell well in the pearls and diamond market or to high school kids.  I also don’t sell well in markets that want an image of something like a heart, state or skill.


Location is important on two counts.  Is your market there? What is the set up?  Where I currently live in Portsmouth Ohio my market is very small.  There are lots of Flea markets and other rummage sales but my market doesn’t attend those in large enough numbers.

Therefore, I need to find out if my market is in nearby locations.  One thing I look for is large universities in the surrounding towns about 120 miles away.  The people I tend to sell to live in university towns or in larger metro areas.  If you know the income bracket that tends to buy from you, looking in the USA census can help you identify appropriate areas to look for fairs.

The physical set up of a location is really important.  Is it in a nice convention center?  Is the art fair outside?  Is it located in an old warehouse with no parking?  These are really important.  Countless factors affect whether a customer, or the right customer, will show up.  I always ask about parking, bathrooms, shade, rain protection, food, near main walking drags and access to ATMs.  Depending on the location and the demographics some of these factors may be more important but in general they are all important.  Another big issue with location is the cost.


When selling at an art fair there are always hard and soft costs.  The hard costs are table fee, gas for transportation, renting fees (such as a table or table cloth), tents (if outside) and a hotel if the fair is far away from your home.  Soft costs are loss of time during the fair, time spent preparing for the fair, sales that could be lost from online shops while at the fair and potential idea theft.

Some of these costs cannot be avoided such as a table fee and idea theft.  Every fair has a table fee and the moment other artists see your work ideas they are likely to be borrowed.  At the same time other costs can be minimized or even neutralized.

For example I only do indoor fairs now.  I decided I don’t want to invest in a good tent and doing fairs indoors saves me that cost.  In addition I have minimized costs because I try to sell at art fairs that are only 1 day.  This way I save on transportation costs.  I have noticed in general that I sell roughly the same amount at a one day fair that I sell at a multi day fair.  I will only do a multi day fair if I have a free place to sleep and I try to avoid sales that start on Friday evening and go through Sunday.  That is a rough weekend.

Another cost is the set up of the table.  One way I have reduced the cost is that I use old books as risers.  I don’t put the books on my table but I cover them with a large black velvet sheet.  This way my table looks nice but I don’t have to drop 200 bucks on displays.

Some of your hard costs are continuing costs, such as buying display items.  What I try to do is calculate all the hard costs and then determine a minimum amount that I need to meet in order to cancel out all my costs.  So let’s say I have a $75 table fee, $10 to rent a table, and $15 for gas I need to make a minimum $300 to break even.


Choosing art fairs is hard.  Do your research because if your market is not there or if the art fair is in a bad location you can lose some serious money.  I have made these mistakes in the past and I try to learn from them.  In addition, art fairs are really draining and it can take a few days to recover from them.  My last recommendation is that if you have never done an art fair choose a small one with a less expensive table fee and work your way up.

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The final ring in Sterling Silver

Once the ring has been sent away you think that the stressful parts are over.  Not true at all.  Here comes the waiting game, documenting, sending and hoping the girl wants the ring.  Many of these events are out of your control so dealing with them is a big tenuous.  Remember to smile and keep going.

The Wait and Receiving

After the ring is sent be prepared to wait.  The least amount of time a foundry will take can be around 3 weeks.  I have waited up to 10 weeks at busy times of the year.  Therefore be patient and hope it gets done quickly.  Sometimes clients won’t understand that this wait is normal.  To keep them happy just be honest and polite by emphasizing that this wait is out of your hands.  You can also tell them that good work takes time.  When the ring is shipped to you the complexities don’t end.

Remember items with a high amount of insurance can’t just be left on your doorstep.  You need to be there in person to receive it.  Sometimes the shipping companies will not even let a neighbor sign for it.  Therefore figuring out how to drop off the piece can be a bit complicated.  If you have a full time job you can have is shipped there but that means you might have to carry around an expensive ring with you all day.

I found a great loophole.  Have the ring shipped to your home and if you happen to be home it is like winning the lottery.  If you are not home have the item delivered to the nearest drop off location the next day.  For FedEx Kinkos and for UPS Mail Boxes Etcetera will hold it for you to pick up after hours.  A foundry will never send an item by US Postal, too risky.  You can drive out to the central processing point but these can be in random areas outside town, usually near an airport.

Photos and Sending

After you get the piece take photos.  Never trust the client to send you photos.  Either they won’t be high enough quality or most likely will never come.  Because the client is busy and if the woman says yes they have to start planning a wedding.

If the time is tight and you can’t guilty trip a photographer to take photographs take them yourself.  Use natural light, a good lens and a tripod.  These might not be professional quality but they will be good enough for your portfolio.

Before sending items make sure you have received full payment for the ring.  This is true no matter what the relationship is with the client.  If they promise to pay more for faster shipping make them pay in advance.  Most likely the insurance will be so high that it will be overnight shipping anyway.  Package the item but don’t seal it.  Most likely the shippers will want to verify the item before shipping for insurance.  Send it off and hope for the best.

Hoping She Says Yes (and doesn’t cancel)

As the maker of this ring you are in a tough spot.  Most likely you have built a relationship with the client.  What if the bride-to-be says no?  Well you can have a shop policy about this but even with that it’s a tough call.

Part of the deal of a handmade ring is that it is one of a kind and made for that couple.  Unfortunately, you can’t just think, “Well why don’t you use this ring for another couple its still one of a kind.”  In addition many people don’t like buying the rings from failed engagements.  It could be superstition or it could be the fact that they want their own.

As a small jeweler I can’t really afford a failed engagement and try to make that clear.  At the same time I don’t want to be a jerk.  I sit and hope for the best.


The ring at the wedding

Making engagement rings is extremely rewarding.  Just a few months ago I attended a wedding where I had made the engagement ring for one of my best friends in College.  The bride had no idea and the groom contacted me in secret.  I didn’t know the groom, although the process of designing and making the ring made us closer.  At the wedding I was so touched to see the two of them bound together by a ring I had made.  For the rest of my life, part of my work, and myself, will be part of their marriage.

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Have a great holidays!  I will be off with my family for the next 10 days so there will be no posts until I get back and it will be the final part of the Ring Series.



Ready for Sanding

At this point the ring is looking pretty finished, except it is in wax.  The edges are a bit rough but that can be fixed.   And, at this point I am usually behind and bored with working with wax.  Remember once again don’t send pictures of the product to the client until you have completed the finishing.   Also this is the phase you will most likely break it and if you do break it there is no salvage except starting over.

Finishing the Wax

100-sandpaper is your best friend when it comes to finishing wax.  You can use the oil lamp and some tool but one slip and bye, bye stone setting.  Get several pieces of 100-sandpaper and slowly rub down the piece.  Do all the outside surfaces and as much of the inside as possible.

Look at the stone at the first phase of sanding

The inside can be challenging because of sandpaper doesn’t bend well.  You can either cut small pieces of sandpaper and slowly move them around or build some tools.  I usually take a few Popsicle sticks and design some sand paper files to reach the most difficult areas.  All you have to do is cut the Popsicle sticks to the shape you want then use masking tape to attach the sandpaper.  You may have to replace the sandpaper a few times.

Go slow and take your time.  There is nothing worse than destroying a wax piece right before you send it off.  Also remember there is a time to stop.  It is easy to sandpaper forever.   At some point you have to decide the piece is completed, either because more work more it will exceed the budget, or because you just have to stop.

Sending to the Foundry

The hole on the inside

When you send the wax mold to the foundry there are a few general guidelines.  First write a note with clear instructions and include your name, phone number and business card.  Then take the item over to FedEx or UPS in the morning, I would not use US Postal.  These businesses are almost always less busy in the morning.

Insure the item for the value of the stone.  If the stone is valuable, like a diamond, you might have to show it to the staff at the store and bring a proof of value.  In addition, for high ticket items you might want to use one of the security boxes they sell.  It is not necessary to use a security box, but if you don’t and the item disappears it will be much harder to collect your insurance.

Also follow the directions that the foundry gives you for mailing.  I use Race Car Jewelry and when you ship to them they request that you list the address as RCJ.  This address is intended to help prevent theft during shipping.


Ready for the foundry

Now that the item is shipped to the foundry you can track it there and be relaxed when it arrives.  Then you can sit around and wait because foundries can take a long time before they cast your work.  Be prepared to wait up to 6 weeks during a busy time of the year.

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First big hunks removed

At this phase in making the ring it is a good idea to have the image of the ring nearby.  As stated earlier, don’t show images at this phase to the client, unless they make jewelry themselves.  For most people it is difficult to imagine the final appearance of a white-gold ring in rough blue wax that doesn’t reflect a ring at all.

Removing Hunks

The first step is to hold the piece up and look at it closely.  Remember that the vast majority of this wax will be removed.  Score the piece with a wax tool to create a rough outline.  If possible this is the point where you can remove large hunks.  The reason why you remove large hunks is that it will be quicker then using a grinding tool.

I score the area I want to remove.  I leave plenty of room so I have wax to work with when making the final design of the ring.  The best way to remove large hunks is with a saw.  I load the saw blade and then start to cut.  Remember, as with cutting with the saw earlier, that the blade gets hot and will melt the wax slightly.  Cut out the areas that need to be cut and look at the piece.


Time for the delicate work

Remember to be careful with removing large hunks.  It is much easier to remove then to add when working with wax.  Leave plenty of room to play with when you cut away.  It is a balance, the more you cut the more time you will save.  At the same time the more you remove the less you will be able to change the piece later on because clients love to change their minds.

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Measuring the stone on the wax

The client did not want a diamond, which was perfectly fine with me.  I do have objectives to blood diamonds and they are hard to avoid.  Another issue with diamonds is that they were not traditionally used in engagement rings.  In the 1930s DeBeers paid Hollywood to make engagement scenes in movies using diamond rings.  For this ring the client wanted a blue stone so I encouraged him to go with a blue topaz.

Digging the Stone Out

Digging the stone out is possibly the most important step.  The stone on a ring, especially an engagement ring, is the central area of focus for most people.  If this part is done carefully it can make steps further down the line easier.  Never try to make the hole for a stone unless you have the stone actually with you.

Initial Dig Out

The first step is to mark the center area where you want the stone to go.  Take your wax tool of choice, mine is a pointed blade, and start to dig out.  This is slow going and can take a fair amount of time.  In general, when I do wax work I limit myself to thirty minutes a day to prevent mistakes.  As you dig out the hole, drop the stone in and make sure the stone fits.  Now you have to make sure the stone is deep enough into the ring or it will look like a sky scrapper jutting out the ring.  Even after the stone is flush you may have to continue digging for a while removing slabs from the top of the wax mold.

After the ring is deep enough and flush be sure that the inside is smooth and looks good.  This can be done by using one of the smaller grinders and sand paper.  Remember that the stone needs to fit in perfectly for everything to work better later on.


The stone fits

With the stone deep enough and flush I was ready for the next phase, getting rid of big hunks.

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