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Judging Quality

 

 

Judging Quality: Metals

A well-made piece of jewelry is an important investment. Know what you are looking for.

You know your car is in perfect running order because when you turn on the key, it starts up, and when you step on the gas, it accelerates--brakes work, horn, lights, check.

But how do you judge the quality of a piece of jewelry without any expertise? Sure, you can borrow a loupe and take a closer look, but how do you know the piece is made well enough to last?

We can't make you an expert overnight, but a little knowledge of how jewelry is made and what to look for in a well-made piece will give you some guidance when making a purchase.

Wax Works
Much of the jewelry being sold today is manufactured using the ancient art of lost-wax casting. Simply explained, it means carving a design, such as a ring, in wax, inserting the wax mold into a liquid plaster cast and when the plaster dries, melting the wax out. This leaves a hollow form in the shape of the design. Molten gold is poured into the cast and takes the shape of the original wax design. After it solidifies, the plaster shell is broken and the finished piece removed.

Of course, with modern equipment, casting can be done much quicker and in greater quantity than in the past. But the finished products still need to be hand cleaned and polished before they can be set with gemstones or sold.

When buying cast jewelry, look for a smooth, even finish, with no holes, bumps or porosity. If the piece is polished, the shine must be like a mirror, of equal brilliance on all parts. If the surface has a texture, such as diamond-cut details, a brushed or matte finish, it too should be smooth and uniform.

If the jewelry is made of several pieces, you want to see a seamless joining of elements. For example, in a ring with prongs or bezel settings, there should be no visible solder marks and no discoloration around soldered joints. Any stones must be set securely.

 

Throwing the Die
Die-striking or stamping is another method of manufacturing jewelry. Think of it as a cookie cutter in dough. Two dies are made, in the positive and negative versions of a design and a sheet of gold is shaped between them. Sometimes, only the top of a stamped piece is raised, the back is flat. This is a technique used in bracelets and necklaces, where the flat side rests against the body, the raised side faces out. Other times, such as for earrings or pendants, the piece is rounded on both sides, giving it a three-dimensional shape. Either way, stamped pieces need their two sides to be soldered together.

As you would with a cast piece, look for a smooth shape with no dents or scratches and no visible solder marks.

Electric Avenue
Another fairly new method of producing jewelry is electroforming. This process borrows elements from both casting and die-striking and can be used to produce a very large, rounded, hollow design. To electroform, a wax mold is given a chemical coating and put into an electrolytic bath. The design is charged electronically to make the gold adhere to the surface which is built up a step at a time. After the piece has the desired thickness, it is removed from the solution and a hole is drilled to drain out the wax. The hole is then filled in.

The ideal piece of electroformed jewelry is large, rounded and very light in weight. There are no soldered joints. The surface should be uniform and smooth and there should be no nicks or dents in it. Care must be taken when wearing or storing this kind of jewelry as it can be damaged easily. The advantages of electroforming are the jewelry's extreme lightness and its large size; a similar design would be too heavy or too costly if done using either stamping or casting.

 

 

 

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