Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Science of Jewelry

Physics, Chemistry and Math. These aren't subjects one usually associates with jewelry, but they are very real, everyday matters when designing and fabricating a piece of jewelry. Science is not my forte by any means, but I've been fortunate to have always lived with men who love science and math. My dad was a chemical engineer, my late husband was a math & computer science major and my husband is a civil engineer. I've learned a lot from them and I'm always tickled with the everyday applications of these subjects in my jewelry designs.

A friend of mine was in my workshop the other day and asked me about some white powdery residue on a tray that holds my pickle crock pot. Clearly, I don't clean my studio often enough, but her question led to a discussion about chemicals used in jewelry fabrication. How, when sterling silver is heated, copper rises to the surface. Pickle solution (I use phDown), is an acid needed to remove the oxidation. Next to my pickle, I have a water & baking soda solution to neutralize the acid and copper tongs to avoid any contamination of the pickle. There are many other chemicals used in jewelry making; flux, anti-flux, polishing compounds... and the person working with these chemicals needs to fully understand the uses and risks of each.

Physics and spatial relationships also come into play when creating a jewelry piece. I love to have a little movement in my jewelry, but sometimes that movement creates a challenge to make sure the piece functions well even while the wearer is moving. I hate jewelry that twists and ends up being being backwards or upside down while wearing it. If the wearer always has to fiddle with the piece, then it isn't a functional design. When I first started putting multiple stones together in my jewelry, I wanted them to interact with some playful movement in addition to the colorful interaction of the stones. I joined the two pieces together with one simple (jump) ring. After test-driving the first piece for a short while at home, I noticed that it was twisting as I moved. My civil-engineer husband quickly suggested that I use 2 or 3 jump rings to give the connection a broader base, which in turn helps keep the piece from twisting. Ah-ha! There was a light bulb moment for me in his simple, everyday physics application! I had seen this trick in other jewelry work, but I hadn't realized its practical function until my husband suggested it.

I also need to have balance in my jewelry designs. Some people can live with asymmetry, I personally can't. If a piece has more weight on one side, it won't hang straight on the wearer. Adding silver balls or other decorative elements to a piece requires careful consideration of how each element adds weight to the piece and where the connections or bail will need to be placed to maintain the overall balance of the jewelry. In a pendant, the weight of a chain can make or break not only how the piece looks, but also how well it functions and drapes.

Math comes into play all the time in my jewelry fabrication as well. I use a formula based on the depth of the wire to calculate the length of wire I need to size ring shank accurately. I use geometry to find the center of a circle or to measure equal sections of a shape. Then there's the accounting needed to manage the business end of my jewelry. That's where my business administration degree comes in handy.

Science and creativity are both essential ingredients to design and fabricate unique, functional jewelry!

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