DESIGN AND PROTOTYPING
So going from idea to a design process, how does that start?
– Well, first of all, every design process is a part of the larger design history. That’s just how we work, as human beings; every idea builds on other ideas other people had before, we’re always recombining and reinterpreting the mass of creative human output and all trying to add our own originality to it.
Anyway, practically speaking most of my designs begin their lives in one of my sketchbooks – you know, good, old-fashioned paper ones. Sometimes it’s a fast-track process, and the design immediately moves on through execution – others lie there for years, percolating at the back of my mind somewhere until they’re ready. Some are prototyped right away, others need more time. At any given time – including right now – I’ll have at least, oh, 40 or more design at various states of completion, from sketches to near-finished. Obviously this requires a lot of discipline if I’m ever to hope finishing any of them. On the other hand, I’ve worked this way for years and it just seems to be the method that suits me best.
You mentioned protoypes – how do you get from a sketch to a physical prototype?
Well, I believe a first prototype is needed pretty early on, if only to establish things like size and base proportions.Often I’ll simply start 3D modelling directly from a pencil sketch. This way, prototypes can easily be 3D-printed. Other times maybe I’ll model something in white clay that does the job, or make some other form of early physical model. It usually goes in the 3D scanner as soon as it’s taking shape, though, so I can continue the work in my 3D programs. They’ve become an integral part of how I work – I use different kinds of 3D software, and have done so for more than 15 years.
We have a bunch of machines – 3D printers, CNC routers, mills etc. – inhouse, they’re quite indispensable for this kind of work. Even when you’re used to working in virtual 3D, it’s still through a 2D screen, and until you can bring the object out into reality and touch and feel it, it’s much like looking at pictures. You have no true sense of dimensions, weight etc. Even with my experience it’s difficult to predict exactly what a design will look like “in the flesh”. I always build mockups of my furniture and lamps, too, for the same reason. My design process has definitely become faster and shorter using modern 3D technology.
This is the phase in which the ideas take shape. It’s the domain of Men Up North’s lead designer Thor Høy, so we’ll let him explain what goes into it.
Where do all these ideas come from?
– An idea for a piece of jewellery or an accessory can come from anywhere. Often, when I find myself in a place where different areas overlap. Different skillsets, interests or focus areas influence and inspire me, especially when they mix – much in the same way my jewellery work influences my other work, like a pendant inspiring a lamp, or the shape of a ring giving rise a vase.
Yes, you also do product- and interior design – how does that affect your jewellery work?
– Well, the material side, for one thing. With jewellery we mainly use gold, silver and precious stones, of course, but through my product work I’m always looking for new materials and processes. Every time I learn about a new process or substance, the ideas come flying into my head – some of them I may act on right away, and others just nestle themselves somewhere in my mind, only to pop out years later and inspire a new design.
I find it very important to know about material characteristics, at least to some extent. There are things metal can and cannot do, same as wood, or porcelain. We should always be pushing these boundaries, but to do that meaningfully we have to know what they are. Also, with knowledge of the material, a design naturally becomes more uninhibited – the nature of the material can be part of the design process from the beginning, like how to shape it and finish it and so on.
Do you think these processes should keep getting even faster?
– I think it’s important to be very careful with speed. It’s one thing that we can speed up design processes but I’ve worked in some big, international design houses where things sometimes went through the entire production pipeline without time for testing before market introduction. There’s a trend towards an unnaturally high speed with which new products go to market. It becomes a kind-of vicious cycle, where the companies compete for their customers’ favor by pushing more things out – which brings the customers to feel that only the latest things are good enough, because why else would they keep coming? We should really be making fewer things that have greater value and can last longer. I know it’s easy to say – there’s always some balance that has to be struck.
Is that also for the sake of sustainability and things like that?
Yes – I certainly believe that everything we consume should be manufactured responsibly, both with regards to people and the environment. It’s a fundamental condition, in my view. Also, let’s make things last. Things that can be inherited, or sold on and used by others. Things that retain a core value – through materials and design. Let’s design things so we won’t get tired of looking at them. To make people happy every time they’re taken out or put on. To me, that’s what sustainability is all about!
– and yes, I know, I’ve made things in plastic that would have lasted longer if they were iron. There’s that balance thing again…
A “master” is the original, finalized version of a design. It’s needed in order to produce numerous copies of a piece, and is still necessary, despite the existence of high-quality 3D printers. It’s left unfinished and usually is between 1-9% larger than the finished item, and it’s the basis for the rubber molds used to cast item copies. Melted wax is pushed into these molds under pressure, and cools off into an exact replica of the master. Our casters – here in Denmark and in our neighboring countries – usually make their own molds.
When casting multiple items – which is usually the case in manufacturing – the copies are mounted on a wax stem, protruding through a rubber cuff. The result is called a “casting tree” or simply “tree”. The cuff can receive a tube, known as a “cuvette”, into which plaster is poured to create a plaster mold around the wax tree. While fundamentally simple, this process has to be carried out with the utmost attention to details. The copies have to be placed on the tree just right, so as to allow for the metal to flow and fill the mold properly, and the plaster for the mold is a special, fine type of plaster which is mixed under a vacuum to prevent air bubbles. Even pouring the plaster into the cuvette happens under a vacuum – even the smallest air bubble can ruin the result.
Once the plaster sets the rubber cuff can be removed. You can now see the bottom of the wax stem, protruding where the wax will flow out when the mold is subjected to a very high temperature. This happens in an oven running a special program which, over about six hours (typically), slowly raises the temperature in stages. When all the wax has melted off, the cuvette is taken out of the oven and placed in the casting machine. In the machine, the exact amount of metal required is melted – too much and the machine is damaged, too little ruins the casting and sets the process back to square one – and poured into the mold. This happens in an oxygen-free atmosphere to prevent oxidation; the chamber is usually filled with an inert gas (argon or nitrogen).
The cuvette, now glowing hot, is allowed to cool slightly, then quenched in water. This causes the plaster to break apart, releasing the casting tree. The tree is then cleaned in a five-step process which removes all plaster residue and any impurities, leaving the metal with a dull, greyish-white surface. The individual copies are cut from the stem and are sent on to renovation (finishing), assembly, soldering, stone setting etc., depending on the finished piece.
Watch it happen:
The lion’s share of commercial jewellery manufacturing today is casting, due to the versatility and flexibility of the process. This wasn’t always the case – even fairly recently the quality level casting could achieve meant it was less widely used. Today, however, the highly refined processes and equipment allow us to cast to a very high degree of accuracy and quality. This is why casting is the core process for most of our items.
A few of them are directly manufactured, however. For example, the “Spring” cufflinks, which are drawn from a single piece of properly-gauged wire. Metal pressing is also used, though mostly for things like cufflink back mechanisms. All stones are set manually, and for such things as cufflinks with spring-loaded back mechanics, the assembly process is also manual. Some of our pieces feature materials such as bone and wood – these parts are made on a CNC router, and then also fitted by hand.
The casting process itself is what’s known as “Lost Wax Casting”, “Investment Casting” – or by its french name, “Cire Perdu”. The technique is almost 6000 years old, and fundamentally hasn’t changed, although our methods today are highly refined and have been largely standardized.
The wax in the name refers to a wax copy of the design master, described under the Master tab. Using rubber molds, we can make as many copies as we want – although to speed up the process multiple molds is a good idea; they get warm under continued use, which can affect the accuracy of the copy.
Fresh out of casting, the metal is completely raw, and every surface must be filed and ground carefully. It takes a skilled craftsman to, say, hold all the facets of a Harlequin ring. The piece is then polished, also by hand, using a progressively finer polishing agent, and then finally it goes through an ultrasonic cleaning process. Some items may also be drum-polished, which – as the name suggests – happens in a rotating drum filled with steel balls and a special soap.
Setting each piece with stones, wood etc., as well as soldering or otherwise assemble multiple parts if necessary, is also part of the finishing process. These, too, are all done by hand, and require great skill. Look at the 21 diamonds in a Moon cufflink, for example – each of them has to be set at just the right angle for the light to reflect off the stones the way it’s supposed to.
Only when a piece leaves our hands and starts its journey into the world does it begin to fulfill its function. In meeting its owner, it becomes an object that reflects and embodies his personality and style. Hopefully it will be filled with experiences and memoires, becoming itself imbued with memory.
Gold and silver are precious metals, but like all things in this world, they wear. Nothing is forever – not even diamonds. With care and attention, however, these pieces will age gracefully and become more beautiful over time.
The purpose of jewellery is to be used, to be seen, and to be worn and show the signs of life being lived.