This is Rihanna’s arm,” says a designer at Chopard, handing me a life-sized resin model of the singer’s forearm and hand. In other industries the advent of 3D printing has enabled mass production of intricate copies. In the field of high jewellery, it has other uses too. One is to make a facsimile of a client’s neck or arm, exact to the nearest millimetre, so that designers can create bespoke jewels that are a perfect fit. Previously a client would have to come back several times to try on a jewel. Now, says Caroline Scheufele, artistic director and co-president of Chopard, you can make pieces that “will fit just like haute couture”.
Printers have transformed other aspects of design too. Until recently, techniques for making jewellery had changed little since Etruscan goldsmiths fashioned precious metal and gemstones into body ornaments millennia ago. That slow and painstaking process relied entirely on the skill of individual artisans. Some high-jewellery houses still employ only traditional methods, but many have now embraced technology as an aid to human endeavour.
3D printing is a useful way to create prototypes, enabling designers to check the different elements within a piece before working in costly metal. The technology also allows jewellers to hone their skills, says Scheufele: “By scanning stones and printing them in resin, we can make high fidelity copies for our jewellers to work with without risking the real stones.”
When Devyn Downing, head of design at David Morris, was creating a pair of earrings known as “Neptune” for a collection launched in early 2019, he designed a fine cage to hold the large pear-shaped opal in each earring. He surrounded the opal with a froth of coloured stones set in a super-fine titanium mesh chosen for its strength and lightness. “It would have been extremely difficult – perhaps impossible – to have achieved the same result without 3D printing for the prototyping stage,” he says. Brass, which is normally used for a protype, could never have been shaped into such forms.
Although 3D printing has been around for more than two decades, it has become far more precise than its early incarnations, which were “clunky and built for engineers”, says Sam Sherry, technologies manager at Graff.
It cut weeks off the time needed to develop the shapes and positions of the 300 joints of the diamond-set lattice that forms the bracelet of the Graff Snowfall watch.
But 3D printing is not likely to take over the creative process. “A designer imagines a feel, not just a look,” says Sherry. “Technology cannot replace that human element.”•