Metalsmith Class Draws To An End

Can you guess which piece in the picture above was NOT made by me? LOL. That is correct - it is the incredibly ornate, antique silver brooch, for which I now have a deep appreciation. Mind you, I've always loved this pin, but now I really respect the work that went into making it. Why? Because I spent the better part of four days making the incredibly simple round pin which is beneath it. I also made the sterling silver rings, which I will incorporate into necklaces and bracelets, and I made some fun sterling silver tags, with words, also to become parts of future pieces. But the bezel ... the pin that I made ... I was really flabbergasted to learn all the work that goes into such a simple piece of jewelry.

Humor me, please, by allowing me to tell you the many steps that went into making this very simple piece of jewelry (consider it a basic tutorial!):
  • You have to have a design in mind, which I did not. I knew I wanted to make a brooch, for my aunt. She wants it to wear at the upcoming wedding of her granddaughter, Heather. It is to be a shawl pin. I don't plan on giving her this actual brooch, my "firstborn" so to speak. But now that I understand the process, I can go ahead and make one for her. I'll only have to buy a zillion dollars worth of tools and equipment. I swear, there is not one single step in jewelry making that doesn't require a special tool, dedicated to that one step! So, back to the design. I considered doing something more ornate, but I settled on the conservative, simple circle because I wanted to keep it simple for my first time. Knowing that I wanted to make a brooch, I next had to find a suitable cabochon. I chose this one-and-a-half inch round piece of dyed jade. Something about the patterns and coloration appealed to me.
  • Take the cabochon and wrap it with sterling silver bezel wire. The bezel wire is a wide, flat strip of sterling. Once you've wrapped it, you remove the cabochon and then spend an eternity getting the two ends to meet each other perfectly. No overlap, not the least little gap ... and it has to keep it's shape all by itself.
  • Place the "perfect" bezel on top of a piece of sheet sterling silver (which you have cut from a larger piece of sheet sterling). This will become the back of the pin. For now, it is bigger than the circumference of the bezel ... you will saw off the excess later.
  • Take it to the soldering bench. Apply flux to the entire piece, using a paintbrush. Cut teeny, tiny pieces of silver solder wire and place them around the inside of the bezel, against the bezel wall.
  • Play with fire! I never even knew until recently that soldering was done with a torch. I was only familiar with the soldering iron, which works fine with copper and silver tape. But for actual metal, you need much more fire power. Turn on the torch - try not to jump out of your skin when the flame flashes out of the tip.
  • Slowly move the flame around the jewelry piece ... don't let the blue cone of light get too close to the piece. Don't let the silver get too hot or else it will melt. Heat from above and below (the jewelry piece is sitting on an elevated metal screen). You will be looking for the flux to become transparent, after which you will be on the alert for the solder to flow. This is a magical moment and you have to have special eyesight to see it happen. As soon as this magic happens, remove the flame. Pick up the piece, using long tweezers - it is HOT. Don't make the mistake of looking like you just might pick it up with your fingers, unless you actually enjoy having about four people screech at you not to do it. But be thankful that they stopped you. Pretend you weren't really going to touch it with your hand. After all, you're not stupid, right? Drop the HOT piece into a bowl of water. It will immediately be cool to the touch. How does that happen so fast?
  • Put the piece into the "pickle jar" for about ten minutes. Remove it, using long copper tweezers, and drop it into a bowl of water, for a few seconds.
  • Now saw the bottom sheet of metal ... as close to the bezel as you can get without actually cutting into the bezel. This is a nerve-wracking process. And it uses muscles you didn't know you had.
Back of the antique pin I didn't make (I'm not that old).
  • File away the edge of metal that you did not get with the saw. You have to file until you can no longer feel a seam, or a differentiation between the two pieces of metal. This takes approximately ... forever.
  • Insert the cabochon.
  • Use a burnisher to really meld that bezel to the cabochon.
  • Solder sterling findings to the back ... tiny latch, tiny latch receptacle, and the tiny crossbar. This is very delicate work ... you have to use infinitely tiny pieces of solder so as not to interfere with any of the moving parts.
  • Use fine grit sandpaper to smooth all the silver surfaces.
  • Use even finer grit sandpaper to make the silver as smooth as glass. This ultra-fine sandpaper seems like a soft piece of paper ... you can't even feel the grit with your fingers. At least I can't.
  • Use steel wool to make it smoother than you thought possible.
  • Proceed to a piece of equipment which is so dirty that it is taken outside when it is used. I don't remember what it is called, but it is like a Dremel on hormones ... lots of hormones. You must wear a nose mask and a face shield when using this equipment.
  • Using the spinning rotary brush, and a compound called Tripoli, remove all scratches from the silver. It will become completely smooth, but it will have a dull finish. You will have black schmutz all over yourself ... on your clothes, in your hair, on your skin, under your fingernails and embedded into your cuticles.
  • Next, use the spinning brush and jeweler's rouge to bring the piece to a magnificent, high polished shine. It's truly a thing of beauty. I love "antiqued" silver, but after making a piece from scratch, and bringing it to its final glorious gleaming finish, I would have a very hard time of it if I had to then blacken it with an oxidizing material (like stinky liver of sulphur).
  • The piece is now finished. I am filthy and feel more or less disgusting. I go to the sink and wash as well as I can, and rinse the brooch, too, just for good measure. I then take the incredibly harsh brand of paper towel that one finds in schools (class was held at our local high school) and, unthinking, use it to polish dry the silver ... except the paper towel doesn't polish it .... it scratches it! Major bummer!
  • Put the brooch in the tumbler for two hours, to get rid of those paper towel scratches.
  • Done.
Back of the pin I did make - slightly different skill level, compared to the antique pin.

Hopefully, I have remembered all the steps, and in the correct order. Many thanks to Lee Skalkos, my wonderful teacher. If you'd like to see Lee's whimsical silver creations - she converts children's drawings into silver pins - visit her website, Totally Out of Hand.

I really enjoyed this class, and I was sad to have it end. I'm sure I will use these new skills to have fun making jewelry. But, if you read through all those steps, I think you'll understand why I may just buy my aunt a shawl pin!