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Jewellery Maker Learning Through Messing Up

Updated: May 2

"If something is worthwhile, it's worth doing well" is an old adage I may have mangled and one I am completely failing to live by at the moment. Ah, the perils of self-learning a new art form! Here are my top three mistakes as a newbie jewellery maker this month, in the hope that it helps someone else avoid them!

I've only started to learn silver smithing in the summer of 2023 with a three-day course at the Central Scotland School of Jewellery, which made me fall in love with the art. There was lots of useful information around pickling, annealing and getting that perfect soldering join! While I took in a lot of information, a lot of the reasons why the techniques were important slipped my mind over time. As I have progressed and become more confident, a lot of the reasons why something was done in a particular way slipped my mind, and that's where the mistakes have crept in this month.

The danger with me is that I love learning by doing, but it's not as solid a basis in a skill as studying for years at a university or college will achieve where techniques become ingrained. I guess an upside of learning as you go is that I am not constrained by traditional approaches and not scared to try something different, however the lack of that solid foundation bit me on the backside in a number of ways this month:

  1. Why you should pickle your piece after every encounter with the blow-torch. In my eagerness I started to skip this, keen to get that solder into the right places. Slap on some more flux, add a bit more hard solder and let's go!! I started to experience my solder forming lovely bright, hot spheres and utterly refusing to spread. Puzzled, I googled it and was quickly reminded of the reason why you pickle your pieces - solder hates dirt and fire scale. If the surface is dirty, it's not going to go anywhere. In my eagerness to crack on, I was skipping 5 minute hot pickle sessions. Lesson (re)learned.

  2. Don't forget to anneal your bezels! I was making my first lapis lazuli cabochon setting - a dinky wee thing I was very proud of. Fine silver collar was soldered to a sterling silver background, cut out and filed to a lovely finish. Plopped the cabochon in - a little loose, but I'd soon push the collar in to grip it. Much sweating, huffing and puffing later, and the cabochon was still stubbornly rattling in the setting - not falling out but not firmly fixed. Although the bezel was a fraction loose at the start, not as snug as I would have liked, I had not annealed the fine silver for the bezel and it was stubbornly refusing to play ball. No matter how much I threw to the wind with a hammer and punch.

  3. Take your time and measure from all angles. This was something the instructor talked about repeatedly and a technique that hasn't completely left me, but observation and contemplation time has been whittled down as I thought I was getting better. It's much better to find an issue early in the process than when you have soldered ,and it's all too late. Like realising 2mm wide silver strip would actually be better if it was 3mm wide!!

Rough sterling silver ring with round empty bezel inserted between two crossing over hammered flat silver bands.  Backdrop of blue/green backlit keyboard and tools on desk.  Ring is elevated in a 'third hand' clamp
Not the offending cabochon but an early stage ring that needed a bit more contemplation before decisions!

The more I have taught myself the confident I have become, but I fell into the trap of thinking early, founding principles were negotiable or not as important as they were. My six months of experience was trumping thousands of years of knowledge and, while not being constrained by convention is exciting, they are fundamentals you just cannot scrimp on. Sure, new technology might make things quicker (think spray on flux, rather than the borax cone I use) but its fundamental purpose and rules of use have not changed. In my rush to get technically better, I was forgetting the one thing that these rules had instilled in me on that three-day course - a fabulous Zen like feeling as I moved between bench, tools, pickle-pot and tumbler.

Don't neglect the fundamentals in your rush to get better - always remember those YouTube tutorials are edited, and don't fall into the trap of thinking you should be condensing your process to match!

Here's to a productive crafting 2024!

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