Rapaport Magazine

The Good, the CAD and the Ugly

By Jennifer Heebner

Computer-aided design has transformed the jewelry business and offered artists more freedom, but it’s also made it easier for generic styles to mushroom.

Barbara Heinrich can spot a basic CAD/CAM jewel a mile away. The acronym stands for computer-aided design and manufacturing, and it’s something her trained goldsmith’s eye can pick out easily when flipping through trade magazines. With 50 years of fabrication experience, she can tell which bezels and bands are the work of software presets for common stone shapes and ring shanks.

“There’s a lot of jewelry being made in CAD that’s not a high level of design and has no aesthetic ‘wow’ factor or design DNA,” observes the force behind New York-based brand Barbara Heinrich Studio.

She has plenty of company in this assessment — and not just from old-school jewelers carving wax and soldering seams. Many well-trained emerging designers share her view of the subject.

That’s not to say they shun the technology; a lot of today’s CAD/CAM devotees are bench jewelers — Heinrich included — who use it in tandem with traditional techniques. But casting houses that work almost exclusively in CAD/CAM have noticed the same problem: a lack of creativity from fledgling designers who don’t have fully developed signature styles, a history of design ideas, or an understanding of how jewelry is made and worn.

A helpful tool

CAD/CAM has certainly revolutionized jewelry, helping everyone from retail shops to independent makers create some of the most compelling looks on the market. Many of these looks are powered by modeling programs like Rhinoceros (Rhino) 3D — a tool the car industry uses as well — and MatrixGold, which is built on the Rhino platform but has a selection of preset jewelry features. Together with 3D printers, CAD/CAM enables jewelers to turn ideas into reality in a matter of hours, or even less.

“You can have some 3D-printed prototypes in under 30 minutes,” says Shawn Montgomery of jewelry manufacturer Stuller. Having started with the company 27 years ago on the manufacturing floor, he is now executive director of business development for global software and CAD/CAM services.

Stuller unveiled its CAD/CAM department in 2009, within months of acquiring software provider Gemvision. Today, the jeweler’s digital-design and 3D-printing products are empowering many artists to drive their own businesses.

“Because of CAD, there’s been a renaissance of new designers,” says Montgomery. The computer programs can produce precise designs quickly in multiple sizes and shapes, with less waste and error. They also get pieces to market faster, and their photorealistic renders help better communicate ideas to clients.

“Even trained eyes in our industry have a hard time seeing the difference between renders and photos,” he adds.

CAD/CAM is far more efficient and cost-effective than carving wax models, affirms Andrew Goldstein of jeweler Zina Sterling Silver. “You could spend 10 hours on a wax, and if the casting fails, it’s all down the tubes. In CAD, you can print as many as you want while the programs estimate pennyweights of gold needed and [calculates the cost of] jobs.”

Even Paul Klecka, president of the American Jewelry Design Council, favors using this software. “When CAD came along, I approached it in a more cerebral way — pushing and pulling and morphing ideas,” he says. “You must imagine what you’re creating. I could sketch ideas on paper and go to CAD, but I’m fond of working directly in it.”

Ditto for Eve Streicker of jewelry brand Original Eve. Streicker has a master’s degree in metals, jewelry and CAD/CAM, and she won a 2020 AGTA Spectrum Award for a necklace she made using the lost wax process. Her proven bench skills aside, she uses CAD almost exclusively.

“I live in CAD, it’s how I sketch,” she says. “It’s an art form and language you have to learn to make your own.”

Heinrich, for her part, started using CAD/CAM in 2018 with the help of her son, fellow jewelry designer Timo Krapf. She challenged him to make a stack ring in CAD, which he did in an hour. Heinrich, who has upward of 40 accounts across the US, was hooked. Krapf also recreated elements of his mother’s organic-looking signature style in the software. This way, she could digitally design new pieces that would retain her aesthetic but be less expensive to produce.

Handcrafting is still a preferred method for attaining organic looks, but combining old-world techniques with modern ones makes for an ideal production environment, many jewelers say.

“I wouldn’t want to live without CAD,” declares Heinrich.

Structural trouble

Nonetheless, difficulties can arise when aspiring designers with limited experience rely on unseasoned CAD/CAM operators.

“Every video gamer in the country is a CAD designer now,” jokes Joel McFadden of Joel E. McFadden Designs. He’s also a CAD/CAM and settings expert at Specialty Casting in Conway, Arkansas. In helping designers manufacture, he sees a lot of edgy looks that just can’t be made well.

While CAD empowers people to envision styles they couldn’t make in wax or by hand, knowledge of jewelry production and wear is essential to producing a sturdy piece. One must understand the mechanics of stone setting and have a sense of wall thicknesses and prong lengths. Digital elements on a screen can communicate a concept, but they can be deceiving.

A recent client of McFadden’s brought him a CAD rendering from a contractor who’d been paid $35 an hour to make it. The design wasn’t valid; the prongs were too thin to secure the 1-carat stone it contained. “It looked good in the render, but it wouldn’t hold if you actually made it,” he says. “There’s a difference between engineering a CAD model and making a pretty picture.”

Gary Dawson, founder of Gary Dawson Designs, sees similar structural-integrity issues. “Everything has to connect, and the scale needs to be big enough to hold stones in place,” says the CAD/CAM expert.

From a crafting perspective, confirms Klecka, “people who don’t know traditional techniques have a disadvantage.”

Marks of distinction

Creativity is another common casualty of the CAD revolution. Jewelry-specific programs simplify steps by doing the thinking for you. As such, rather than innovating, some users are simply punching buttons to make Lego-like wearables. Relying on these pre-programmed software packages alone can lead to homogenous, “computerized”-looking creations, observes Streicker, who works in Rhino with no jewelry presets.

Gregg Adwar of Adwar Casting in Rockville Centre, New York, has been using CAD/CAM and related technologies for the last two decades. With 185,000 unique designs in his portfolio, he’s amused when jewelers bring him supposedly new ideas; he’ll often say, “I already have that.” The artists are almost always shocked.

“They say, ‘I’ve never seen this before,’” he sighs. “A lot of designers are making the same thing.”

Dawson works to combat that trend when he teaches students in Rhino. He makes them draw their own components, even for standard elements like six-prong heads. “It’s a pain in the ass, but once you have it, it’s yours and won’t look like everyone else’s,” he says.

Of course, while plug-and-play jewelry options do make for a slew of similar-looking pieces, it may not be due to a lack of imagination. Lori Friedman of Loriann Jewelry — who uses both CAD and hand-fabrication to create her stone-intense styles — maintains that overlap of design ideas is more often a case of coincidence than of CAD or copying. It’s an opinion that many design experts share, even if it’s a sore point among prideful artisans.

Still, there are certainly some — particularly at the retail level — who tweak cookie-cutter styles to make “one-of-a-kinds.” The question is, does it matter as long as consumers are happy?

The answer varies. Signature styles may be less important if you’re a custom house serving a mostly local clientele with specific design requests, but for designers who sell wholesale to stores, a distinctive look is key to standing out in a crowded marketplace. “You still need inspired ideas,” says Klecka.

Designer Sarah McGuire, who doesn’t use CAD but admires the handiwork of peers who do, points particularly to Israeli brand Artëmer, which uses both bench techniques and software to make its chic cluster rings. “Their work is instantly recognizable, technically sophisticated, thoughtfully made, and stunning,” says McGuire, who owns Chicago jewelry store Sailor along with her eponymous brand. On the flipside, “there are also a lot of really bad cluster rings on the market.”

In general, jewelry masters urge newbies to do their homework and pick a signature style for themselves. “Artists must have a recognizable design DNA to have authenticity,” Heinrich says — whether they’re creating in CAD/CAM or on a bench.

“I approached it in a more cerebral way — pushing and pulling and morphing ideas. You must imagine what you’re creating”

Image: Stuller

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - February 2022. To subscribe click here.

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