I was mystified by the term. Who lost it? Where? How? I envisioned it as a lost but recovered secret, somehow snatched from the jaws of time.
The actual process behind this method surprised and intrigued me. I discovered the astonishing continuity of this technique, linking medieval jewelry makers to their modern counterparts who perform their craft. Every individual piece of jewelry made using the "lost wax method” is the product of great effort and intricate technique. Since most of my jewelry now is created using this very method, I would like to give you an overview of what exactly it is.
The process is as follows:
- Like most things in this world, it all starts with an idea, a concept. The more life-like the drawing is, the easier it is to imagine (and arrive at) the end result.
- Next, one needs a detailed blueprint, where all the dimensions, nuances, and details of the design are calculated and clarified. Let me tell you, in the world of jewelry making, even half a millimeter makes a big difference!
- After the parameters are established, the wax model is made. It’s sort of like a miniature sculpture of the future piece. Crafting this by hand requires extraordinary precision. The smallest mistake can send many hours worth of work into the trashcan. Also, working with wax is complicated – it might get too warm, or too thin to the point that not every detail can be carved out. Some details may be completed later, after the casting.
- The wax model has tubing attached to it, called spruces. The model is put in a special container, where a compound material is poured over it. Sometimes, multiple wax models are put into one container so it creates a sort of tree.
- The container is then placed into a special oven, where it is heated until the wax is burned out. This leaves an imprint on the inside walls of the compound. That’s how and where the wax gets “lost” – resulting in the term “lost wax technique. “
- Melted metal is poured into place where the wax has disappeared.
- Once it has cooled, the compound is broken and washed off the cast, revealing the results. The smallest discrepancy or flaw, like air bubbles in the metal, can result in a bad casting, making it necessary to start the process all over.
Modern technology has introduced a convenient new option - developing a model in 3-D on the computer so it can be printed in wax multiple times. This means that any mistakes that occur during the first casting are less dramatic, because you don’t have to carve the model from scratch all over again. Instead, you just print it.
However, making a 3D model requires a broad range of skills: extensive computer graphic experience, knowledge of jewelry making techniques, and an ability to both draw and sculpt. It is a very time consuming process. Printing the wax model can also require several hours, and often needs to be finished by hand. So really, no shortcuts here either!
In any case, the story continues!
- After the first cast is made, it is cleared of all imperfections and becomes what is called the master model. It is kept as an etalon.
- An imprint mold is made from this. It is used to produce all future pieces of this design.
- The process starts all over again in order to create the first piece of jewelry. Wax gets injected into the mold, then the model gets casted, cleared, the spruce removed, imperfections cleared, pickled in the acid, hammered, tumbled and polished. If necessary, pieces are then soldered together, and seams are polished so they are invisible.
- Finally, the stones are set. You’re probably exhausted from simply reading about all of this, so I am not going to give you too many additional details about stone setting, which is a separate subject on its own - but imagine yourself with tweezers, holding a slippery 1 mm stone you can barely see, let alone handle!
I once knew a lady who had a very adventurous love life and had many husbands. One of them was a jeweler. For me at that time, this was still a most mysterious profession! When I asked her, “What was that like?,” she replied, “My strongest memories of this marriage were our mornings. We spent them crawling on the floor, looking for the diamonds.” I thought this may have been a metaphor, but she explained further: “He worked late at night, and stones always slipped away in those hours. In the morning, it was easier to find them, as the sun was streaming in his studio window and they were catching the light.“ (At this point of my life, I can totally imagine that.)
And so, as you can see, the “lost wax method” is indeed an art, requiring lots of time, craftsmanship, and patience.
It is always very difficult to bring something new into the world. But for me, as an artist, there are few moments more rewarding than the one when I hold in my hands an object that my mind pulled into being - one that has evolved via a long journey from conception to reality.