Buying jewellery: Is it really "handmade"?

Just back from our largest artisanal craft show, the Salon des métiers d'art de Montréal, and though I didn't buy anything, one thing stood out like a 10-carat diamond: the increasingly broad interpretation of the term "handmade".

I could get into technical weeds here, no fun for either of us, and besides, I'm not a jeweller— so I'll use an analogy. There are various ways a piece of jewellery can be made, something like making a bakery cake.

Level 1: Mass-produced
This is like commercial cake that's sold at Costco, so a cake bought Montréal is identical to the one in Ft. Myers, and thousands are pumped out.

For jewellery, all components of the piece's production are made by machine, and in some cases, assembled robotically.

Advantages: Each piece is exactly like the rest of the run. The producer realizes economies of scale and may pass this on to the consumer.
Disadvantages: Because the production is often by the hundreds or thousands, some of its character is eroded. Settings tend to be lightweight to maximize profit, and fine details are far less often used, but 3D printing does allow for some dazzling effects.

Example: 14k bar necklace,

Level 2: Hand-assembled from mass-produced elements
The piece is like the commercial cake above, supplied to a neighbourhood bakery by a commissary and then is hand-decorated by writing "Happy Birthday Mitzi" on it.

Advantages: The craftsperson can shop for the elements that personalizes the piece or reflects her brand's look. Though the elements may be mass-produced, the designer can combine them in novel ways.
Disadvantages: Still looks anodyne unless the craftsperson has unusual sources or collects unique, often vintage elements; a good example of such elements is the work of Grainne Morton, like these mismatched earrings:
This is the level you'll see at many craft shows, where you might notice the same feather charm or arrow on several sellers' items. Jewellery at this level can be expensive; price is not a reliable indicator of how it was made.

Some jewellers order "blanks", mass-manufactured ring settings, in which they set stones. At a craft show I heard one vendor say, "We set this by hand", as if that was really somethin'.

Level Three: Hand-cast jewellery
That's the cake baked on the premises, either displayed in the case, or available by order. You won't find that cake anywhere else unless someone copies it.

The jewellery equivalent is a piece created from elements made by the artisan. She may make these in quantity, but they exist nowhere else, or, if it is a more generic element like a seashell,  she has cast her own version.

How does she do it? Here's a good, short description of the lost-wax casting process from the zine, Make. (Machine casting is increasingly common and found in both Levels One and Two.) Hand-casting is a demanding process with nerve-wracking moments. There will be a higher price when the hand-cast piece is custom-made.

A cast piece may be delicate or organic, geometric or baroque; the style does not reveal the process. The designer/jeweller may use many other specialists such as setters and polishers to produce the finished piece.

Example: Polly Wales cast 18k yellow gold, sapphire and diamond Lily Pad shield ring:
Advantages: A kind of "best of both worlds" that allows for the designer to execute her vision, but is not as labour-intensive as Level Four. Most jewellery sold as artisanal today is made this way.
Disadvantages: Quality is dependant on the many hands involved. If a mold is used many times, its details can become coarser.

This is the level most often represented as "handmade", but jewellery made by CAD/CAM modelling, metal-printing, wax models and casting should be, according to many jewellers, more accurately described as "hand-finished", as should jewellery assembled with machine-made elements that are then treated (pierced, engraved, hammered, etc.) by the jeweller.

Level Four: Handmade, also called "hand-wrought", "hand-fabricated" or "hand-forged"
The cake is individually made using the baker's intensive skills, for example, using cherries soaked in her proprietary infusion, or icing it with a ganache she has developed and makes from scratch every time.

Advantage: The piece is made by hand from start to finish, using metal-smithing techniques like hammering, tempering and rolling, which alter the molecular structure to make the metal stronger, denser and more resistant to bending. That's a real benefit for something you will wear every day or want to keep for many decades.

Disadvantage: A less-skilled bench jeweller might produce shoddy work. If a piece includes stones, it may be handed to a setter, so both stages need to be done expertly.

I've just visited a craft show where I saw at least a eight young women producing nearly identical tiny 'stick' type earrings. Though handmade, there is neither refined design nor advanced workmanship in these. Why are they everywhere?

Example of an organic hand-forged piece: Dita Allsopp pink tourmaline and sterling silver cuff ring:
But hand-forged does not have to look "earthy"; diamond dangle earrings by Victor Canera are delicate beauties that feature hand-engraving:

Most salespersons do not intentionally lie, and there are blurred boundaries. For example, only a handful of jewellers will hand-fabricate the chain from which a pendant hangs, but might make the pendant entirely by hand.

How do you know?

When you inspect a handmade piece, you will not see mold marks or rough spots that post-casting polishing could not reach, such as the underside of settings.  If there are several of the same items on display, look for tiny variations from one piece to the next.

Ask how the piece was made. It is not essential that a jeweller make a handmade piece entirely herself. Some of the best-known prestige jewellers have not done any bench work since their school days, but they are stellar designers who know how to enlist the talents of the jewellery trade.

Vintage jewellery is far more likely to be handmade, and that is part of its allure. I've often written that "they don't make them like this anymore", another reason to at least visit antique and vintage jewellers and auctions in person or online. (Shown, Edwardian opal and diamond brooch, ca. 1905, from Beladora.)

My last word for 2016: Delightful handmade jewellery can be found for the price of mass-produced, if you explore the work of independent artisans and the world of luscious—but not precious—stones and pearls. (There, I ended the year with "pearls"!)

Time for the Christmas break! I hope you, too, will enjoy the festivities, warmth and friendship of the season. 

The Passage re-opens on Tuesday, January 3, 2017.


Thank you so much for this post - I learn so much on this site!
Have a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.
Janice Riggs said…
Thanks for the in-depth information - it's always a joy to learn something while admiring beautiful jewelry at the same time!

I blame quite a bit of this on the decision by the powers that be at Etsy to... loosen up, shall we say, their criteria for being listed on their site. At one time, you could know for certain that some individual person made your item - maybe from mass-produced components, but at least the latter stages of production were in the hands of a craft person. Now - who can say? Some of the things sold there now are as far from a craft as a pig is from a princess...

Happy Holidays!
LauraH said…
Excellent post, I learned so much, thank you. Craft shows can be especially confusing, you tend to assume everything is hand made. The cake analogy is very useful for sorting it out. And I love that you got your pearls in!

Wishing you and family a happy holiday season.☃️
Seasons greetings Duchesse!
Thank you for your inspiring and informative posts this past year.
Vintage jewelry is such fun to wear...
I am particularly fond of the vintage Sherman line from Montreal those sparkly rhinestone pieces and I also appreciate the organic beauty of those Canadian modernist jewelry designers and artists Robert Larin and Giles Vidal.
Best wishes,
materfamilias said…
This is really useful, Duchesse, and the analogy to the cake really makes the explanation clear.
Merry Christmas to you and your family (your grandson is at a good age for making magic of the season) -- of course, you're in the perfect city for a wonderful Noël -- may there be food, light, music, laughter, good wine, just enough snow, warm shelter, all the good stuff!
MJ said…
Thank you so much for this post! As a trained silver- and goldsmith who builds her jewelry from the molten metal upward, I'm often aggravated by what passes for "handmade" at craft fairs and boutiques. But I also realize that, on some level, a lack of consumer education is what allows this (and egregious price differences between a handmade gold necklace and a plated base-metal "designer" necklace) to persist. Posts like this can only help!

For Slow Fashion October 2016 I posted a series of pictures on Instagram about making my hand-forged, hand-fabricated, hand-hammered, hand-set engagement ring, which began with a molten hunk of gold that I alloyed myself: I studied at the Jewelry Arts Institute in NYC, one of the only schools in the world that teaches ancient jewelry-making techniques (such as cloisonné, granulation and working with high-karat gold). The students and instructors produce unique works of incredible beauty, and at such reasonable prices when compared to "designer" pieces.

Thanks again, and happy holidays to you and your readers!
Duchesse said…
hostess: Not all vintage is handmade, but even costume jewellery once was assembled by hand.

materfamilias: Thank you so much. grandson has no idea yet about the holidays- he is only 10 months- though sure loves to tear up tissue paper!

MJ: Thank •you• so much for your comment, I do hope to add to the building of more confident collectors. Your ring is exquisite!

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