What to Consider When Requesting Custom Jewelry Work

I get requests for custom work every week, and, of course, sometimes there are fiscal surprises on the part of the customer.  I might quote $250 just for labor, not counting silver, gold, or a gem.  Here are some things that help avoid the surprise and let you calculate ahead of time, starting from the least labor intensive to the most.
Using a finished piece and popping in the gem: a number of my jewelry pieces are actually finished as is and hold a specific size stone.  All I have to do is have it set.  My stacking rings are an example, so are many of the gold pendants with a fixed bail.  This is the cheapest you can do in terms of labor, because I just call in the casting or buy the finished piece.  Minor and doable modifications are changing the bail, adding one in a different place, soldering posts onto earring settings, or switching out ear wire.  With these jobs, I can charge very little for labor.  But major modifications, including changing the gem size, are impossible.
Rose Gold and Silver Castings
Basic assembly: many of my other rings use finished stone settings and silver wire, which comes in almost any mm size, square, flat, or half round, and sometimes with patterns (you can also get rings with 2 settings for side stones and an opening in the center for your main gem, so all you do is solder one setting).  Some of my dangly earrings are the same.  I buy settings and components (like ear wire, or basic metal shapes) and solder them together.  I pickle and tumble the piece, pre-polish it to get rid of soldering spots or smooth over seams, then I have the gem set and pay out for a final polish under the large wheels of a professional service (which includes ultrasonic and stem, plus rhodium plating for white gold).  My basic ring charge is $70 (without the stone), in silver this includes the materials unless they’re heavy, it includes all my labor, or hire out for, setting and final polish.  I often don’t have time to do the assembly myself, so then I put the materials needed, i.e. wire clipped to size, setting, stone, and any instructions in a jewelry envelope and drop it off with my jeweler (and then setter and then polisher).  But when I do them at home, figure on an hour to make a piece, not counting other labor (convos, photos, shipping…).  One limit to these designs: it is nearly impossible to solder together several parts.  Adding the gold balls is tough, soldering settings side by side between ring shanks nearly impossible without it looking uneven or the settings being in each other’s way (the setter still has to get in there, too).
Silver Wire and Settings
Wax design: my melted rings and flowers are made from wax, and I usually charge $90 for one of those if I make one from scratch.  My wax work is not precision work, it’s done by hand with sheet wax which is then passed over a candle for a melted look.  The wax then gets cast and pre-polished.  I can then add beads, or prongs, or even a setting.  Then I have the gem set and final polish done.  By contrast, making a gemstone setting in wax requires a different technique, using burrs and wax files, and it takes a lot of practice and time, possibly all day.  (Nowadays all that is done by computer.)  I love wax work, but often no two items come out the same.  The rings have to be made to size, though some of my flowers are now castings (why do the same thing over and over?).
Bezel making: settings for odd shaped rose cuts, pieces of rough or cabochons often have to be made, the commercial settings don’t come in that many sizes and only fit rounds or ovals.  For this, the bezel wire has to be shaped around the gem, soldered, then refitted (to make sure it still fits) or reshaped, then soldered onto back plate, the plate cut and filed down, then a bail or ring soldered on, filed again, pickled, pre-polish, then stone setting, … If I am very fast I can make 2 in an hour, but usually I set aside an afternoon to make 5 or 6.  I usually charge $70 plus materials.  And for gold, I hire out, because periodically I still botch a bezel, and you need to be very precise to cut down on metal waste.
Bezel Set Emerald Ring, Made from Scratch
Advanced metal-smithing: channel setting, and more elaborate ring designs in gold require metal-smithing techniques beyond my expertise.  Also, the channel setting requires lazer soldering, and a lazer machine is about $40,000.  A good channel setting job takes about an hour, but you also pay overhead and machine use, so the jeweler I use charges anywhere from $50 to $120 – my cost, for channel setting, not counting ear wire, jump rings, or other materials.  He charges anywhere between $80 and $200 for a ring. 
Channel Set Diamond Pendants
CAD design: do you like the halo rings that I now have?  Those are made in CAD, computer design software.  You can scan in the gem you want to use, or enter the dimensions, and you can make just about anything.  (Imagine someone carving the tiny prongs for diamonds out of wax, or worse, soldering them all together – it’s just about an impossibility).  For CAD designs, I have to hire a designer.  It can involve a lot of back and forth, but the results are often perfect.  3-D printing gives you a piece of plastic, which then has to be cast.  The cost is $200 minimum for design and plastic.  All the other steps, and costs, still follow (casting, pre polish, setting, etc etc).  But if you want the perfect ring, this is the ideal way to go, of course.
6mm Cushion Halo Ring, in Production