Jewelry 101 - How Stuff Gets Made

I have blogged about this topic before but in light of the never ending string of convos I wake up to every morning, I think it might be useful to review my production process, what I do and how long it takes, step by step.

1. Design: I design all the pieces in my shop, and I work together with my CAD friend, Brandy, to turn these into 3-D models.  I rarely have anything done in metalwork - the cost is often the same anyway, and with 3-D you have the option of changing the design if you don't like it.

After the CAD model is designed, it is printed at my casting service, Taba Casting, in wax.  They use a solidscape printer (amazing), printing is charged by the hour.

CAD rendering of Cecile Raley Designs  "Edwardian Ring"

The printed piece is then cast in sterling silver.  If I see that it needs a good polishing job before we go to molding and casting in the final metal, I will drop it off for pre polish or "cleaning" first.  For example, I might want the shank to be a hair narrower, or some detail brought out, or get rid of grid lines (3D printing is layered printing so sometimes the layers produce grid lines). The higher the resolution of the image before printing, the longer the printing takes but you also have fewer grid lines.

Cost: Anywhere from $100-300 depending on the complexity of the job (i.e. a hex setting is maybe $80 with all steps, a big cocktail ring maybe $300). This is my cost, no markup.  I will probably have to change that for custom designs in the future since these take a lot of time talking with the customer, and those hours right now are not really billed for.

Silicone Rubber Mold of a ring. This is used in the casting to metal process

2. Casting: the casting process takes about a week from when I place the order.  There's a casting labor fee of $3-6 for my pieces (big bracelets might cost $20), my molds run about $15 but they only need to be made once.  For custom pieces that's a disadvantage because the customer bears the cost for my design fees.  Printing and molding are distributed over approximately 10 pieces.  Sometimes I sell way more than that (i.e. the hexes) and sometimes less (my nine stone ring).

Once the casting comes in, I inspect it, and drop it off for pre-polishing.  The sprue is cut, the piece is tumbled, smoothed out and cleaned.  This also takes a few days.

This is a silver casting of an old Cecile Raley Designs ring with the 'sprue' still attached

Cost: the cost is calculated by taking the metal weight multiplied by metal cost (which varies by metal) with a markup from casting service which is in turn multiplied by my wholesale formula.  Polishing costs are $10-40 depending (this already includes my markup).

3. Jewelry work: If anything needs to be soldered, this takes place after pre-polish, i.e. if jump rings have to be added, or bails, posts, lever backs or a chain.  Again, I drop off then pick up a few days later.  I have to supply all parts so I need to shop for those.  I try to keep an inventory of the main things I need and stay on top of what needs replacing, but often we need parts we don't stock, so we shop during the production days between our stops.

Cost: This depends, just a pair of posts is $20 (with my markup), but more complex jobs (i.e. 6 soldering joints or channel wire) are more.  Often the math is done by soldering joint, so it just multiplies out straightforwardly.  Say you want an eternity necklace with 6 pieces, that's 12 joints.

4. Setting: That too is a separate job, so after pre polish and any jewelry work, the piece is dropped off with my setter.  I supply all the gems, leave instructions (pave, millgraine,....).  Pierre knows most pieces but special requests (ball prongs for instance) have to be clearly communicated and he has to remember them when he does the piece.

Pierre Prong Setting a Ring
To read more on Stone Setting please refer back to

All my pieces are in "jewelry envelopes" with all steps listed, and special instructions on the back.  Sometimes going over instructions takes just as long as setting.

Complicated setting jobs take a few hours, but just setting a pair of studs maybe 10 minutes.

Again, the cost is by the piece.  A small pave gem will cost $10, a big 5 carat gem might cost $100 (again with my markup).  So my big cocktail ring for instance has 9 gems and takes a lot of cutting prongs and millgraine work, so I get charged about $120 for it (that's what I pay).

5. Final polish: after setting, the piece needs to be buffed and the dirt removed from the setting tools.  Any tool marks need to be smoothed out.  Pierre works hard to avoid them but that's not always possible.

During final polish, a piece can be rhodium plated, plated with another color, or a silver piece can be blackened (they call that "antiquing" in the trade).

And yes, the cost is again by the piece at $10-20 (with my markup).

Here's what you might take home from this breakdown:

1. The more production steps, the more time it takes to produce a piece.  A simple ring that just needs to be cast, polished, and set can take a few days, but a multi piece creation that needs soldering and maybe layout and going over with the jeweler in detail can take a bit longer.  Each person in this chain wants a few days, and 3x a few days is less than 5x a few days.

2. Most of the costs are labor, unless you use more expensive gems and material.

3. Costs are linear (so setting 3 stones costs 3x the price of setting 1 stone) because labor is linear (you can't set 3 stones faster, or polish more pieces faster).  Discounts are rare, unless you produce 100 or more of the same piece, in which case the jeweler might just offer a discount because he has guaranteed work for a while, not because it is less work.

4. The more parts and steps your design has (or my design for that matter), the more expensive it is.  When you get work done overseas, where setting and jewelry costs are a fraction of what they are here, the story is different.  But local labor is high (think of what you pay your plumber or electrician for their skilled labor, and you have a good comparison base).