How To Hand Make Ethical Jewellery

In this guest blog you can discover from one of our lovely jewellery designers the detailed process behind making fine pieces of jewellery which are both sustainably made and stunning to look at.

Hello! I’m Lauren, the creator and designer behind Ara | the altar *. My aim is to tread lightly whilst producing unique, timeless jewellery for earth-aware customers. Taking inspiration from astronomy and nature, I create every piece slowly and sustainably by hand, in my workshop in North West England. I work with recycled precious metal to reduce waste, environmental impact, and repurpose existing material into something beautiful, with a conscience.

I was so pleased when Wearth London asked me to go behind the scenes of my production process for their earth-conscious community. Today I’m going to share with you the process via which I create ‘Orbit’ – a delicate, gently textured ring, so called after the path one celestial body takes around another. I hope that you enjoy this little insight into my workshop and production.

Before I Begin | Establishing a Creative Work Space

Jewellery making, although requiring a methodical approach, is a creative process. For me, it’s important first to establish a comfortable and inspiring working environment. In my workshop, I like to keep natural objects and other influential imagery around me. I’ll put on a good record, maybe light a candle or some incense, and always make sure there’s a brew not too far from hand!

The altar workshop

Step #1 | Measure and Cut the Silver

The first step is to measure the exact length of silver required. This will vary depending on the combination of the inside diameter of the desired ring size, and the thickness of the metal. In this case, I’m using 1.5mm diameter recycled 925 sterling silver round wire. With this style, I also have to factor in that when I add texture later the method I use will stretch the metal, increasing the inside circumference. To allow for this I measure for a size smaller than the desired ring size.

For accuracy, I use a metal ruler or callipers to measure and dividers to mark the length on the metal. I cut the silver using a piercing saw with a fine blade and even finer teeth. I then reshape the ring using pliers and my fingers to ensure a tight, flush join, which is crucial in preparation for the next step.

The Altar work bench

Step #2 | Soldering

I move the ring over to the heat-proof station on my workbench and, using snips (a sharp cutting tool), I cut a tiny piece (or, pallion) of recycled silver solder and position it directly over the join. Using a paintbrush I apply flux over the join and the pallion to clean the metal and reduce the risk of oxidation. The aim is for the solder to melt and flow along the join; the solder will melt at a lower temperature than the sterling silver, but only when the entire piece is hot enough. Safety glasses on (!) I move my blow torch across the entire piece being careful not to overheat it. As soon as the solder flows I remove the heat, quench the ring in cool water, and probably reach for a swig of tea!

Soldering metal ring

Step #3 | Clean-up

After soldering, the silver goes into an acidic solution called pickle, which I keep warm in an old ceramic crock pot. This solution removes any surface oxidation. After giving the ring a quick rinse, I set about removing any excess solder with a hand file and work to essentially ‘hide’ the join, using various grades of emery paper, from coarse to fine, removing any scratches and buffing the surface.

Before moving on to texture the ring, I pop it onto my steel ring mandrel to check it’s the right size at this point, and a good, even shape. If it needs resizing or reshaping, I use a wooden mallet with nylon faces that will reshape the metal but not mark the surface. This is the most suitable alternative to the industry standard rawhide mallet which I prefer not to use to ensure that my production process is animal friendly.

Silver ring on workbench

Step #4 | Texture

This stage is the nosiest! To apply a gentle texture to Orbit I use a chasing hammer, designed to move lightly in my hand. Even though there’s a bit of pace to the movement, each strike is considered and I have to be careful not to apply too much pressure which could distort the shape of the metal. I position the ring on the mandrel and work my way around the top of the band before moving it to a steel block to texture the sides. The ring will now be getting closer to the desired size.

silver ring on mandrel

Step #5 | Anneal & Resize

The penultimate step is concerned with ensuring the perfect fit. After texturing, the metal becomes work-hardened which leaves it inflexible and difficult to work with. To enable me to work with it again, I anneal the silver with my blow torch; I apply heat across the ring until the silver takes on a deep cherry red colour. I quench the ring and then pop it in the pickle pot again before resizing it on the ring mandrel. After a few blows with the mallet, I take the ring off and flip it over to ensure that it doesn’t take on the cone shape of the mandrel. I keep going until the ring reaches the desired ring size and the perfect circular shape. I’ll probably hit the tea again before moving on to polishing.

resizing silver ring

Step #6 | Polish

To finish the ring, I use vegan polishing compounds in combination with an electric polishing motor and natural fabric polishing mops. First, I polish the ring using a slightly abrasive compound. After this, I give the ring a gentle scrub with an old bamboo toothbrush (always looking for ways to repurpose existing objects!), soap and warm water to remove any traces of the polishing compound. To finish the ring, I give it another polish, this time with a much finer compound to achieve a super shiny finish. Seeing the transformation unfold in this final step is my favourite part of the process.

polishing ring

Step #7 | The finished ring

After a final scrub with the toothbrush I’ll do a little quality check, smooth over the ring with a lint free cloth and pop it into a hand stamped organic cotton drawstring bag, produced specially for Ara | the altar in a carbon neutral factory, as part of an ethical supply chain.

the altar silver ring

* Latin for ‘the altar’ Ara is a southern polar constellation, depicted in early illustrations as an altar with burning incense, rising smoke, or sacrificial offerings. My interpretation of this translates into the sourcing, creating and offering of beautiful, unique objects for earth-aware customers.

You can check out Lauren’s beautiful range of handmade eco-conscious jewellery here.