Studio Notes: The Custom Jewelry Challenge, Part 1

Recently I had two meaningful custom orders – one through my website and one from a friend of a friend. Both pieces were of religious significance, making me even more intrigued about doing them. I like it when jewelry has meaning – and religious pieces can provide you with whole new adventures as an artist.

Note: I never spoke in person to either client. All communication was done through email, scans and photographs or by snail mail.

Custom Jewelry: Cuff for a Priest

In May, a woman in California came across my website and asked if I’d like to make a cuff for a priest in her parish. Through email correspondence and snail mail, we came up with a design for a cuff to match a ring that the priest always wore. The cuff would mark the 25th anniversary of his ordination. A key element of the design was that the cuff had to match the homespun aesthetics of the ring. The turquoise had to match, too.

Mission Impossible

The gift had to be a surprise, swelling the list of challenges. My client had to secretly photograph the ring on the priest’s hand in hopes I could match the turquoise from a digital image. She also needed to measure his wrist – a hard thing to do unnoticed. This meant there was every chance the turquoise would be the wrong color and the finished cuff wouldn’t fit.

But the good news was that I would have plenty of time to complete the project.

custom jewelry design

Things that went wrong:
  • I was going to buy turquoise for the cuff in Denver during the huge September gem show. But I wasn’t able to get there due to a family health problem in Michigan.
  • My first wax carving was a failure.
  • And yes, the cuff wound up being too large, despite my client’s careful measurements.
Things that went right:
  • I ordered sterling silver casting shot early on when the price was low.
  • I made sure that the woman who does my casting would have time to do this project and had a flask large enough to hold the wax.
  • During my second wax-carving attempt, I bonded some blocks of hard wax together into a chunk a little bigger than a hockey puck and started sawing and chipping away. I learned a lot from my first carving. And my second carving.
  • My son happened to be in Denver during the September gem show. (You guessed it. We had been planning to meet up as a family.) I sent him to a vendor and he used his cell phone camera to email me instant images of the turquoise he thought was closest to the color of the priest’s ring. Luckily, the vendor was more than happy to help. So was my son.
  • I kept my customer in the loop and sent her regular progress photos. However, I did not mention the problems. Those were mine to solve; she was fully aware of the challenges.
  • I created the cuff so, if necessary, a professional jeweler in California could fit it to the priest’s wrist in person, trim the ends, and re-bend it if necessary.
  • I offered to be available at no cost until the fit issues were resolved.

custom jewelry design

Making Custom Jewelry: Dollars and Sense

I priced the cuff at $400 and requested full payment in advance once she approved the design. I have enough experience and a proven track record as a silversmith, and it saves me a lot of headaches. Besides, a signed check is a contract.

My labor: $255
Wax: $ 5
Casting: $ 35
Casting shot $ 60
Turquoise $ 35
Postage $ 10

OK. Don’t do what I do. Instead, charge more. BUT. I’m happy with this kind of profit. I don’t have overhead, because I work out of my home. The job also occurred during a slow period in my studio and gave me something to do.

Results?

“Betsy, the cuff arrived today. It is stunning. I love the slight imperfections and the aged look on the outside and the polished perfection on the inside. The heft of the piece is substantial and indicative of the quality and craftsmanship. Although I don’t have the ring on hand for comparison, my mind’s eye says it is an excellent, if not perfect match. Since the color choice went through computer screens and three different people, it is quite remarkable.

“I will let you know his reaction when I give it to him. The anniversary is the 22nd, but I am not sure I have the discipline to wait that long. Love it!!!”

Next Week: A confirmation medal + tips for doing custom jewelry work.

Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. You can reach her at betsylehndorff@gmail.com.


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