The Mechanics of Jewelry Design: Make Bracelets, Necklaces, and More That Stay Put

Every time I see a photo from Ronna Sarvas Weltman’s book Ancient Modern Polymer Clay, I want to run to the craft store and get clay to make wire, metal, and polymer clay jewelry. This necklace in particular gives me pause every time I see it! It’s just stunning.

polymer clay and wire necklace by Ronna Sarvas Weltman

Serendipity’s Sister polymer clay and wire necklace by Ronna Sarvas Weltman. Photos by Doug Yaple.

Ronna’s work is so artistic, gallery-worthy yet somehow whimsical at the same time. It’s packed with technique information and tutorials about creating elegant polymer clay jewelry, but this eye-candy book is about so much more than polymer clay! It’s filled with tips and how-tos for working with wire, choosing colors, and much more–including a super handy wire-length chart for coiling and great tips for creating jewelry that stays put.

It’s frustrating to find that the gorgeous bracelet, ring, or necklace you’ve made always shows its backside instead of its pretty face when you wear it, and what good is a brooch that droops? This excerpt explains how to create balance in your designs that help them wear properly and show off your work at its best.

The Mechanics of Jewelry Design
from Ancient Modern: Polymer Clay and Wire Jewelry
by Ronna Sarvas Weltman

One of the luxuries of making your own jewelry is having the flexibility to size every piece according to your own tastes and needs. If you are making jewelry for others to wear, it is important to be familiar with common sizing terms and measurements. Even though the terms for sizing are consistent, bodies are less so. Be aware of this when you design for others and be sure to take appropriate measurements before beginning.

polymer clay and wire necklace

Sharp Words
The focal bead in this choker is significantly heavier than the vulcanite heishi beads surrounding it, therefore it remains at center-bottom on the wearer’s neck even though the design is asymmetrical.

Necklaces

Unlike other types of jewelry, necklaces have an added design challenge: a necklace sometimes just doesn’t look as good hanging on a neck as it does during the design process when it’s laying on a flat surface. Unfortunately, there isn’t any magic formula to address this issue. Choker-length necklaces are a little less challenging because they’re designed to simply ring the neck, while a longer necklace includes a slope down onto a chest, with shoulders, collarbones, breasts, and all sorts of anatomical challenges affecting the drape of the necklace. Here are a few strategies to help you with this designers’ quandary:

Don’t ignore the laws of gravity. Think about where to put the hole in a pendant or focal bead. If you put the hole directly in the middle of a top-heavy element, it may flip over because of the weight at the top.

When designing necklaces, I often make the beads that are closer to the clasp with lightweight cores, but I make the focal bead-and sometimes the beads right next to it-out of solid polymer clay so that they are heavier and will therefore be more likely to stay at the bottom of the necklace.

Tell your clasp to stay put. Whenever possible, secure your focal element in place on the cable, chain, or cord it is hanging on so that it will stay put, and the clasp won’t travel downward. If your focal element has wire, you can simply wrap the edges tightly onto the cable, cord, or chain. If you aren’t using wire, then use a drop of cyanoacrylate glue or a dab of two-part epoxy glue to keep the focal element in place forever.

Don’t ignore anatomy. Think about how beads will lie against the wearer’s body. Many women have prominent collarbones. If your design includes branch-like elements you may want to limit them to the bottom of the necklace.

A choker of large beads will make the wearer’s neck appear larger, so many women prefer necklaces that have an interesting focal element, but are strung on a narrow cable, cord, or chain. Chunky-bead chokers are one of my favorite styles, but be mindful that they are not universally popular or practical.

Bracelets

A standard bracelet size is 7″ (18 cm) but different wrist sizes may require adding or subtracting length from this base size. A difference of an inch or two in a necklace can often be negligible, but in a bracelet even 1/4″ (6 mm) can make all the difference. An ill-fitting bracelet can be annoying-uncomfortable if it fits too snugly and easily lost if it fits too loosely. Be careful to size bracelets according to the wearer’s wrist size, leaving enough length for the bracelet to move easily on the wrist but not enough to slip off the wearer’s hand.

polymer clay and wire bracelet

A Walk Down Madison Avenue
The focal element of this bracelet is very light and therefore stays put on top of the wearer’s wrist.

The following strategies will help you design bracelets that work within the laws of physics as well as aesthetics:

Make the focal section lighter than the clasp. Because clasps are usually lightweight, it can be challenging to counterbalance them in the design process, particularly if you want to feature large beads in your bracelet.

One way to address this is to use lightweight beads in the part of the bracelet that you want to sit on top of the wrist. Fortunately, polymer clay beads with foil, cornstarch packing peanut, or cork clay cores are lightweight, as are free-form, open-wire designs. When you design a bracelet with chunky beads, make the focal bead with a light core and make the beads closer to the clasp solid clay and/or larger and heavier wire beads. As an added bonus, using large lightweight beads also makes a bracelet more comfortable to wear. After all, who wants to be weighed down?

Metal-plated plastic beads are lighter than solid metal beads. Consider using lighter plated beads at the focal area of the bracelet and heavier solid metal beads closer to the clasp. Natural materials such as bone, seedpods, and wood all make lightweight and interesting materials for bracelets.

Make it stretchy. Bracelets strung on elastic cord hug a wearer’s wrist and therefore stay in place. It still makes sense to be mindful of gravity and aim to make the focal area of the bracelet lighter, but you do have more flexibility when the bracelet is strung on elastic cord. Elastic cord also has another important asset-the wearer doesn’t have to fumble with a clasp.

polymer clay whimsical ring

Hope’s Garden
A wide shank provides a solid foundation, both structurally and aesthetically, for this fanciful ring.

Rings

I love big fat impractical rings. What makes a ring impractical? If it is higher than about an inch, you’ll have trouble putting on and removing jackets and sweaters while wearing it. Ditto for bracelets with vertical embellishments. That said, sometimes you just want to have a little fun with jewelry and make a statement, and rings offer the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Physics of ring design: The part of the ring that wraps around your finger is called the shank. If the shank is narrower than the focal embellishment, you run the risk of having the focal element slip down rather than staying upright because it is heavier than the shank. If you want to design a ring with a substantial focal embellishment, use a wide shank.

Pins

Pins are a lot of fun to design, and because they are, generally speaking, on a flat plane, you have fewer laws of physics that you need to pay attention to. But like every other kind of jewelry, you need to be mindful of the practicalities before you get to have fun with the aesthetic decisions.

Consider physics. If you attach your pin back too low on the back of the pin, then the pin will be too top heavy and the top part of the pin will tip outward because gravity is pulling it down. Attaching the pin back higher up on the pin will ensure that it remains flat against the wearer’s chest.

A heavy pin will pull lighter fabric down with it in its gravitational journey to the ground, so the lighter the pin, the more flexibility for the wearer.

polymer clay textured brooch / pin

Sweet and Round
The slight variation in shape and dramatic variation in texture keep this repetition of circles visually engaging. The subtle texturing on the back orb was created by cupping my palm and then pressing it onto the clay.

Keep those back sides pretty, too. Metal pin backs aren’t the prettiest things in the world, but you can make a small, thin sheet of polymer clay to lay over the portion of the pin back that attaches to the pin. Some polymer clay artists put a tiny stamp with their name or mark on their pin back covering.

Earrings

Earrings present fewer challenges because they can dangle; therefore you’re working with gravity rather than fighting it. As long as an earlobe can comfortably hold the material it’s appropriate for earrings, but polymer clay lends itself particularly well to earring design because it is so lightweight. Here are some tips and tricks to consider when designing earrings:

Think in terms of mirror images rather than exact duplication.
If an earring design has a curve or bend or is asymmetrical, consider how it hangs in the earlobe so you can determine whether the two earrings need to match exactly or whether a design element requires that one earring be a mirror image of the other.

Watch out for metal sensitivity. Most people are able to wear sterling silver ear wires, but some people are sensitive to metals that contain nickel and copper. Surgical stainless steel, titanium, niobium, and 14-karat gold or gold-filled wires are the best alternatives for sensitive wearers.

Include ear wires in the design process. Make the ear wire part of the design, giving it as much intentionality as the rest of the earring. For overall beauty, take the extra time to design an ear wire that is not only utilitarian but is part of the overall design. —RSW

To learn more about making polymer clay jewelry with wire and metal, get Ancient Modern: Polymer Clay and Wire Jewelry.

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