Jewelry Design Principles: Movement, Wearability, Balance, and Durability

As I've spent time talking with professional jewelry-designer friends, one word that comes up a lot is "principles." The principles of design, the mechanics of design, wearability, balance–these are the things that are foremost in their minds when they create a piece of jewelry.


I have to admit that's not usually the case with me. When I first sit down to make or design a piece of jewelry, I think about color, about patterns that I like, about patinas (with beautiful colors to highlight those patterns), about a sparkly element. Later, when I'm nearly done with the project–when it has gone wrong and I'm in problem-solving mode–then I remember the principles and mechanics of design. When the focal piece of a necklace won't hang in the front no matter what I do, I remember the value of balance and adding counterweights in jewelry designs. When a ring constantly pokes the inside of my finger, I remember wearability. When I've worked on a piece until the wee hours and something still just doesn't seem right, heeding the mechanics and principles of design–balance, symmetry, etc.–are what ultimately saves the piece. I've come to learn that thinking of these elements in advance will save me frustration, mistakes, and do-overs in my jewelry making.


A jewelry artist whose jewelry creations seem to grow from her explorations in the mechanics of design is Kate McKinnon. I was struck by her constant respect for the engineering aspects of jewelry design recently while reading her book, The Jewelry Architect, which is still one of my favorite jewelry-making books ever.

While most animals are content to leave nature as they find it, Kate writes in The Jewelry Architect, we want to "paint it, bejewel it, rearrange it, and sparkle it up." It hasn't been long since that could have been an almost complete description of my approach to jewelry making and jewelry design; thankfully, I have changed my ways!


"Me, I just like to see how elements combine," Kate writes. "I like colors, transition areas, connections, and joins. I am inspired by clever solutions, by clean connections . . . I am always looking for a better way to do things, and . . . I am constantly surrounded by small treasures and found objects that cry out to be set, hung, pierced, bezeled, or otherwise made wearable."


Being able to incorporate those treasures and found objects into wearable art through jewelry making is a characteristic of Kate's that I admire, because it's a large part of what my jewelry making is all about. Having the ability to create just the right findings and components to incorporate anything nature shows me in my jewelry designs would be nirvana to me.

Kate is a master of incorporating mixed-media elements in her jewelry designs as well. "The projects in the book . . . showcase a variety of ways to make settings or to string, hang, or present your favorite ornaments. Whether we are working with beads, wire, metal, or felt, you can see the overlap in components, design, and the principles of connection," Kate writes.


Another element of Kate's jewelry designs that appeals to me is the movement. "When making a piece, my focus is on how to bring what I know about movement, connection, longevity, and presentation to its design," she writes. "When I sketch, or when I daydream about making things, I am usually focused on things such as areas of joinery or small ideas for engineering that grow into bigger ideas for finished pieces. My finished jewelry is usually an illustration of some concept I had about movement, structure, or an improvement on a common theme."


While Kate is most known for her work with metal and metal clay, she incorporates quite a bit of beading in her designs and has advice for remembering the principles of design in that kind of jewelry making as well. "In the spirit of making all of your connections as smooth, functional, and as strong as possible, when choosing a beading wire or cable, select the thickest gauge that will go through your elements while still remaining flexible," Kate writes. "Think of the wire as your support cable; you want it to be sturdy enough to hold the weight of your piece, but remain supple enough to allow for it to dance and move when you wear it. I choose the gauge of my wire and the weight and number of my crimps based on not only the size of the piece, but the length of wire between connections-longer spans are more vulnerable."


"My first exploration into the world of jewelry design, and my first burst of engineering curiosity about jewelry, involved sewn beadwork. A friend gave me a cuff that she had made, hand-sewn with Czech glass beads and freshwater pearls, and I was hooked. It was built entirely of thread and glass; how, I wondered, could a piece of such gossamer be made to last?" Kate writes. "The thrill of discovery that I as a weaver could create a structure that was strong and supple remains with me today, and I continue to study beading and beadwork for a deeper understanding of how each pattern and thread path can be engineered to survive a lifetime of love and wear. Whether I am working like a carpet maker to edge bind my pieces or devising internal support systems for beaded tubes, I'm always thinking about the piece twenty or fifty years down the road, wondering how it will be holding up."

To learn more about Kate's jewelry design philosophies–and to see how to make the amazing metal and wire components, focal pieces, and jewelry projects she creates–grab a copy of The Jewelry Architect!

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