You’ll Be Surprised at the Materials in These Jewelry Designs

Trained as a metalsmith, Sarah Wilbanks focuses on image transfers and polymer clay to make jewelry designs you’d never guess relied on either.

Imagine & Reimagine

From Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist May/June 2019

The explosion of polymer clay on the jewelry scene in the 1990s has since turned into a steady growth as an ever-expanding number of artists make this medium their own. But Seattle jewelry artist Sarah Wilbanks has given polymer clay a twist that may be unique. The polymer pieces she crafts for her jewelry look more like art glass or Montana agate than polymer clay. In fact, when I first saw them, I thought there was a labeling mistake.

No mistake: they really are polymer clay. So I had to know how she does it.

The ovals in this necklace have a shimmery quality that comes from layering elements during construction. The lower layer has been silver leafed; the upper is a thin layer of polymer and a transfer. As light goes through the top layer, it’s reflected from the silver leaf, which illuminates the clay and makes it glow. Photo: Sarah Wilbanks.

The ovals in this necklace have a shimmery quality that comes from layering elements during construction. The lower layer has been silver leafed; the upper is a thin layer of polymer and a transfer. As light goes through the top layer, it’s reflected from the silver leaf, which illuminates the clay and makes it glow. Photo: Sarah Wilbanks.

Part of what sets her polymer clay work apart is that, while most takes advantage of its rich colors and opacity, Wilbanks works with white translucent Sculpey and photo transfers. “I love the color range and the patterns, all the things I can get with image transfer,” she says. She’s tried all the brands of translucent polymer out there, and while some, she says, look even more glass-like, she has found that Sculpey rolls very thin and works best with image transfer, a favorite technique.

Another difference is Wilbanks’ presentation of the material. Because polymer clay is associated with children, she remarks, it creates a perceptual problem. “People know it’s economical. They know it’s affordable.” Many people also know that polymer is a plastic. “As a result,” for jewelry made with it, “the value goes down in people’s minds,” she says. Another artist recommended she call it something different, so she often refers to polymer as “a composite material.” By doing so, Wilbanks has found, people “don’t associate it with children or being cheap.”

Polymer clay and silver foil necklace. Photo: Jim Lawson.

Polymer clay and silver foil necklace. Photo: Jim Lawson.

Transferred and Transformed Polymer Clay

As you can tell looking at her work, Wilbanks does not use readily recognizable images. “I use image transfers in an organic way,” she says. She starts with her own photos that are color or texture related, things like spider webs and shadows. Many she takes while traveling and have special meaning to her. One in particular stands out from the 2010 World Exposition in Shanghai, China, which she attended. The British Pavilion, she recalls, “had a checkered blue interior. It was one of the most amazing installations I’ve ever been to.”

Also called the Seed Cathedral, this checkered appearance was caused by countless rods of fiber optic material with samples of the British seed collection imbedded at the end of each rod. It was really a staggering building. This particular pattern image features in a number of Wilbanks’ works, including her nonidentical earrings and a necklace made with perforated oval disks. “People don’t know where the images are coming from, and that’s okay,” she says.

The technique that gives Wilbanks’ Orchid necklace its shimmer — much like dichroic glass — is the use of layered pearlescent polymer clay. Photo: Sarah Wilbanks.

The technique that gives Wilbanks’ Orchid necklace its shimmer — much like dichroic glass — is the use of layered pearlescent polymer clay. Photo: Sarah Wilbanks.

Altering Image Transfers for Clay

Further reducing their identifiability, Wilbanks often takes sections of a whole image and lays the fragments on a photocopier. (Shrinking, enlarging, and otherwise altering images before copying are other ways to make them less recognizable and more abstract.) Using Lazertran transfer paper, she makes the copy. She cuts out the sections of the pattern that she wants to transfer. Once the copies are made, they’re ready to put onto the clay.

The Lazertran takes color well, says Wilbanks, though after baking, colors may appear slightly more intense than they do on the raw clay. Yellow is problematic, as it fades easily. Red, too, may be more difficult. Wilbanks recommends experimenting before committing a project to a particular color.

The silver leaf on these earrings has not been fixed and has been allowed to oxidize, or tarnish, giving the earrings a historic look. Photo: Sarah Wilbanks.

The silver leaf on these earrings has not been fixed and has been allowed to oxidize, or tarnish, giving the earrings a historic look. Photo: Sarah Wilbanks.

Sarah’s Process

To prepare her clay, she rolls out and shapes it using a pasta maker. (It should go without saying that once used for this purpose your pasta maker should not be used for food.) After cutting out the shapes, she applies the transfer images to the clay by wetting the Lazertrans. Be sure the image is not tacky but completely dry, she notes. Transfers can go either onto the front or the back of the clay; images on the back will naturally appear less distinct when viewed from the front.

To change the appearance of the images even further, you can experiment with shaping the clay after making the transfer, or breaking up the image with a tool of some kind. These kinds of distortion will blur the identity of the image even further.

To protect the transfer a bit during wear, Wilbanks creates a very thin layer of translucent clay to layer over the transfer surface, trapping the transfer between two layers of clay.

Polymer clay and silver foil earrings by Sarah Wilbanks. Photo: Jim Lawson.

Polymer clay and silver foil earrings by Sarah Wilbanks. Photo: Jim Lawson.

Molds and Multiples

Wilbanks often works with molds to shape her pieces. This is especially important if you’re making a piece with multiple identical elements. You can use almost anything as a mold, but Wilbanks often makes her molds from polymer clay, which she bakes first.

“When I work with molds, I generally create a stencil that I can place on the clay and cut it out so the clay fits perfectly on top of the mold.” To prevent the fresh clay from sticking to the mold, she covers the mold with aluminum foil. Be aware, she says, “the foil will leave marks on the Lazertran surface and stick a bit to the transfer. I’ve come to accept it.”

Press the clay gently onto the top of the mold. Be careful not to lap the clay over the edges of the mold or the clay will be impossible to remove. Once the shape is molded, lift it and the foil off the mold. It’s now ready for baking.

Free to Experiment with Polymer Clay

Wilbanks takes a more structural than sculptural approach to working with polymer, a result of her training as a metalsmith. “A background in metalsmithing has helped me think about polymer differently — constructing it as opposed to just forming the clay as an organic material. I tend to think of it as something I can build with. I can approach it differently because it doesn’t require the long list of processes and steps it requires to fabricate something in metal.” The softness and fluidity possible with polymer has also made her “curious about working with metal in a more organic way in the future,” perhaps with chasing and repoussé.

Polymer clay and silver foil earrings. Photo: Jim Lawson.

Polymer clay and silver foil earrings. Photo: Jim Lawson.

A number of Wilbanks’ pieces are embellished with silver or gold leaf, which is applied after baking. Spraying the silver leaf with a fixative will prevent it from oxidizing, but Wilbanks often leaves the silver leaf unfixed. “I like the look when it does oxidize. It looks even more organic that way. However, some designs are better with a fixative to keep the silver bright.”

When working with polymer, Wilbanks urges, be open to serendipitous discoveries. “So much of my work I learn from a scrap here or there where something really neat has happened.” It might happen when she makes a sample or as the result of a mistake. Or it might be, she says, “just an odd corner that got treated differently. I try to hold onto those, try to figure it out, and do it again in another context. I learn a lot by doing that and experimenting.”

See the tutorial for the Starlight Lantern earrings by Sarah Wilbanks in the May/June issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

See the tutorial for the Starlight Lantern earrings by Sarah Wilbanks in the May/June issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

There are any number of benefits Wilbanks has found to working with polymer clay. “There is more freedom with a soft, moldable substance as opposed to a metal you have to cut perfectly, file, and solder — and all in order,” she says. “I enjoy experimenting with it. It is also less of a financial investment than working with metal, especially silver, and to top it off, it is very accessible. I love using kitchen appliances to make jewelry. I can literally do this anywhere there is an oven, and I don’t have to have a kiln. So, I could work in France!” she laughs.

Polymer clay also results in jewelry that is light to wear, and the translucency is a bonus. “People enjoy what I make. It’s fun,” says Wilbanks. “That’s something that resonates with people.” –Sharon

Learn Polymer Clay at Bead Fest

Ready to learn about versatile, affordable polymer clay? Sign up for Lynn Yuhr’s Three in Three Earrings, Making Your Mark With Kandinsky Bracelet, and other classes at Bead Fest this August!


Sharon Elaine Thompson is a GG and FGA who has been writing about gemstones and jewelry for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 1987. She also writes a line of birthstone romance novels under the name Liz Hartley.


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