When you go shopping for jewellery these days with any major retail outlet (be that online or locally), you probably won’t see any mention of how the product is made. If you do, the jewellery is most likely described as handcrafted.
On the other hand, when you visit a manufacturing jeweller or jewellery designer, they’ll most likely tell you their product is handmade.
These two terms sound pretty much the same, but there’s a very real and important difference between the two.
You can appreciate the distinction by imaging having a master cabinet maker create a fine piece of furniture for you. Your expectation will be very different compared with visiting your local retail furniture outlet to buy something ‘off-the-shelf’. In the case of a retail outlet, even if it’s a high-end shop, you don’t expect that your store-bought furniture will be anything more than factory made.
The contrast between handmade fine jewellery and handcrafted fine jewellery is just as significant. And there’s more to it than simply who has laid hands on your piece.
What does ‘handmade’ really mean?
To class a piece of jewellery as ‘handmade’ it must be created by a suitably qualified manufacturing jeweller. Independent jewellery valuers pay particular attention to this.
Manufacturing jewellers have the necessary training, experience, skills and equipment to make, from scratch, fine pieces of jewellery.
The metal work is particularly important. The ring bands and gemstone settings are rolled, pulled, bent, carved, cut and filed into shape and individual component parts are soldered together to make the final design.
Some jewellers even melt down the precious metal to be used, recycling waste or donor jewellery. Most, however, start with refined stock gauge bars or ingots.
Of course, the beauty of the finished design is always in the eye of the beholder, but you can be certain with a handmade piece of jewellery that it will be as robust as it can possibly be.
And the very virtue of it being handmade will boost its resale and replacement value.
What does ‘handcrafted’ mean?
It might sound like we’re being picky, but the jewellery world consider handcrafted to be very far removed from handmade.
It’s far more accurate to describe handcrafting as ‘hand-finishing’. (It’s just that ‘crafting’ sounds a lot better than ‘finishing’ in marketing speak.)
Larger retail jewellery stores and online sellers almost always offer only handcrafted jewellery. What that means most often is the metal component of the piece is either cast or pressed (die-struck).
Using casting or pressing as your production method also means you can reproduce a design as many times as you like. This reduces the up-front design cost per piece.
Manufacturers can also produce their jewellery with (what are essentially) machine operators – albeit skilled ones. This avoids the need for highly experienced and expensive craftspeople.
The risks inherent in cast jewellery
If you’ve ever broken a piece of cast iron cook wear you’ll know that it’s very difficult, if not impossible to have it repaired. (For the engineers and mechanics our there you’ll know the same to be true if you’ve ever had a cast machine part fail.)
Cast jewellery is no different.
Jewellery that is cast is relatively brittle and lacking in strength when compared with handmade jewellery.
The hand-making process (involving rolling, hammering and tempering) flattens out and stacks the molecular structure of the metal. This makes it more dense, stronger and more durable.
Cast metal that has not been worked by hand has a more open crystalline structure with the molecules further apart. This leaves it less dense and more susceptible to wear and breakage. Porosity (the presence of air bubbles) can also be a problem with cast jewellery, resulting in surface pitting and low strength.
Machine-pressed is stronger than cast
Pressing (or die-struck) production methods are somewhat limited in their design options. It’s used to produce uncomplicated jewellery like simple, symmetrical wedding bands. As a result, you won’t usually find an engagement-style ring that has been machine-pressed.
The process however does produce very robust jewellery (that’s usually hand finished).
Why do some manufacturing jewellers cast?
From time to time you might find a manufacturing jeweller who casts all or part of the jewellery they make.
Jewellers often do this is for creative reasons. Casting allows the production of complex and intricate shapes that simply can’t be made by hand.
Similarly, the method allows for rapid, efficient and lower-risk development of a design. This is why some manufacturing jewellers favour it.
What about ethics?
When a piece of jewellery is handmade here in Australia, you can be very confident that the manufacturing process is free from human rights abuses and the like. We can’t speak to the ethics of the metals and gemstones other jewellers use however.
You need to be very careful about where the jewellery is made when it comes to ‘handcrafted’ jewellery.
Jewellery made here, in Europe or the United States is probably going to be ethically sound (if the raw materials are appropriately sourced). However, treat jewellery made or assembled in developing countries with caution.
Workforce exploitation in the jewellery industry is commonplace and, in particular, child labour remains a major issue.
(Because of their dexterity, small fingers and keen eyesight, children are often used to assemble jewellery pieces.)
What’s the bottom line?
Technically there’s nothing wrong with ‘handcrafting’ as a way of describing how jewellery is made. Though we would argue it’s not telling the whole story. And whether or not handmade or handcrafted is important to you is something only you can decide.
In our opinion, if you’re looking to buy an heirloom-quality piece of jewellery, handmade is the way to go. Handmaking delivers strength, durability and higher retained value.
If you’re looking for ethically sound heirloom-quality jewellery, you have a lot fewer options available to you. The good new is we can help you with that!
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org , call us on +617 3379 2596 or go via Instagram @ethicaljewels
Ethical Jewellery Australia is an online engagement and wedding ring specialist. Every ring is custom designed and made to order.
We take our customers through the whole process from design to sourcing and finally to manufacturing.
Likewise, we only every use ethically sourced diamonds and gemstones. You can choose from Argyle, recycled, vintage and lab-grown diamonds, Australian, US, Fair Trade, recycled and lab-grown coloured gemstones.
By the way, we offer an Australia-wide service.
If you would like to learn how to start your engagement ring design adventure, get in touch today.
If you would like to learn more about designing an engagement ring, download a copy of our free 70+ page design guide.
About the Author: Benn Harvey-Walker
Benn is a Co-founder of Ethical Jewellery Australia and a keen student of ethical and sustainability issues in the jewellery world. He has a long history in sales and marketing and began working with EJA full time in early 2018.
Benn co-authored the original Engagement Ring Design Guide in 2014 and edited the 2nd Edition in 2018. He is also the principal author of our wedding and commitment ring design guide.
His main responsibilities at EJA are business development and sales process management. Benn also creates technical drawings for our ring designs.