A Jeweller’s Journey Through Tool-Making and Tradition

The Tradition of Tool-Making in Jewellery

Traditionally, jewellers start their career by making their own tools. I’m not sure if this is now the case, the digital and technological revolution has enabled a tool for every occasion. In the past, the making of your own set of tools served several different functions:

1. Tailor each tool to be an exact match to your hands.

                      1. 2. Further understand metalworking, and the tolerances of the tools themselves – what pressure / heating / sharpening / bending they could take.
  1. 3. Gain valuable skills and empowerment to be able to make a tool for a specific problem.
  2.  
  3. The confidence to problem-solve and think of alternative solutions to problems tends to be a quality often found within jewellers.

 

A Workshop in Hampshire

An opportunity came up in early March to spend the day brushing up my tool-making skills in a workshop in Hampshire. This was a specific day dedicated to creating tools specifically for stone setting. Over the almost 40 years of jewellery making, I’ve gathered a large array of stone setting tools, many gifted to me by masters of the trade who I’ve worked with and been trained by. Many of these are not quite right for my hand. Each setting tool has to be right for the hand that holds it – and we are all different. Being left-handed too brings some complications, as the angle of certain blades and sharp cutting edges are specific to which hand you use them in.

The workshop was fully kitted with bench grinders, sharpening stones, vices, and abrasives. We made two ‘scrapers’ of different cross-sections. One flat scraper, which is used to cut the metal around a smooth-set stone so that it glitters and sparkles like a mirror, and one half round scraper, which is used to carve the surrounding gold of a stone, and create little ‘grains’ that hold the stone into place.

The steel for all of these tools comes as a long stick, which needs snapping to the right length and then grinding to the right angles and a point making for the end to be fitted into a wooden handle.

On a grinding motor, provided the steel is frequently quenched, it will remain hardened. Using a soft-wood handle means the metal doesn’t need to be ‘burnt on,’ which I always used to do. This was for hardwood handles that were not springy enough to have a blade hammered into them without splitting. The danger of burning a tool into a handle is that once warmed above a certain temperature, the metal loses its hardness and can be brittle.

We had the opportunity to practice hammering and hardening steel too, by making burnishers – smooth rounded steel points which can be used to smooth and polish gold and platinum. These are warmed and quenched in oil, then polished to reveal the steel surface from the black. If warmed again to just the right temperature and quenched in oil, the steel becomes hard without being brittle.

I was able to pick the brain of the tutor to make sure I could do the adaptations on the old tools I’d been given. I’m not alone in feeling that these gifts of tools are very precious.

 

 

This was written and published as part of the ‘Hidden Gems’ series of articles by Erica Sharpe for the Western Daily Press.