School of Hard Knocks – My foray into metalsmithing.

I was holding a gas torch. It was burning blue on the highest flame, accompanied by an intimidating roar. I didn’t trust myself with it, and given my terrible record with heated things, I had good reason not to.

There was the Tupperware I melted with absent-minded placement on a still-hot stove; the beer mug I shattered with boiling-hot tea; the non-stick pan I ruined by leaving, with traces of salt, pepper, and fat from a salmon fillet still in it, on a stove I forgot to turn off… As my mind conjured up memories of all the unfortunate incidents I’ve had with heat, I tried to quell the doubt growing in me.

“I’m really good at burning things,” I told myself. “This should be right up my alley.”

I was in my first metalsmithing class. The task set for me was to anneal some copper wire. For the uninitiated, to anneal is to soften or make metal less brittle with heat, so that it can be worked without breaking. It is an essential step in preparing metals for jewellery making. I had to heat the copper until it was red-hot – so yes, I was supposed to burn it to a crisp – then drop it quickly into cold water.

Despite my failings in mastering heat, it actually didn’t take much to get the hang of annealing. I got it right on my first try. As the weeks passed, the class progressed to much more technical skills in metalsmithing and my fingers got threatened with sacrifice many times as I handled more tools and machinery I shouldn’t be trusted with.

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Opening image: My current workstation set-up. This is only a beginner’s starter kit. There are many more tools I’ll need to make my bench complete! Above: After annealing, I learnt how to form the copper wire into flat rings, and to solder the ends together to make perfect circles. These pieces were later used to make a chain bracelet.

There was the flex shaft, for one. This is a motor and a hand piece connected by a tube called a flexible shaft, hence its name. To the hand piece, various drill bits and polishing heads could be attached, depending on whether I was looking to put holes into metal or polish it to a high shine. Power tools used to be things I only saw on home makeover shows on the television. Now, I can handle one and use it to put precise two-millimeter holes in metal!

Then, there was the jeweller’s saw – I had previously never gone near a real saw, much less one made specifically for jewellers. Sawing metal is tedious work. Despite everything my instructor had said to convince me that I would eventually learn to like it (mostly variations of “you’ll saw with a rhythm once you get good at it, and it will be therapeutic.”), I still don’t, and I doubt that I ever will.

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Midway through the tedious process of sawing a square out of a copper sheet.

In my job as a jewellery editor, I had been lucky enough to visit more than my fair share of jewellery workshops, including the hallowed space of Van Cleef & Arpels’ studio near Place Vendome, Paris, where all the brand’s high jewellery creations are given life, and Italian house Damiani’s spacious headquarters in Valenza, Italy. Press visits to these workshops were always a whirlwind – a minute watching the wax carver; a peek into the casting room; only five seconds with the stone setter because us breathing down his neck distracted him from his delicate work. It always managed to feel like an overwhelming overload of information, yet ironically, too little of everything.

The more the jewellery making process was stripped bare for me, the more intrigued I became; the more its secrets were revealed to me, the more I became aware there was to discover. Taking a metalsmithing class felt like finding the missing piece of the puzzle in my inauguration into this enigmatic world. Now, when I hold or try on a piece of jewellery, I can fully comprehend how much it took to get it into my hands. This is true appreciation.

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One of the projects we had to finish to graduate from the module was a silver ring. With this project, we learnt to size rings, bezel-set a gem, and solder the bezel to the ring band. We were also encouraged to do something creative with the back plate the gem sat on, so I shaped it into a leaf. The gem was supposed to represent the bud of a flower. The gem is a dyed purple chalcedony – not the best quality of stone, because the dye may fade over time and the stone would go back to its original milky white colour, but that’s what students get to practise with.

I took my metalsmithing class at the Jewellery Design & Management International School (JDMIS) in Singapore. It is an institution registered with the Singapore Council for Private Education offering courses in jewellery design, metalsmithing, gemmology and more. For more information, visit the school’s website.

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