No one can argue that the Internet opened up the discussion of all things jewelry-related. And Charles Lewton-Brain was a major force behind that – or, as he puts it, “the flux.”
Frustration with the secrecy that surrounded jewelry-making led Lewton-Brain and Hanuman Aspler to launch the Ganoksin project 16 years ago, now the world’s largest education web site for the jewelry, gemology and metals field. Along with an extensive online library and image galleries, Ganoksin gave birth to the Orchid community, an active network and discussion board for folks in the jewelry trade.
“When we started in early in 1996, our premise was to break down the boundaries of secrecy. Historically, in the jewelry world, particularly in other cultures but also in the West, everything’s been secret,” says Lewton-Brain.
“We did quite well. There were articles, there were books, all sorts of spinoffs from those initial actions. Hanuman and I felt that none of that would have happened without our existence. We were the flux.”
As a goldsmith, Charles Lewton-Brain is best known for inventing fold-forming. He’s also an internationally renown scholar and educator in the jewelry arts, teaching at the Alberta College of Art and Design since 1986 and co-founding the Lewton-Brain/Fontans Centre for Jewellery Studies in 1991. His articles in Tips from the Jeweler’s Bench are an invaluable source of information for jewelry artists.
Lewton-Brain has tested several versions of computer-aided design, more in connection with his role as educator than as a goldsmith. “If you walk into a jewelry store now, 30 percent of everything you see started out life as a digital object,” Lewton-Brain says. “But CAD-CAM doesn’t really replace anything. It allows certain people to skip the development of skill sets but it still has to be turned into metal, it still has to be sanded and finished.”
He believes design software works best when used by people who understand the basics of jewelry-making. Designers need to know how to make things with their hands, he says, in order “to understand physicality, materiality, the nuts and bolts of casting and shrinkage and flow.”
People often spend ten times longer casting something via computer than if they had taken wire and a piece of sheet and soldered it, for example. “I’ve got my ideas in two minutes,” Lewton-Brain says. “If I muck around on the computer, it’s going to be three hours. And if I think that I can create a real nice digital piece – okay, Matrix helps, 3Design, which is my current favorite, helps. Rhinogold helps. All have shortcuts, but the shortcuts have to do with industry jewelry, trade jewelry, not art jewelry.”
“What happens is that because of the ability to scale – that is, zoom in – people spend untold hours on beautiful details that when you actually print it out or have it carved, disappear completely. So the most interesting thing, I think, that’s going on now is issues of not understanding what you’re doing, but in getting lost in the cool.”
Nevertheless, Lewton-Brain believes there’s a place for digital aids, and not just in industry jewelry. Even designers who have no interest in production lines, he says, “can easily produce one-offs at this point, with machines that produce more castable materials.”
To artists looking for affordable computerized aid, he recommends hybrid systems such as Jeff Dunnington’s 3D Wax Mill, which costs $4,750 – a steal compared to systems designed for larger production, which can run $30,000. Dunnington’s system combines a fairly simple digital wax-carving machine with very basic software. “His system is dim and it’s designed to be dim,” Lewton-Brain says. “However, if you go to his site and check out the gallery, you’ll see some really remarkable things done really low-tech, and on the premise that part of it’s done by hand and part of it’s not.”
At one point, some believed CAD-CAM and digital automation would mean the end of handcrafted jewelry. If anything, the past decade has proven the opposite. Endless focus on digital technology has created a hunger for handmade goods. The success of Etsy proves that. Those who choose to make things the old-fashioned way can often command a premium with proper marketing.
“Any time something is displaced by technology – and I don’t think that a lot of jewelry will be displaced by technology – the survivors who embrace the change and romanticize their older approach, do really well,” says Lewton-Brain. This happened when vinyl sign-cutting machines put sign painters out of work in the mid-nineties, he points out. “Those who stuck with it and romanticized the sign carving and the sign painting are charging $1800 a sign now.”
Likewise, photographers who refused to trade their darkrooms for digital production are now promoting themselves as “film photographers” and goldsmiths who make their own mokume gane instead of buying it ready-made do well to describe the process and history behind it on their websites, preferably with photos or video.
“Any time you have a shift in technology,” says Lewton-Brain, “if you romanticize and educate about the older things, you can charge more.”
This article was adapted from a feature I wrote for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.