I have received many compliments on the quality of my jewelry. These have been much appreciated, as they come from customers and fellow artists alike. This influx of feedback, and my recent work on a new high end collection of designs, has set me to thinking about what constitutes the quality of a piece of jewelry - or of anything, for that matter.
I know many people who would claim that quality extends only so far as the materials used to make the piece will allow, that little else matters. To some extent, this is true. But it doesn't tell the whole story. Others believe that the craftsmanship of a piece is the sole factor that determines the quality. But again, this belief doesn't take in the whole concept of quality.
So, what is the deal? Consider what you want when you purchase a piece of jewelry. You want it to look nice, and you want it to last. As is the case with just about all things in this world, true quality of jewelry balances the use of materials with the workmanship that molds those materials. A piece of jewelry can be made with the finest in silver and gemstones, but will break or look badly if it is not crafted well. By the same token, a piece can be exquisite in the way it is built, but will not stand the test of time if the materials are sub-par.
Now, of course, there are shadings in this world of gray. A piece made with wonderful skill and superb materials doesn't necessarily belong in the same category with a piece made with wonderful skill and everyday materials. This is where price comes in to play. Price also indicates the uniqueness and desirability of the product. But let's not get too distracted by economics here, as that isn't my intended topic today.
So let's consider materials for a moment. As I said, many people require the finest materials be used in their jewelry. Jewelry is a luxury, and so why not invest in the best? However, don't think for a minute that quality cannot exist in the world of jewelry makers who work with plated findings and base metals. Sure, these items usually won't command the higher prices of precious metals, but that doesn't mean quality is lacking if the pieces are well-made.
In mulling all this over, I have come up with a list of what I believe are the key elements of producing quality jewelry. These are the standards that I apply to my own work.
1. Quality materials - I know, I know! I have spent all this time discussing why materials don't necessarily determine quality. But, in this case I am differentiating between quality materials made of any substance with low quality materials made of the same thing. Even in lower cost metals, beads, and gemstones, there is a huge difference in quality from different sources. If I buy a shank of beads, and some or all of those beads have cracks or flaws, I either wasted my money, or I use an inferior product. To create quality jewelry, use quality materials, no matter what price range you produce at.
2. Finish your product professionally. For instance, if you make a crimped necklace or bracelet, use crimp covers. These look so much nicer, and protect sensitive skin from the rough edges of the crimp. If you make earrings, practice wire wrapping techniques so that the tops look nice. Again, this improves the appearance of your product and, if done properly, eliminates any rough edges that might scratch or snag clothes.
3. Be consistent. When you are making a piece that has matching parts, make sure they are the same length and size if they are supposed to be. Again, earrings are a good example. No one wants a pair of earrings with one loop bigger than the other or longer than the other, unless that is the intended design. Practice to make your loops consistent, and compare your earrings carefully before wrapping to make sure they will be the same length. Other considerations - if you make a mistake in the pattern of your beading, take the time to go back and fix it. Your customer may not notice at first sight, but eventually they likely will see the mistake and be dissatisfied. Also, once you decide on a metal type and finish for your findings, be consistent unless it is a design choice. Would you want to wear a bracelet with a gold crimp on one side and silver on the other?
4. Use the proper tools. I struggled to master the wire wrapping on earrings, until I bought flush cutters and flat nose pliers. I found these tools necessary to properly finishing a wire wrap so that the end laid down - without bending the rest of the earring. Having the proper tools not only improved the quality of my work, but saved me a lot of time that I had previously spent struggling to finish wire wraps with the wrong tools.
5. Handle and store your jewelry and materials properly. Use proper precautions when storing glass and gemstone so that they do not get cracked, nicked, or broken. Sterling needs to be stored in a dry and sealed container, or with special papers, to prevent tarnish. Even base metals need proper care or they will start to dull or oxidize. I have had freshwater pearls discolor when I left them in the plastic bag they were shipped in.
When handling your finished jewelry, do so with care so as not to damage your product. Silver and glass may easily become scratched, and many types of gemstone are soft enough to be nicked if you drop them.
Now, many of these problems can be dealt with if they occur. Metal can be cleaned and polished, beads can be replaced if necessary. However, this becomes much more difficult with finished jewelry, requiring much more time and effort than it takes to use proper care in the first place. And, what if you miss something? What if a bead is damaged that cannot be replaced? You risk an unhappy customer by not taking proper care.
6. Value your work. Stand behind it. Before giving any jewelry piece to a customer, check it over carefully for flaws and clean it. Metal can quickly lose its luster, and I often have to remove a stray hair or piece of lint caught in a piece. These things make a difference to the first impression your piece makes.
I also feel it is an important move to guarantee your work. Offer to do any necessary repairs or replacements without charge if a problem occurs within a set amount of time. If a customer isn't happy, offer them the opportunity to return or exchange the item if it is in new condition and within a reasonable amount of time. These small accommodations for your customers show them that you stand behind the quality of your work. Even the best sometimes make mistakes - being willing to set those mistakes right sets you apart.
I hope you will find my thoughts on creating quality jewelry helpful. I am preparing a series of tutorials for jewelry makers, and many of these topics will be addressed. Since I have received so many comments on my wire wrapping, that will be the subject of my first tutorial. Keep your eyes peeled!
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