Heading off for an adventure in 3d printing fine jewelry

I’ve been wanting to experiment with 3D printing for a long time, and have started in earnest to see what I can do with it (as opposed to, of course, what others more talented can do with it).  I’m not particularly keen on printing chess pieces, or replacement parts for a vacuum cleaner, or a lot of the other kind of mundane purposes I see.  But I am interested in jewelry (and my wife is a gemologist, which is very handy) and I have some skills in the area, and so I thought I’d see what she and I can do in terms of creating, via 3D printing, fine jewelry that can be sold commercially.

3D printing is, in many ways, a sort of renaissance art, requiring skills across a wide variety of areas to go from idea to finished object in your hand, especially if you want that object to be something of value (like jewelry). But because of the limitations of 3D printers, the results tend to be more along the lines of “art jewelry” or “costume jewelry” — jewelry where the raw materials are fairly inexpensive.  

The road not taken …

The 3D printing service bureau (if that’s the right term) Shapeways is trying to change that by offering 3D printing in sterling.  That sounds better than the truth, unfortunately, as they are not actually printing directly in sterling but, instead, printing a model in wax and using a traditional lost wax casting process to duplicate that model in silver.

That’s not bad, though, and represents a way that anyone can custom create a piece of fine jewelry in sterling without investing in any hardware.  If you are interested in designing custom, one-off jewelry in silver, this is a great approach.  You can build a design on your computer and, in a few weeks, have a polished piece of sterling jewelry in your hands.

But Shapeways isn’t just try to cater to one-off designs; the company has built an app store business model where designers upload their designs to Shapeways’ web site and then customers can have those designs printed for a fee (with a royalty going to the designer).  The pitch is strong: no stocking, no production, no acquisition of raw materials, and no fulfillment.  Just a check that shows up.

Let’s look at an example of how this works.  A designer on Shapeway’s web site, Robo3687, has a well-designed sterling silver ring for sale.  If you want to order it in sterling, it will cost you $70 plus shipping and handling.  It’s hard to know for sure, but it appears that Shapeways is going to take about $60 of that (I estimated that by uploading a generic ring shape of the same dimensions).

That’s not a lot of profit for the designer.  But there’s also not a lot of room to raise the prices higher.  A similarly sized sterling ring with an elaborate design costs $79 from Zales. And that’s full price.  A more bargain oriented retailer like Ross-Simons will charge you about $50 for a same sized ring.  And wholesale will get you the right for not much more than the value of the silver, about $20 or so. You’d have to charge Tiffany’s prices for sterling rings to make a decent profit off of Shapeways’ bespoke printing.  But most normal jewelers cannot.  

This is not to say that Shapeways prices aren’t reasonable for a custom, one-off 3D print.  They are, and I have no quibbles with the great service they provide. But to try to sell these designs in sterling and put a decent profit margin on top of them is impossible: Shapeways has sucked all the oxygen out of the room.  Unless they start to offer wholesale rates, they are not really a viable business model for jewelry, at least so long as when there is no ability to print directly in that metal.  (One might wonder if, in the future, somebody could print in precious metal clays (PMCs), and thereby skip the manual steps of casting to lower the price).

But it points to the road taken

However, just as Shapeways creates a plastic model for casting, I can do the same thing: I can print (or buy a print of) a model and use it for casting.  Done right, I can use the model over and over again while Shapeways destroys the model every time.  That saves some time and effort.  And I can control the quality and production of the jewelry.

That’s my departure point: use 3D printing to generate a model of a piece of jewelry, and then use that model to produce more convention pieces of fine jewelry.  Subsequent entries will discuss what I try, where I fail and, with luck, where I succeed…