Though it may sound way out-there for an industry with a long history of handicraft, 3D printing is becoming a major reality in the world of jewelry and it’s only going to grow in significance.
The very basics of how 3D printing works is that you start with a digital image of the final product, which is broken down into very thin layers and sent to the printer. The fully automated machine then builds up minuscule layer by minuscule layer of, for example, stainless steel particles, which are bound together to create a solid object (watch a metal demo here and a plastic demo here). It used to take many hours and a huge machine to do this, but just like with PCs, the printers are becoming much smaller and cheaper. You can now buy a desktop model for around US$2,000 from MakerBot that will produce plastic objects. Base metals and plastics were the first materials used, but now sterling silver is widely available and gold is just starting to emerge.
The advantages of 3D printing are that you can cost-effectively make custom items, but also easily mass produce them too with no models and no waste. You don’t even need your own machine, as companies like Shapeways and Kraftwurx allow you to send in CAD images and they will print the item for you. A new line called Kimberly Ovitz with Shapeways will debut at the designer’s runway show on February 7 at New York Fashion Week. The quick turnaround time that 3D printing allows will be taken advantage of as customers can order the pieces straight from the runway. Expect to see more of it this coming year and in the future.