If you’ve seen a 3D-printer at work extruding thick layers of plastic filament to build a skull or a vase, it might surprise you to learn that my jewelry is also 3D-printed. How is that possible? For starters, I don’t have a 3D-printer in my workshop nor do I have a traditional workshop. I design my 3D-printable models in my computer using a sophisticated CAD software called Blender. Blender is an open-source computer animation software suite created and maintained by a dedicated group of developers in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. It allows me to not only sculpt my jewelry, but also to sculpt, texturize and animate the insects and proteins in my scientific animations at Moves like Nature. Once I’ve produced a 3D-printable model, I send the file to a 3D-printing service like Shapeways or i.materialise and that’s where the magic happens. First, the file is 3D-printed in wax. Next, just like in traditional lost wax casting, a plaster cast is formed around the wax model, the wax is melted out of the plaster cast and the mold is filled with silver, bronze, brass, gold or even platinum. After this, the piece can be either left in its rough state or further polished. This process takes about three weeks, so a certain amount of patience is required.
A more direct technique for printing precious metals has been developed by the company EOS and is referred to as ‘Metal Additive Manufacturing.’ In this process, selective laser sintering (SLS) melds particles of a precious metal powder together. Layer by layer, the metal piece takes shape without the intervening steps of wax printing, plaster mold formation and metal casting. Although this technology is being used extensively in industrial metal production, it is still far more expensive than the lost wax casting method for jewelry production. The most wonderful thing about 3D-printing, though, is how fast the technology is changing and improving. Someday, I hope that I’ll be able to conceive a design, sculpt it and print it out in solid silver on my desktop 3D-printer in one day. Wouldn’t that be amazing!