I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love redesigning old jewelry. Last month, I described how I started redesigning some of the pieces I got before I started my own jewelry line. My first project resulted in this tsavorite-and-pearl pendant.
Sticking with the pearl theme, I next tackled a pair of diamond and pearl earrings that MrB bought for me in Hong Kong in 1999. They looked very pretty on — and therefore were impressive to both of us back in the day — but as you can see from this “before” photo, there’s basically no design element at all.
Saving the diamonds for a later project, I decided the pearls would adorn dragon earrings made to match my Empress Wu dragon ring. Empress Wu is one of my favorite wicked royal ladies. I wrote about her in two posts in 2007:
I worked for a long time to create a ring worthy of her. It’s an 18K-yellow-gold dragon with diamond eyes, holding a lapis lazuli globe in its mouth. The globe revolves so you can see all the continents, which are outlined in gold.
I like to create sets whenever possible. For example, my Cleves designs include a ring, a necklace and a pair of earrings. So as soon as I finished the Empress Wu ring, I knew I was going to do matching earrings, sooner or later. It was the spare pearls that inspired me to start work sooner, rather than later.
I decided the dragon earrings should have wings. Several sketches were done. This one is very rough, so it’s probably the first or second sketch.
A hand-carved hard wax model came next.
This project had an additional complication — for earrings, I needed two dragons facing in different directions.
Even when the wax model looked finished, it wasn’t. The models needed to be hollowed out so that the earrings wouldn’t turn out too heavy. I never want anyone’s earlobes dragged down to her knees by the weight of her jewelry. In addition, gold costs a lot of money these days, as I’ve explained here and here. The more gold used, the more expensive the piece is going to be, and this one was already going to be plenty expensive due to the amount and difficulty of the labor going into it. A whole team was involved. I hired a sculptor to carve the original wax models. (Waxes like this can cost several thousand dollars.) After the waxes were done, mold-makers, metal casters, goldsmiths and setters got involved. My goldsmith is the most important because he coordinates the rest of the team for me and makes sure the project keeps moving forward. In real life, I refer to him as a “jeweler” but because he focuses on the metal work, I’m calling him a goldsmith to make his role clear to you.
After I signed off on the original wax models, a mold was made using the lost-wax casting process that I’ve mentioned before. The wax is heated and melts out of the mold material, leaving a dragon-shaped cavity. I used that mold to create a soft wax model. The details were sharper on this than on the original wax, so I could take a closer look at what was going on. I learned the usefulness of this step the hard way, after going from an original wax model directly to gold for an earlier, equally complicated piece. There were all sorts of details that I was dissatisfied with in the gold in that instance; the problems weren’t clear from the wax. A lot of time had to be spent fixing those issues. I didn’t want to go through that again.
After examining the new model, I was ready to have gold poured into the mold. The result didn’t look very pretty at first and the earrings were still very heavy. My goldsmith kept removing metal. The dragons started to shape up nicely.
Considering my old pearls were the reason I started working on these earrings, you might be wondering where those pearls are. They’re the very last step. Pearls are soft and shouldn’t be exposed to heat or chemicals. But here’s a photo of one of the pearls temporarily in place — I was checking out the look. If you look at the metal that the pearl is dangling from, you can see ink dots representing where diamonds will go.
The final breakdown of materials is:
- Approximately 1/2 a troy ounce of gold for each earring.
- Black rhodium to create contrast and bring out the details.
- Two 1.7 point tsavorite (green garnet) eyes in each earring (there are 100 points in a carat).
- 6.5 points of diamond in each earring.
- The diamonds in the horns are set in platinum.
- Each dragon has a forked tongue in 18K rose gold.
- My pearls.
Here are two more shots, showing the gems in the eyes and horns.
I wore the earrings all evening last Friday — in total comfort thanks to a heavy-duty clip which provides a lot of support for the ear lobe.
Because my own pearls are on these earrings, they’re not for sale “as is.” Customers can try on this sample pair for size, then order their own earrings. A lot of customization can be done. For instance, a customer could choose to have diamond eyes and lapis lazuli globes instead of tsavorite eyes and pearls. An exceptional circumstance could change my mind about selling the sample, of course. If Jay-Z calls me and says he needs a pair of dragon earrings for Beyonce’s push present TODAY, I will have the setter take my pearls off and replace them with new pearls. Then I will run to the hospital as fast as I can, clutching a lovely gift box. Barring that kind of situation, it’s better from a quality-control perspective to hold onto the original sample when a piece is this detailed and so much work has been done directly on the metal. The results of that labor can be hard to replicate without the original as a guide. Years ago, I sold the sample of another important piece and felt that the versions I produced after were excellent, but not perfect like the original. I’m still tinkering with the design five years later.
The price of the Empress Wu dragon earrings is available upon request. (When you see that statement on my website or blog, it’s a gentle hint that the item in question requires a budget that easily encompasses luxury jewelry.) Serious inquiries only please.