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Thursday, December 1, 2011

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.

Click the picture to see "before" photos and read about the process.

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.

The original pearl earrings.

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.

Click photo to read all about the Empress Wu dragon ring.

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.

The first wax model.

This project had an additional complication — for earrings, I needed two dragons facing in different directions.

Both wax models on the jeweler's workbench.

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.

The picture doesn't do it justice. Trust me, I could see every detail!

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.

Are you ready for the end result? I feel it deserves a bit of fanfare. Lately, I’ve noticed people saying “WALLA!”  on the Interwebs. It took me a while to figure out they meant, “Voilà!” Here goes …


Earrings by Wendy Brandes. Photo by SquareMoose.

Earrings by Wendy Brandes. Photo by SquareMoose.

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.

Earrings by Wendy Brandes. Photo by SquareMoose.

Earrings by Wendy Brandes. Photo by SquareMoose.

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.

My goldsmith took this photo. Click to see the rest of the outfit.

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.


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45 Responses to “Jewel of the Month: Empress Wu Dragon Earrings”

  1. Lara says:

    They’re spectacular Wendy! I know you’ve been killing yourself over these for a while! Congrats on getting them done! I hope Jay-Z is reading!

    • WendyB says:

      Re Jay-Z, me too! Also, if he wants me to cover them in diamonds, I will do that, no problem.

      (Speaking of problems, I’ve had “99 Problems” stuck in my head because of this post for days! DAYS!)

  2. déjà pseu says:

    OMG, words fail me. Stunning, gorgeous, spectacular don’t even begin to describe those. They are so freekin beautiful!!

  3. Poochie says:


    I love their fierceness. Yours is a much more glamorous version of a piece I own – a winged serpent necklace – http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_nd0x.....+close.JPG

    I probably can’t get them any time soon, but maybe someday!

    • WendyB says:

      So funny! I already discussed doing a necklace version just like that — with the left and right earring design together, supporting a gem. I guess it’s the obvious thing to do because one dragon facing in a random direction is a little weird looking. But that’s an idea I’ll come back to some day. Right now I’m dragoned-out and working on other designs.

  4. Miss Janey says:

    Holy shit! These are fucking FABULOUS!!! Miss J has severe ear envy.

  5. They are really, truly amazing, Wendy. Your creativity in designing jewelry never ceases to astound a gal.

  6. Megan Mae says:

    Sooo beautiful. Wendy, jewelry is really your art. You’ve got an incredible eye for making beautiful pieces. Phenomenal dragons.

  7. Wendy, these are MAJOR! Gorgeous work, little pieces of art! I love the dragons’ facial expressions, cute paws/hands (what do dragons have?) and really like those diamonds they have in their ears (or these horns?)! Really glad you posted a photo of yourself wearing them, as I’d been wondering just how big they were all the time while reading your post lol I really like the whole step by step pictures too!! Congrats on yet another amazing design!

    P.S. If I were to own these earrings, I’d give each lil dragon a name, totally. They’re so cute and life-like, they’re just asking to be named!!!

    • WendyB says:

      Hmmm…I guess we called the feet “claws” when referring to them. And those are horns. I decided dragons are like other reptiles that don’t have external ear structures 🙂

  8. Christine says:

    Wendy, these are so gorgeous! Did you have them on when we met briefly before you and Stacy went to dinner? I can’t believe I am so blind!

    I almost love them as much as my tiger ring. Tiger earrings? I had better start saving!

    Christine ox

  9. I love the earring Wendy, and how cool you shared with us photos of how they are made. I really had no idea what was involved…..they are gorg:)
    PS..If JayZ should happen to call me for some unknown reason, Ill send him your way:)

  10. Rebecca says:

    Those look great, and it is interesting to read about the jewelry making process.

  11. Christine says:

    I now remember you telling us you were going to pick them up — I was getting worried that my eyesight was really failing.

  12. I loved this post, because you went through the process and it was fascinating! I liked how you brought us to work alongside you! The earrings are fabulous…great work!

  13. brett says:

    wow Wendy
    those are amazing and thanks for sharing the process of how you make them
    it would be so cool to come watch you work
    love love love these

    ps…are they very heavy?

    • WendyB says:

      Each earring is about 15.5 grams each — just over 1/2 ounce. Not light but not the heaviest earring either. Some are much heavier than that. They’re definitely not for wearing while jogging and doing laundry, but you can wear them for an 8 hour evening with no problem. I’ve done it. I always test the jewelry myself.

  14. Leslie says:

    Wendy, those are divine! And I loved the WALLA reference, which still gives me a chuckle after our Twitter conversation.

  15. Susan Tiner says:

    What a wonderful surprise. I’ve been going nuts getting ready for a trip, not online, but wanted to briefly check in and voila! I think this is your most spectacular design yet. Your recent pieces are works of fine art, museum worthy pieces. I love it that a whole team of artisans is involved in taking a work like this from concept to model to reality and that it is so definitely a Wendy Brandes design, right down to the tiniest details. Truly one of a kind. Bravo!

    • WendyB says:

      Thank you — I’ve always wanted to design for museums. Well, for people first, with the goal of the piece being museum-worthy eventually!

  16. stacy says:

    These are brilliant. The concept, design, workmanship… everything. They’re way better in person, but I have to say, the photos turned out quite well. I’ve never seen anything like these. They should be in a museum.

  17. My goodness Wendy, your work is so beautiful! I mean, just stunning! And I love hearing about the process (and seeing your sketches)!

  18. Amazingly beautiful. I am in awe!

  19. LOVE the earrings (especially on you in that pic) but love the ring even more. Nice work Wendy! x

  20. Julie Marie Matos says:

    Hey Lady B,

    Voila!!!!! Ferociously Fierce!! Worthy of the wicked Empress Wu!!
    Thanks for the education of the process. Most impressive.

    No doubt eye catchers. Have fun wearing them.

  21. Marsi says:

    Wendy, you are a phenomenal artist. I’m blown away every time I look at your latest and greatest. Is anyone else doing what you’re doing? No. I don’ think so. Really fantastic.

  22. Lisa says:

    Wow. Those are astonishing. I love those like crazy.

  23. WendyB says:

    ^^^Thanks for all the nice words, ladies to whom I haven’t replied directly!

  24. tiffany says:

    simply amazing! They are stunning. I love when you show us the entire process, so much time and talent goes into it and the results are always gorgeous!

  25. Elizabeth says:

    Every time I saw a new photo in this post, my eyes got wider. These dragon earrings are your most wonderful work ever, WendyB!

  26. Wendy, those are seriously stunning. I am in love with your dragon designs. Mental note: keep buying lottery tickets!

  27. GRIT & GLAMOUR says:

    I’m speechless! These are breathtaking! I love that you share the creative process as well. I learn so much from these kind of posts and appreciate he end result even more.

  28. They are amazing, really beautiful! Interesting to see all the work that went into making them too!

  29. I love this dragon!!