CAD in general is a topic I’ve been pondering for years. What’s
struck me about the current discussion is that many of the questions
it brings to mind are the exact same questions I asked Stanley
Lechtzin, 20 years ago. Funny how life becomes circular, isn’t it?
I’m willing to posit my own genius, but somehow, even I don’t think
I was 20 years ahead of the curve. Which means that we haven’t found
answers yet. Or even really figured out the questions.
At the moment, we (jewelers) are the inheritors and continuation of
a living body of knowledge that goes back thousands of years. Not
all of us know all of it, but we all know some of it. More
importantly, we all know how to do the physical tasks required to
design, fabricate and/or manufacture our jewels. We know all the
physical processes required to get something out from behind our
eyes, down onto the table. Which unavoidably influences what we
choose to design. For example: there are some very fine, mesh-like
designs that I’d like to do, but the mechanics don’t work with gold,
and are very marginal (at best) with platinum. So I haven’t done
them. I had designs for welded niobium and titanium vessels 20 years
ago, but I had to wait nearly 15 years for welding technology to
catch up to the point where it was affordable to do those designs.
The point being that I knew the processes and materials enough to
realize that either the process wouldn’t work at all, or it would
have to be radically redesigned to fit within the realm of what was
both possible, and durable. (Or, that it would eventually be
possible, I just had to wait for the gear I needed to do it the way
I wanted to.) All of that knowledge is a product of intimate
familiarity with the processes of metal working. I can do all sorts
of wild and weird things, because I know metal, not data.
What then happens when people who don’t have half a lifetime’s worth
of experience with metal start designing by way of pushing pixels
around? They don’t have that familiarity, which means they’ll have
no sense of what metal can, can’t, or more importantly-shouldn’t
do. The computer doesn’t care, it’s all data as far is it’s
concerned. That’s what I meant about suspecting that the early years
of CAD jewelry will suffer from a reputation for poor quality. A
bunch of people who don’t have the hard-won experience of knowing
what metals will, and won’t take, and how various types of jewelry
get worn (abused), will start pushing pixels around into happy
places, and then wonder why their settings won’t hold.
One of the very first questions I asked Stanley on the old ACMET-L
list, way back when, was almost identical. I don’t remember the
exact phrasing, but the gist of it was that his CAD/CAM pieces
worked because he had an extensive background in manual machining.
He did know how to do it by hand, so he knew how to get the
machines to do it properly, even if they were running (sort of) on
automatic. What then would happen when people who didn’t have that
background took over? Well, the field went sideways, out of direct
material machining, and into RP/casting, so we didn’t get a chance
to discover then answer to that question, but we can’t keep dodging
What I can’t get out of my head is all the early cam driven machine
tools. I took a few days vacation after a show last summer, and
visited a couple of machine-tool history museums. What struck me, in
looking at all the early ‘production’ machines was the mechanization
of skill. The early gunsmiths thought they had a permanent sinecure,
because of all the skill it took to do their jobs. They were wrong.
It took a while, and the upfront costs were huge, but eventually,
their skills were broken down and transferred to machines that
anybody could run, not just highly trained craftsmen.
The same thing could happen to us, if we’re not careful. Now it’s
not mechanical cams that can take over, but software algorithms.
Let’s be honest about it: 90% of all commercial jewelry is as
creative as your average romance novel. There will be some skills
that require hand work for a long time to come (like setting) but
for basic grade work, a ‘build your own jewelry design’ computer
kiosk could obliterate a generic non-repair retail shop. Walk up to
the box, fiddle with the buttons for a while, and then hit ‘buy’,
and they mail it to you in 3-4 days. Scary thought, no? Hell,
never mind the box, just do it right from you computer, while looking
So how do we leverage our history and traditions to avoid this fate?
How do we make that knowledge worth something? I honestly don’t
know, but we need to figure it out.