When looking at jewelry, we often wonder what ingenious ways the jewelry designers have used to produce these unique shapes, colors, settings, and details.
We can easily imagine some jewelry-making methods and technologies even if we don’t know anything about this profession – shaping molten precious metals in molds, designing non-metal jewelry by hand, and so on. But few technologies for making jewelry are as “out there” as electroforming.
So, let’s go over what is electroforming, how it differs from other similar technologies, and how it has changed over the last decade or so. We also give you a quick guide for how you can get started with electroforming if you’re interested.
What is Electroforming Jewelry?
Electroforming may sound complicated at first but it’s also so straightforward of a process that its name alone explains most of what it’s all about.
In essence, electroforming is the process of forming jewelry pieces in a vat full of electrolytes (plating solutions) of a certain metal. So, we call this technology of forming jewelry out of electrolytes – “electro-forming jewelry.”
All you need is a small vat to put the electrolyte solution in, an AM rectifier to run some electricity through the liquid, and a mold over which you want the metal to “electroform” over, plus a few more supplies we’ll list in detail below.
If you’ve dabbled in jewelry making before, however, or are knowledgeable in jewelry in general, electroforming can sound very similar to another technique called electroplating. The two are indeed similar but with a few key differences to keep in mind.
Electroforming vs. Electroplating
The two terms electroforming and electroplating are often used interchangeably by amateur jewelry “experts” online, as there’s quite a bit of confusion around these two terms. In addition, the fact that electroforming can technically be seen as an evolution of the electroplating technique also adds to the confusion between these two techniques.
In essence, both methods involve the layering of a metal solution over an object using a liquid bath and electricity. The difference is that the much simpler electroplating method only creates a thin layer of plating over something – either a jewelry piece of a different metal or parts of a gemstone.
Electroforming, on the other hand, creates much thicker layers over a mold – thick enough to essentially be a jewelry piece in and of itself once the mold is extracted. That last part usually happens by liquefying the mold – usually made out of wax, rubber, or other similar materials – via needles pushed through one or two tiny holes in the electroformed jewelry piece.
Once the mold has leaked through those tiny holes, the jeweler is left with a brand-new jewelry piece in the mold’s shape. The hole left by the mold isn’t filled, so electroformed jewelry is technically hollow. But that doesn’t tend to matter as it’s thick enough to still be sturdy.
What Do You Need for Electroforming – A List of Supplies
So, what should a good electroforming kit include? The exact list of supplies can vary a bit depending on what metal you want to electroform, including factors such as what its melting point is, and so on. Typically, however, this is what you’d need for your electroforming kit:
- A mold or mandrel of your preferred design and material (the material should have a higher melting point than that of the metal you’re going to use)
- A 10 Amp rectifier to supply the electrical current for the electrolyte bath
- The electroforming solution of the metal of your choice, be it gold, copper, or other
- 18-gauge copper wire
- Electroconductive paint
- A lead set 8-gauge wire for bus bars
- Good bath containers with lids and acid resistance
- Metal anode
- Other auxiliary supplies you might want to consider, depending on what you want to create. This can include items such as red lacquer to protect part of the mold/gemstone you’re electroforming over, electroclean solution, acid drip solution, and replenishing brightener.
With all that prepared, let’s go over the step-by-step process of electroforming your own jewelry.
How To Electroform Jewelry – A Step-By-Step Guide
1. Prepare the jewelry designs.
The first step in most cases would be to plan out what you want to make and prepare your mold or mandrel. Picking the right material here is key as many materials can’t go above certain temperatures. For example, in the past, electroforming bath needed temperatures as high as 140°F to 176°F (60°C to 80°C) which was too high for wax.
Today, however, electroforming baths can be used at temperatures between 104°F to 113°F (40°C to 45°C) which allows for wax jewelry molds. Once you’ve picked the right material, you can create the mold out of it. Depending on the size of your bath container, you can make multiple jewelry pieces at the same time so you might want to prepare several mandrels.
2. Submerge the mandrels in the vat.
Once the mandrels are done and dry, you can assemble them copper wire rack and suspend them in the electroforming solution inside the vat. Place the metal anode in the vat alongside the mandrel and secure them both with clamps so that they aren’t touching each other or the walls of the vat.
The clamps themselves should be connected to the Amp rectifier which would be supplying the current into the vat through the anode and the mandrel. This way, the mandrel will be acting as the cathode in the electrolyte solution as shown in the above image.
Once the Amp rectifier starts working, the electrodeposition process will initiate and layers of metal will start forming over the mandrel/cathode as seen in the diagram above.
3. Turn the rectifier off and take out the mandrel when it is ready.
The exact time you’d need to wait will depend on the type of metal you’re using and the jewelry thickness you’re looking for.
Normally, gold can take as little as 14 hours to electroform nowadays but certain other metals, electrolyte solutions, and setups can need days, as was the case usually in the past.
This means that you’ll need to carefully research the specifics of the exact jewelry metal you’ve chosen in detail before you proceed here. We’re only looking at the general basics of electroforming.
4. Extract the mandrel from inside the electroformed jewelry piece.
This step can also vary depending on what material you’ve used for the mandrel and the jewelry itself, what its design is, and so on. If the jewelry has encompassed the mandrel completely, you will need to extract it via one or more small holes in the jewelry and by melting the mandrel out of the jewelry.
The holes themselves can later be hidden in various ways – by a gemstone and its setting, with jewelry clips attaching it to a different part of the jewelry, and so on.
Benefits of Electroforming
Electroforming jewelry does require a bit of technical and chemical knowledge, which can make it seem daunting and difficult to get into initially. Once you learn the basics, however, the rest is just a matter of acquiring a few relatively low-cost supplies and getting started.
This means that electroforming has quite a few benefits for professional and amateur jewelry makers alike. These advantages include the following:
- With electroforming (and a bit of practice), everyone can create gorgeous jewelry of impressive quality – often with sale value in the hundreds of dollars or more.
- There is quite a market for low-cost high-quality electroformed jewelry.
- Electroforming gives you incredible freedom in terms of jewelry designs you can create – as long as you can fashion the necessary detailed wax models, only your creativity will be your limit.
- The process is quite quick and can be employed for mass production – as long as you’ve got your setup right and the mandrel designs ready, you can get several pieces done simultaneously in less than 24 hours.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some drawbacks to this jewelry-making method too. The main disadvantages are:
- Electroformed jewelry needs to be hollow.
- The intricacy of the designs is limited by the thickness of the metal.
- There is a learning curve to get over at first.
- The materials aren’t always all that affordable, especially if you want to work with high karats gold and precious gemstones.
Once you get rolling, however, the pros start to outweigh the cons rather exponentially.
Electroforming is a fascinating and extensive topic that a single short article can’t possibly exhaust. Hopefully, we have given you a good initial idea as to what is electroforming in jewelry making, whether it’s a suitable hobby (or career choice) for you, and how you should go about it.
All in all, especially with how fast the technology continues to develop, electroforming is set to keep getting an even better jewelry-making method in the coming years.