Special access to check out the part of creating jewellery you've never seen before

Making jewellery is an intricate and delicate process, and there's one stage of it that most people don't know about ... well, we're taking you backstage

Young Wang |

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Young's rabbit couldn't wait to be brought to life.

There is some truly dazzling jewellery around. If you’ve ever stopped to think about it, you’ll know that the first step in creating it is an impeccable drawing of the design. Of course it all starts with an idea, but there is an underrated phase between the design and making the final piece – and this process is known as the mock-up stage.

Since L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels’ return to Hong Kong earlier this month, the school has set up a series of creative workshops for those aged five to 16 and I joined one to learn all about mock-ups.

Building mock-ups is a crucial part of taking a piece from conception to finished 3D product. Mock-up artists work with designers to complete a design by giving it volume; it’s almost like mock-up artists have a unique gift. “Either you see it, or you don’t,” said my instructor at the workshop, who only gave her name as Sophie.

Instructor Laura shows a student how to drill.

After a brief introduction to gemology and jewellery making, we were given a simple sketch of a small piece of jewellery.

I got a rabbit enjoying a carrot. The sketch was stuck onto a pewter plaque. Although they use the same tools as the jewellers, mock-up artists work with pewter for its malleability, instead of a heavier metal, and with crystals rather than precious stones, so designers can see their design come to life while the jewellers can test the weight, movement and shape of a piece before they start using the real thing. As Sophie explained, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Another instructor, who only gave her name as Laura, showed us one of the most important tools on the bench – the jeweller’s saw – and how to use it. The needle-like saw looks almost like a tattoo gun, and allows you to cut out very intricate shapes from the metal. It’s important to keep the saw straight up,  rather than at an angle, and to press your fingers against the pewter to keep control of it. But your fingers should always be behind the saw in a “V” shape. At one point, I forgot to move my fingers after I’d turned the pewter, and Laura caught me: “Very dangerous,” she said. Even though the blades are really small and look pretty harmless, they are razor sharp, so safety is a must.

Cutting out seemed pretty straightforward;  I had to blow away the pewter powder as I went, so that I could still see the lines I was supposed to be sawing. I finished quickly and my design looked neat. It was easy to get the hang of the movement; you just had to be 100 per cent focused on where you were going. As Sophie put it, cutting out is very much like playing a musical instrument; you have to adjust both your hands and your tools, and “the more you practise, the better you are”. It takes 10 years for mock-up artists to really get familiar with the techniques and become experts at it, Sophie said.

What Young's rabbit would look like had it gone beyond mock-up to the final stage of design.

Once I finished cutting, my rabbit looked like it couldn’t wait to jump out of the pewter plate.

It was time to dot the eye of the rabbit. Laura handed me an electric drill so I was able to effortlessly cut a hole through the pewter plaque. After that,  I polished the rabbit, then  made its eye sparkle by glueing a Swarovski crystal in the hole I had drilled, and ta-da!

Sophie said that compared to a jeweller’s job, which is sometimes very technical, a mock-up artist’s job involves more creativity as they try to add in the third dimension that doesn’t exist on the drawing. “Our work is an interpretation, a reading of the drawing,” she said.

The workshop lasted for two hours, but in real life, it could take anything from a few hours to up to 30 days to complete a delicate mock-up.
While it was delicate and fiddly, it was amazing to see how ideas can be turned into reality.