There are more than 500 shops and companies specialising in gems and precious metals in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter. This unique environment in the heart of the city is quite literally dazzling with flecks of gold and silver glimmering through rows of storefront windows, as a sign of the Quarter’s proud heritage and expanding community.
Nestled amongst what’s become somewhat of a tourist attraction for the city, lies Weston Beamor. Founded in 1947 as a casting house, the jewellery manufacturer is one of the most respected names in the industry and more significantly, was the first jewellery lost-wax company in the UK.
15-years ago, visionary owners Vivian and Patrick Fuller took a gamble by installing a Viper machine into the company’s production facility. Back when additive manufacturing systems had not yet been designed for the jewellery sector, it was complete a leap of faith but judging by the three machines now installed at the workshop, it seems as though it’s definitely paid off.
“It was all driven by wanting to deliver a more accurate product and a product to market more quickly,” explained Weston Beamor’s Creative Director, Naomi Newton-Sherlock.
Despite the positive press surrounding 3D printing for the jewellery industry, the image of a lab style, automated manufacturing environment is far from the picture as I tour around the site at Weston Beamor. Having visited many factory floors and university labs, I’m used to the high-tech, complex examples of laser sintering. I am however, not too familiar with the more traditional processes that go into making jewellery.
Crafting a piece of jewellery is truly an end-to-end process at Weston Beamor from the dedicated CAD team all the way to its own in-house hallmarking service. 3D printing is merely a small part of the production process, small but highly effective.
The workshop houses its original Viper machine, a Solidscape Max 2 and a more recently installed EnvisionTEC Perfactory 3D printer of which Weston Beamor is one of the prime pilot customers for new developments. These are used to reduce lead times and rapidly produce casts for custom pieces of jewellery driven by a desire to the lead the field and improve current processes.
“It has completely opened up the doors of bespoke manufacture, the types of people we can work with and the types of product we can work with,” Naomi commented. “It really has exploded and it’s become a huge growth area for us.”
Some of those types of products range from personalised chess pieces to custom table football figures in the giftware industry – think getting a 3D body scan and having your figurine 3D printed in silver - all the way to architects, product designers and even leading automotive names seeking the finesse and detail that the industry stalwart is known for.
“I think part of this is driven by consumer expectations because rather than us pushing the consumer experience, it’s quite often the other way round,” Naomi explained. “As consumers we have much higher expectations in terms of what we want and expect. There’s a huge personalisation trend across the board in all industries and retailers really need to compete.”
The jewellery market is a relatively small industry in comparison to other high profile sectors such as aerospace and automotive which have benefited from significant investment in the AM space. There is a lot of value placed on skilled labour and traditional techniques from the millimetre wide strands of leather used to finish a wedding band to the painstakingly intricate job of setting tiny stones into a bespoke engagement ring. It’s hard to imagine AM could ever be a worthy substitute and experiencing the process first-hand, I can’t help but emphasise with the romanticised hand-crafted element I’m told some customers favour when presented with the option of a digitised process.
“There are some customers who would still put greater value on what they perceive to be a handmade piece versus a computer produced piece,” Naomi explained. “For me I don’t think the value is behind the production process for the customer, I think the value is around what they’re getting at the end of that process. They’re getting what they want but what the technology is allowing the retailer to do is deliver a far better, faster, efficient service.”
A technology to replace tradition?
As AM technology continues to progress, there’s the increasing demand to advance from using it as a prototyping method to applying it as a full-on production tool. Research into precious metals is a key interest in the AM jewellery sector and there are projects being undertaken right now that are looking into mixing these metals and even placing stones during the build process.
For Weston Beamor, materials are important and one of its key differentials is the alloys it works with. If a material such as its distinctive 18K white gold, which has a very high palladium content, were to be applied in AM, multiple properties such as whiteness, purities and hardness would have to be considered - that’s before you’ve even begun to look at post processing.
“It’s not all going to come overnight. Speed is very important, costs are very important, waste is very important, capacity is important. Of course if you can only produce one or 10 pieces it’s very limited capacity so we would want it to be on a much larger scale,” Naomi added. “It’s skilled, it requires skilled technicians, dedication to make it work. It isn’t a quick fix. What does work is a wonderful thing which has revolutionised making jewellery.”
For now, Weston Beamor is looking to push its current arsenal to the limits by throwing the platform wide open to customers exploring the possibilities of experimenting with metals in unconventional product categories, a challenge they’re welcoming at this year’s TCT Show. Keeping its forward-thinking head on, the company is open to new technologies that will offer greater definition for its prototyping services and enhance its armoury of both digital and traditional practices.
“I think it’s always got to be married with hand techniques,” Naomi concludes. “I don’t think it stands in isolation, you’ve got to see it as part of the bigger picture but in terms of how it has enhanced the production process, it is fantastic.”
Visit Weston Beamor on stand G44 at TCT Show + Personalize on 30th September - 1st October, the NEC Birmingham. REGISTER FOR FREE.