A peek at the process

I’ve been thinking some of you might be interested in a peek at the process of going from a coil of wire to a finished piece of jewelry.


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This is a custom order I finished recently, taking some pictures along the way. It’s a lovely large oval pillow-cut citrine (domed and faceted face) that they brought me. It was originally in a cast pendant setting, but she wanted to be able to wear it as a ring. The wire ring I made is a mix of 14k gold-filled and sterling silver, .032/20awg, half-hard temper.

Design considerations:

  • faceted pointy back = needs prong setting
  • large = out of the ordinary measurements, may require making copper prototype first
  • Stone shape = stone is oval, domed, and thick, so need compensation when planning prong placement/length, plus alter prong shape more than usual
  • General scale = since large thick stone, and customer also wanted a ring with presence, dictates heavier wire for bold look and also better protection and stronger stability since the stone will be sitting high enough to be exposed and more likely to get accidentally knocked about
  • This style of ring is particularly fussy, where symmetry and balance are everything, and where a 32nd of an inch can make a dramatic difference to the end result.

    I am in the habit for the last couple of decades or so of keeping all my measurements in a little notebook, so the first step is to measure the stone dimensions and scan my measurements for something close. If nothing remotely close, I would extrapolate my best guess and do a prototype in copper first, sort of a rough draft. Fortunately, there’s notes from a slightly larger stone I set last year. Yay! Pretty close, just small modifications, but to be on the safe side, made a copper prototype to test guesses and finalize measurements.

    Adjustments due to slightly smaller stone are prong length now 1/32nd inch shorter, another measurement adjusted by 3/32nds. And the design, extra long wires mid-bundle because I want to wrap 3/4 around stone. The rest normal length (minimizes scrap wire). Really want the measurements close to minimize scrap wire, but no good if too short somewhere and have to scrap entire ring. This is .032 wire (20awg) and lots of it, so really don’t want to scrap it with a mistake because I was in a hurry. That’s why it’s worth a copper prototype sometimes on designs that might have a “questionable” outcome. Better to waste time than waste wire.

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    This is the beginning wire bundle with the initial half-wraps, and start of prong bending. They’ll be bent down, trimmed, then finish side wraps to secure. Note the longer center wires. Had to think ahead in the design for which wires will lay down versus go around the stone. Usually I just do all same length, but it would have wasted a lot of wire in this case. I did leave the outer wires slightly longer than strictly necessary since I haven’t quite decided at this point what I’m doing with them, but not too long. This is all part of the planning, along with the number of wires, pattern of metal, and overall length.

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    Next step, once bundle is wrapped, is to bend the U-shape. Pretty straight-forward, just being mindful to check for symmetry.

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    This is where the full circle of the shank is created, by flipping up one or two of the outer wires on each side. One versus two flips partly depends on stone depth, but I particularly do it on really heavy wire so I can do most of the tying down on the upper wire. It’s a little trickier to do it that way, but it makes it much less rough inside the ring when using heavy wire. Also on large stones, it gives additional bracing on the ends for securing it.

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    Now it’s time to start bending the prongs. There’s three bends for each prong. It’s critical that each bend is the same length and angle or it’ll be crazy-making to set the stone centered and level later. A tiny difference now has a huge ripple-effect later. So on each bend, I visually line them up (see pic).

    It’s not critical that they be shaped exactly to perfectly fit the stone yet, but just that they are all the same. That way, as I make adjustments for the stone, I can generally make the same adjustments to all prongs. It helps keep from overworking the metal because of repeatedly making one little change on one prong that messes up what was once okay on a different one.

    The other thing at this stage is setting the lean of the wraps and pulling tie-wires out of the way. Most prong rings, I angle the wraps in more so the final silhouette of the ring isn’t too boxy, but with the size of this stone, the wraps are nearly vertical. In the pic, these still need adjusting so that they are symmetrical.

    I also round out the ring some and adjust the size. Most rings don’t start on the size they’ll end up on since there needs to be compensation for construction elements like band wrapping (shrinks it 1/2 size), tying wires down (usually 1/2 size on this ring, but since tying down under top arc wire, not one forming shank, no need to compensate). Every ring style has different compensations…some shrink and some grow. On this one, since the final ring needs to be a size 10, this needs to start at a size 10 1/2.

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    Now it’s time to make the prongs fit the stone well, also not be able to get caught, snag, or bend. See the picture? Where the prong has a lot of space open where it’s not fitting the stone completely well? That’s what we’re fixing now.

    This step involves a lot of put it in, see what needs changing, take it out, guesstimate on changes and bend, put it back in, test again. Many subtle, teensy adjustments. Usually repeat this sequence many times. Along the way, also check from all angles that the stone is sitting level and centered. This stage can be extremely fussy, where fixing one issue (ie. one corner too low) can cause problems in another place (ie. fixed low corner but now the stone is crooked). Argh.

    And then sometimes the measurement combination just doesn’t work, like prongs are too long or short–thus the reason for trying out really iffy combos in copper first. Occasionally my guess is just off and won’t work for that particular stone. Start over. If the ring is fine, just not for that stone, hopefully later on another stone will fit instead.

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    After major tweaking, this is closer to how these prongs wound up. This stage of things is what takes the longest. It’s also the stage to resist over-tweaking and know when to stop. Metal only bends so many times before it work-hardens, becomes brittle, then breaks. Busted prong equals scrapped ring, wasted time and money. Start over.

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    See? Now look how the prongs hug the shape of the stone in above pic. And in the side and top views, the stone is fairly centered and level. Final check, the placement and angle of the prongs on top of the stone. I sort of mentally draw a visual X between the prongs. In the picture, there’s still a bit of tweaking to be done with one of the prongs.

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    After prongs shaped, one last critical step, final size check. Yay! It’s still the correct size. A small change is still possible, but massive changes are something to avoid…like if I had forgotten to do the rough size and round ring out way back, and now have to round out and move up 5-6 sizes, it’d mess up the prongs and would have to go back and fuss with them again. Have done that before. Not fun.

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    Now it’s time to twist wires with my pin-vise in whatever pattern. Also, the direction of twisting can make a difference on how the light plays off the wire. And sometimes I don’t twist any wires at all. This is definitely last-call for any size-tweaks, because once twisted, can’t slide the wraps to make the size any larger.

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    I secure and stabilize the prongs in a couple of stages. First, the side wires in whatever pattern on the lower half of the prongs. This ring happens to be symmetrical, but they’re not always. Note that they’re being secured under the top arc wire so the inside of the ring is less rough. Smaller gauge wire, it’s less of an issue, but with .032, it can be really rough. It’s a little awkward to manipulate, but doable. The wires are a little longer than usual (more scrap) but I left them longer since I hadn’t completely decided what I was going to do until I got here at this stage.

    The other thing to be really careful of here is not over-pulling or tightening the wires so that the pressure is unequal. I’m also careful while tying things down to brace the opposite side to keep things level, and I typically tie down prongs that are diagonal from each other, rather than on the same side (helps keep pressure more equal). It’s possible (very!) to have it sitting perfectly, then be over-zealous tying down and completely trash the way the stone is sitting. It’s hard to fix at that point, especially if the wire has already been completely bent and trimmed. If it’s off bad enough, then will ruin the ring and require starting over.

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    Now for second stage of tying things down. Sometimes it’s a single wire providing additional stabilization of prongs or encircling the stone. Sometimes there are more decorative than functional elements at this stage. In this particular ring, I made the center wires extra long to be able to wrap 3/4 around the stone. Partly, it looks neat, and functionally, it really adds a lot of strength and stability to protect the integrity of the setting with that large, high, exposed stone.

    If you look close, the wires are secured under the upper arc wire, rather than the lower one. It’s more awkward to do it that way, but it’ll make the ring less rough inside. I do this more on .032 or .028 (20 or 21awg). It’s not as much of an issue on smaller gauges (.025/22awg).

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    Ah, the moment of truth! Did it come out the size it needed to, or do I have to start over?

    Yay! It’s perfectly on size. The finished ring needs to be a 10, and this is a 10 1/2 (needed 1/2 size larger to allow for shrinkage when wrapping the shank in the next step).

    There’s no re-sizing possible on these rings. Because of the construction, the prongs are connected to the shank, so stretching on that will displace the prongs. If the size were wrong and I have another stone, I’d use this one for stock and just make another ring. But if it were the only stone or, in this case, a customer’s stone, I have to cut the stone out of the ring (trashing it) and try again. Obviously, this is good incentive for all the earlier double-checking to try to get it right the first time.

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    A final step is to wrap the band. This one used around three feet of 1/2 round wire. I start in the bottom center and alternate wrapping about 1/4 of the shank at the time (helps evenly distribute any unevenness in the band), and clamp down each side of each round for clean and even look. Once trimmed and filed, then hammer it with a rawhide mallet and finalize rounding out the ring. I also add a secondary wire to stabilize the top and bottom arcs to each other. It’s not completely necessary, but more insurance and it adds a decorative element.

    The finishing touch is to polish with a polishing cloth, check for snags, and a final check for symmetry.

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    Here’s the finished ring (above), along with some additional views (below).

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