Friday, January 13, 2017

On the Importance of Craftsmanship & Damascus Rings

When I first started making damascus rings, close to twenty years ago, aside from a bladesmith's novelty, there was only one other artisan doing it to the point of adding gold or silver.  I'd known about, and admired his work for a few years, and one day I went to a local gallery to see some firsthand.  I wanted to see what I could glean, and brought along some questions. I'd been making damascus rings for a few years, out of typical bladesmith's steels, and had noticed some issues like darkening color, smoothing out of the pattern, and under neglected circumstances, rusting.  I wanted to know how rings made with damascus and gold, sold in high end art-jewelry galleries held up by comparison.

My first question was what the steels were made of, because the carbon steel rings I'd made hadn't been as stable as you'd like if you were to really push and market them.  I was hoping there was going to be a simple combination that avoided these issues.  As it turned out, and to my surprise, these rings were being made with the exact same carbon steel combination I was using.  And sure enough, the salesman, already a friend of mine, confided that they got a lot of returns or at least, in house refurbishings due to rust or color changes.

I wanted to avoid these issues, so I put a lot of time and research into making stainless steel damascus.  Plain carbon steel, such as used for blades, fuses together quite politely in the forge.  Stainless steels, owing to the alloying elements that prevent rust, do not play along so nicely. At the time, very few smiths were making stainless steel damascus, and the fine points were a bit jealously guarded.  They still are, to a lesser degree, though for the most part, the cat's out of the bag.  After a few months of trial and error and some sage advice, I finally solved the puzzle myself, and resolved to push ahead in a relatively unchallenged niche.

However, in the past five or six years, damascus jewelry has really become more popular. Unfortunately, it's mostly been due to factory ring makers, buying pre-fabricated billets of stainless damascus, now that it's available.  Typically they use a lot of other "alternative" materials such as tungsten, cobalt, titanium and the like, because they're all easy to machine.  And that's all they do.

The problem is that they aren't jewelers.  And not being actual metalsmiths capable of making the stuff, they don't know the intricacies of the material. I have a lot of respect for machinists, don't get me wrong, but they don't usually know the first thing about making good jewelry.  I've actually fixed some of these rings that have been sent to me by dissatisfied customers, including one that was a not inexpensive set of gold lined rings from a factory in China that were cut-your-fingers sharp on the edge.

So here's a list of things I always do to make sure my rings are well-crafted. If you're considering buying from someone else, please, by all means ask them if they do too.

1. My rings are made of 304L & 316L stainless steels.  The stainless steels I use are rated under the European Nickel Directive for Jewelry as safe.  Even something as close in designation as 303 stainless steel, for example, leaches nickel and isn't considered safe for jewelry.  High carbon steel can actually galvanically corrode, and literally dissolve over time under the right circumstances, and it will discolor, turn grey, and perhaps mark your skin.  I've even seen some other makers in nice galleries making damascus rings with literal mystery steel! That's just asking for all kinds of trouble down the road.  (See my Damascus Ring FAQ. )

2. I line my rings with precious metals, or highly polish the interior if it is damascus.  Lining the rings with precious metals gives them a sense of preciousness, but it is also warmer to the touch.  It makes the rings much easier to resize, as the thinner amount of damascus can stretch on a typical jeweler's resizing stretcher, or the lining can simply be filed away by any competent jeweler if stretching would damage details such as stone settings.  When I line my rings, I always solder the lining in with matching high temperature silver or gold solder.  This prevents moisture from seeping into the cracks and weeping out later, or even worse if it is salt or swimming pool water, potentially create some very odd galvanic reactions.  Many makers simply press-fit the linings to their rings, because soldering stainless steel is not an easy task.  Lastly, rings with exposed pattern on the inside have a microscopically rough surface, and if your hands are wet for long periods of time, the combination of maintained moisture and maintained contact with the skin on the interior of the ring can be irritating.

3. I always check the edges for roughness!  During the course of my market research as the world of damascus jewelry has exploded, I have seen etched ring edges that look like sawblades.  Not only could some of these sharp, serrated edges catch hair & fabric, but they can actually cut your skin.  I've seen it.  The same goes for simple 45 degree sharp corners on gold rails, which as I mentioned, I've seen from some factory damascus rings.  This is basic, jewelry making 101!  All my rings are rounded and smooth for comfort.

4. "Acid wash".  I can't even believe that companies are doing this, and it's creating some real marketing problems for damascus rings.  If you see a damascus that has a nice, dark, matte finish, enjoy looking at the picture, because it won't look like that once you start wearing it.  "Acid Wash", or "Acid Finish" is either leaving the remaining chemical finish from etching, or using a patina to make the ring look dark.  Unfortunately, it doesn't last.  Stainless damascus steel is going to be primarily shiny.  It's called "stainless" for a reason!  I have had customers buy rings from me after buying rings from "Acid Wash" producing factories because their rings started rubbing off on their fingers from day one, and they weren't etched deeply enough, leaving them with barely discernable patterns.  I always etch my rings deeply enough, and only apply patinas for effect in the protected recesses.

5. Ring size to bandwidth ratios.  Again, Jewelry 101.  I've seen a new site recently pop up offering damascus rings in all common sizes but only 8mm wide!  8mm is the top end of my recommended band width, suitable only for size 11 on up, and even then I'll try to talk you down to 7mm.  Unless you've worn wide rings comfortably in the past, or have very large fingers, you're going to be a lot more comfortable with a 5mm band or a 6mm band.  Trust me.  I'm a jeweler.  With a degree and everything.  Many of my customers are men getting married who have never worn any jewelry before but love damascus, and really want to show it off.  I often have to talk them down, and I've gotten more than a few thank you calls once the rings arrived.

Stainless damascus jewelry that is well made will last a lifetime.  I have seen rings of mine that are ten years old that look brand new.  Most of the new factories are obviously still working out the design problems, or their manufacture is so cheap that they will just send you a new ring for free.  But I want to make family heirlooms, not replaceable junk.  I hope that's what you want too.

-J.Arthur Loose