Defining ‘excellence’

Internationally-renowned designer, master jeweller and artist Rex Steel Merten explains the difference between 'good' and 'not-so-good' jewellery. Most jewellery-buying consumers want a product that satisfies…
Internationally-renowned designer, master jeweller and artist Rex Steel Merten explains the difference between ‘good’ and ‘not-so-good’ jewellery.
Most jewellery-buying consumers want a product that satisfies their need for something appropriate to the occasion at a price that seems to reflect the value of the piece. Other consumers are more discerning. They know that some products are mass-produced to varying degrees of quality and durability. They also know that higher quality jewellery is often individually designed and handcrafted and consequently carries a higher price.
The cognoscenti, those who love jewellery and are aware of its potential to be a long-term store of appreciating value, will not only know all of the above, but will look for specific distinguishing features to determine its true worth.
What does the expert look for when determining whether a piece of jewellery is a unique and valuable example of a master jeweller’s craft? Provenance and Quality of materials and making.
·          Provenance
When valuing a piece of jewellery the first point that must be considered is the item’s provenance – Where and when it was made? Who designed it? Who made it?
The maker’s mark is a crucial factor in answering such questions.
English and European hall marking traditions and records go back to the 12th century and are continued in a recognised legislated form to this day in Britain and the European Union. Elsewhere, individual jewellers have often marked their own work, but some of these marks are idiosyncratic or lack a sound historical record.
At a more contemporary level in Australia, collectors and valuers now have the reassurance of the Gold and Silversmiths Guild of Australia’s hallmarking practice.
Since its establishment in 1988, the Guild has gathered both momentum and influence, attracting to its membership a dedicated group of gold and silversmiths, jewellers, designers and artisans who seek to maintain the highest standards of skill and quality in their work.
These high standards are symbolised in the voluntary hallmarking of Guild members’ pieces. By emphasising and continuing this ancient tradition of the maker’s mark, the Guild members are demonstrating their commitment to quality.
This is a great advantage to collectors and valuers as the Guild’s website,, enables them to make enquiries regarding important facts about members’ individual pieces such as gem complement, weights, material, unique construction and functional elements to determine their true worth.
Quality of Materials and Making
This is an area in which the forensic skills based on intimate experience of working directly with metal and gems is of inestimable value. Fortunately, in this era of mass communication, publishing, and online reference, one can easily find information to make considered judgements without having to be a master jeweller.
Nonetheless, as a tutor of jewellery-related master classes, I like to start my students assessing work using the ‘head, heart and hand’ principle:
·                                Head: Does the work reflect the intelligence, wit – even humour – of the maker? Is the design practical? Is it well balanced? Do the elements of the design work well together? Are there unique innovations, new ways of using materials?
·                                Heart: Does the work show the maker’s enthusiasm and passion for a job well done? Are the traditions of using precious materials acknowledged? Is there a willingness to engage with new technology for the best outcome?
·                                Hand: Is the item genuinely handmade?
By examining surface indications (formed during the item’s design, forging, shaping, piercing, setting and polishing, etc) one soon learns to pick the difference between the cast item; the piece that is hand-assembled from cast components; the ordinary hand-made item; and the meticulously finished, proudly hand-crafted piece of jewellery.
1. The cast item:
Let me make it quite clear that I love wax casting. Some jewellers profess to hate it. I’m not one of them. At 5000 years of age, it remains one of the oldest techniques known to jewellers and metal-smiths. It allows one to achieve specific results impossible to achieve in hand-forged metal. One has to have respect for a technique with this pedigree. Wax casting is what has made CAD-CAM such a successful “new kid on the block” when it comes to contemporary jewellery technique. Modern casting just gets better and better.
So, how do you tell whether it’s cast or not? All casting has some porosity, however minute. Careful examination with a 10X loupe will pick this up. Even if the piece has been burnished and polished, there will be a corner or an angle somewhere within the piece that will show the tiny little holes caused by minute air-bubbles that comprise porosity.
Occasionally a little round bead will be seen, often in a corner or on an edge where air may have been trapped as a bubble during the wet plastering stage of the mould making. Sometimes, porosity can be seen where a sprue was attached to the original wax model. As the molten metal has rushed into the mould space through the sprue, a mini vortex can occur which draws microscopic bubbles of gas to concentrate into the molten metal at that point.
There is an inherent, although minute “sponginess” in porous castings. In some lower quality 9ct gold, especially in cast chain links, this can admit corrosion, leading to a catastrophic rotting away of the base metal in the alloy causing the chain links to literally crumble into dust.
2. Jewellery Hand-assembled from Cast Components:
 A piece of jewellery cast from a single wax casting, unless it has been resized down several sizes, will show no solder joins – one of the advantages of high quality18ct carat gold and platinum castings.
Some mass-produced jewellery is cleverly designed around mix and match components. Four basic but varying components, for example, might be combined to create ten or more completely different-looking pieces of jewellery.
Careful examination with a 10X loupe will show the characteristic signs of porosity discussed above, but will also show solder joins as fine, slightly shinier lines. In component-assemblage, these lines will be seen where units touch and meet, often as a slightly paler colour. If there is a singular blemish or mark or pattern in one particular component, it will be echoed in every one of those same components.
In other jewellery of this type, the soldered-on components – often drawn-wire claws – may sometimes break away or fall off under strain or trauma because the solder has been sucked into the surface porosity of the casting and has not bonded properly with the more dense drawn wire. This is similar to the “dry join” that sometimes occurs in plumbing or electrical soldering. There will often be a darker grey, dirty oxide appearance in the broken section. Repairs to poor quality castings in these circumstances are often frustratingly unsuccessful!
3. The Ordinary Hand-Made Item:
Unfortunately, jewellers do not always have the luxury of clients with unlimited resources. Most trade work is competitively budgeted and time is money. Hand made work will often show file marks or the finer serrations left by piercing saws, burrs or needle files. These are often seen underneath settings or shoulders in rings.
Other small smooth indentations may be seen on a curved surface where the jaws of a pair of steel pliers have caused a slight pressure groove as the softer metal has been shaped.
Some gem set jewellery will show raised filaments of metal on the underside of gem holes or the inside of pierced settings. Sometimes these filaments of metal will be removed by a round burr leaving a bright ring of burnished metal on the underside of the gem hole.
Because the metal has been hand forged through rolling mills or drawn down through steel drawplates, any unfinished surfaces under or behind settings will present as quite smooth and dense. There will be no sign of porosity, except in the occasional solder join. Sometimes a small particle of abrasive from an emery stick or a speck of dirt will fall into a join and cause an area of resistance to the flow of solder, showing up as an unsightly “pin-hole”.
4. Individually designed, hand crafted jewellery:
Like a striking piece of furniture, or an exquisitely restored vintage automobile, or a beautiful painting, so a masterpiece of the jeweller’s art is often recognised almost intuitively. One sees it – and immediately it takes your breath away. As the eye sinks into the depths of the work’s being, so it reveals itself in unfolding layers. Head, Heart, and Hand.
Depending on the design and range of techniques required to create such a masterpiece, it may incorporate disparate elements; casting and hand forging. There may be traditional vitreous enamel combined with the inspired use of that space-age metal, titanium. Diamonds may be combined with humble ebony, leather or silk. Nothing, except for incompetence, is denied in the conceiving, design and fabrication of fine jewellery. Innovation and experiment are often essential to success. Unexpected problems have to be solved, leading to new skills developed from the foundations of tradition and prior experience. The assessment of such a piece of jewellery may be as confronting for the experienced traditionalist as it is for the newcomer. One has to put aside bias and prejudice in favour of objectivity.
In practical terms, what are we looking for? Think Head and Hand.
Head says, step back metaphorically. Think, look, touch. Trust your intuition. How does it work? What is its function? Does it even have a function or does it exist solely to be beautiful? As jewellery, it will relate intimately to the body. Does it enhance that relationship? Where is it worn – on the head, over the heart, on the hand? Can it be worn in more than one way?
Hand says, look at the detail. Is it polished? Is it textured? How are the gems used? Look behind the externals of its immediate presentation. Turn it over. Is there a pattern in the way the backs of the gem holes are pierced out? That is traditional azure opening. It may be square or chevron patterned. It may alternate in squares and rounds like a row of portholes. In pavé setting the azure opening behind the gems may be a complexity of tiny hexagons, or random polygonal shapes adapted to the flow and contours of the jewellery’s form.
How neatly has the work been executed? Look carefully. A competent jeweller will cut the azures with a fine saw. Modern CAD-CAM jewellery programs can easily reproduce complex azure openings and surface textures with a simple cut, copy and paste mouse click; but they cannot create with the innovation and subtlety of which the human mind is capable. Look for the fine striations of hand sawing; the cast version will be bland, finely smooth and discernibly porous. It won’t have the crispness of the jeweller’s hand skill.
If it has mechanical fittings such as joint pin and clasp, how have these been made? Are they appropriate to the way the piece sits when it is worn? If a brooch, does it sit snug and flat? Is it easy to fasten and wear? Is it safe and secure? Is it strong enough to resist an impatient or careless wearer?
Individually designed and hand crafted jewellery is about fine work. Look for the small details of exceptional quality. A claw setting in an engagement ring may have the initials of the loving couple engraved and pierced between the claws, miniature monograms.
This is craftsmanship that says as much about respect and sensitivity for the client as it does for the jeweller’s competence. Look for little details like clean, pin-hole-free solder joins where the solder has been used judiciously and not carelessly blobbed all over the join. Where two converging layers of metal meet, for example where a ring shoulder flows into the shank, is that join clean and crisp, or is there a great gobbet of solder spoiling what should be a crisp, well defined angle?
There are so many small elements that come together to make an exquisite piece of jewellery. Sometimes one is not consciously aware of every last single detail, but nonetheless there is something about fine jewellery – as in many other art forms – that often begins as an intuition, which in turn leads to that closer examination which becomes valuable experience.
* The author, Rex Steel Merten, is an internationally-renowned designer, master jeweller and artist. Based in Sydney, he has won four Diamonds International awards, a Platinum Guild Inernational awards and six Australian Design awards. Phone Rex on (02) 9580 2808 or email