» The Art of Hand-Engraved Jewelry

The Art of Hand-Engraved Jewelry

The Art of Hand-Engraved Jewelry

The artisans at Carl Blackburn are exceptional at creating hand-engraved engagements rings and fine jewelry. Simply stated, engraving is a process in which a design is cut into the surface of metal with a hardened steel tool. However, that simple statement doesn’t begin to do justice to the rich variety of engraving that is found in the jewelry of Carl Blackburn and other prominent jewelers. The skill and artistry of hand-engraving has traditionally been a closely guarded secret passed from master jeweler to apprentice—a practice that has its roots in antiquity, and its heart in Renaissance craftsmanship.

A Brief History of Jewelry Engraving

Hand-Engraved Engagement Ring by Carl Blackburn
Hand-Engraved Engagement Ring by Carl Blackburn

Jewelry has been engraved using a variety of methods almost as long as it has been worn. The first examples of engraving were simple designs cut into jewelry with a shaped metal rod, either by simply pushing the tool or hammering the tool across the metal with a hammer. Engravings eventually included many kinds of decoration, from monograms and seals to more elaborate designs and even representational art. Early engraving also included carved gemstones, known as cameos, in which craftsmen carved images into the stones themselves.

Learning the techniques of jewelry engraving was traditionally accomplished through the apprenticeship system: an aspiring engraver would find an older engraver willing to train him, and sometimes spend years learning the work in slow, incremental steps. As the tools and techniques of jewelry engraving evolved, the skills themselves became quite valuable, and by the Renaissance, hand engraving had become a secretive art where masters would only reluctantly pass on the trade.

Those closely guarded skills survived into the industrial era only to be further threatened by mass production. The introduction of the pantograph (a machine that mechanically replicates designs) in the late 1800s and machine-engraving in the 1940s hastened the decline of hand engraving for many years.

Jewelry engraving as we know it today includes everything from simple inscriptions of names and dates to elaborate designs and texturing techniques that trace their lineage directly to the Old World skills of Renaissance goldsmiths. Some contemporary artisans, like those employed by Carl Blackburn, continue to apprentice in the old ways, dedicating a lifetime to pursue the artistry inherent in the old techniques.

Jewelry Engraving Technique

The most basic technique of engraving is called “push graving,” in which the jeweler uses a sharpened steel tool called a graver to push through the metal’s surface. This can be done with hand pressure (push graver); with a small, lightweight hammer and chisel (graver); or more often these days, with a pneumatic, air driven hammer that emulates the hammer and chisel and push graver method.

Gravers are made in a variety of shapes and sizes, and their edges are sharpened to specific angles to produce different widths and depths of cuts. The angle at which the graver is held can be changed continuously during a single cut, allowing nearly infinite gradations in the line itself. In the hands of a skilled artisan, these variations in line can be used to achieve results similar to an artist drawing a picture—the jeweler is quite literally sketching in precious metal.

When engraving a piece of jewelry, the craftsman secures it in a special rotating vise called an engraver’s block. This custom block features a variety of pins to hold the piece, and allows the jeweler to alternately rotate the work toward the graver or push the graver through the stationary piece using only hand pressure.

Types of Jewelry Engraving

A Hand-Engraved Engagement Ring by Carl Blackburn
A Hand-Engraved Engagement Ring by Carl Blackburn

While many people are familiar with the notion of having their wedding bands engraved with the date of their wedding or personalizing their rings with an inscription, the true art of jewellry engraving is embodied in much finer details.

Bulino engraving refers to a ‘dot’ or ‘pointillism’ technique. Derived from the Italian term meaning ‘small hand held graver,’ bulino is a simple but time-consuming method used to create a shadow effect. A fine tipped graver is pressed into the metal and a small barb is raised that can either be left or removed. Tool shape, size, and depth control the ‘dot’ and the amount of shadowing. Bulino can be used to produce high definition images, but it can be quite fragile.

Rigato is an engraving technique in which scores of fine parallel lines are cut by hand into the metal to produce a brilliant sheen that is often compared to silk.

Telato engraving takes its name from the Italian term meaning ‘similar to canvas,’ and evokes the texture of linen with its fine, cross-hatched lines.

Segrinato involves engraving in all possible directions, creating overlapping textures, and orinato is engraved decoration based on forms from nature, including leaves, animals, and flowers.

Modellato is a most delicate type of engraving work, and entails reproducing several designs cut in three dimensions on an extremely small scale.

In addition to these particular techniques, there are an almost infinite variety of ways precious metals can be engraved. Although modern industrial techniques like photo engraving and laser engraving may have ‘cheapened’ the very notion of jewelry engraving, the old world, hand-engraved techniques used by Carl Blackburn still offer an unparallelled aesthetic: the very best in one-of-a-kind artistry and craftsmanship.

Contact Carl Blackburn today to discuss the creation of your own hand-engraved engagement ring, wedding band, or anniversary ring. We serve clients in San Diego and nationwide with the finest bespoke jewelry services. Call 858-869-0175.

Learn about the art of fine filigree in our article on Filigree Engagement Rings.