» The Art of Hand-Milgrained Jewelry

The Art of Hand-Milgrained Jewelry

The Art of Hand-Milgrained Jewelry

The finishing touches are what elevates Carl Blackburn’s custom engagement rings and fine jewelry above the ordinary and into the realm of wearable art. In addition to being master practitioners of hand-engraving and fine filigree, Blackburn’s artisans specialize in the time-honored tradition of hand-milgraining.

Milgrain (also spelled millgrain or milligrain) is a design detail used in jewelry making that decorates and highlights the edges of a piece with a variety of textured relief. Usually appearing as small beads, grains of metal, or serrated grooves on the edge of a ring or other item of fine jewelry, milgrain work is an intricate detail that adds dimension and frames a stone or other design element. When used as a traditional form of stone setting, milgrain ornamentation can make a small, faceted stone appear larger by increasing the points of reflected light in the setting.

The word milgrain itself is derived from the French word millegrain, meaning ‘thousand grains.’ The fine texture of these ‘thousand grains’ allows skilled jewelers like Carl Blackburn to produce almost infinitely detailed borders that can highlight precious gems and lend an antique feel to the overall design of the piece.

History of Jewelry Milgrain

Custom Hand-Milgrained Wedding Band
Hand-Milgrained Wedding Ring by Carl Blackburn

Milgrain work has been practiced almost as long as jewelry has been worn, with early examples dating back around 5000 years. Milgrain should not be confused with the ancient art of granulation—a technique that uses tiny spheres of metal that are soldered or otherwise fused in place.

Milgrain is actually a kind of engraving in which the precious metal of a jewelry item is tooled and shaped. Though this ancient skill has been used by jewelers throughout the ages, milgrain work became most popular during the Edwardian period of jewelry making (1901 – 1915). Known for its light and delicate textures, Edwardian jewelry featured delicate milgrain details in rings, brooches, and pendants, giving the jewelry a softer, lighter look.

Advances in the smelting of platinum and the use of the newly invented acetylene torch during this period allowed jewelers to work the metal to incredible levels of detail, especially on the edges of rings and settings. Edwardian era milgrain detail was phenomenally intricate, and serves as the standard by which most contemporary work is judged. Milgrain continued to be popular during the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras, although not with the same pervasiveness and level of detail.

Though milgraining fell out of favor during the middle of the 20th century, contemporary jewelry is once again embracing milgrain as a design element. Fine jewelers like Carl Blackburn incorporate milgrain work into engagement rings, wedding bands, and other fine jewelry, creating a vintage look while combining it with unique design elements.

Milgrain Technique in Fine Jewelry

Milgrain work is a usually done with special hand tools that embed the desired design into the metal. One such tool, a knurling wheel, resembles a tiny pizza cutter, with the wheel sometimes as small as two millimeters in diameter. The concave rim of the stainless steel wheel is fashioned with identical sharp edges that will indent some of the material, while leaving the desired relief in the precious metal. These patterns can be anything from small raised beads to ovals, squares, or even finely cut parallel lines like the edge of a coin.

To form the milgrain patterns, the wheel is lubricated with a light machine oil and rolled back and forth along the area desired. In tight places where the wheel can not travel, a craftsman may use a hammer and a hollow ended punch with the same design as the wheel, making a single impression at a time to finish the pattern. This type of hand work is painstakingly delicate and time consuming, and requires diligence, patience, and an exceptional eye for detail.

Milgrained Engagement Rings & Wedding Bands

Hand-Milgrained Engagement Ring
Milgrained Engagement Ring by Carl Blackburn

Milgrain work is found in many contemporary engagement rings & wedding rings that seek to create an antique or vintage look and feel. The fine beading or serrated grooves are usually found along the edges of the ring shank or around a diamond or other precious stone.

The raised relief of milgrain can actually function as a kind of setting. The craftsman may set the stone leaving raised ridges that can then be tooled into beads or other shapes that secure the stone in the ring. Milgrain details can also be used to define tightly grouped fields of diamonds, serving as a kind of frame in which the stones are nestled.

Contemporary Milgrain Work

Some jewelers today use 3D-CAD programs to produce milgrain effects in their work. Their designs are sent to a special printer that fashions a 3D wax model which is then cast into a metal die. Molten metal alloys are poured into the dies to form casts which are then assembled into rings.

While this kind of mass produced milgrain work has gained some favor in recent years, the milgrain work at Carl Blackburn is always done by hand. Traditionally handed down from master to apprentice, the skills required to adorn jewelry with milgrain details are perfected only with time and practice, and the resulting artistry can never be replicated by a machine.

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

Learn about the art of hand-engraving in our article on Hand-Engraved Engagement Rings.