Working in Gold

Working in Gold

I am not entirely new to working in gold. About ten years ago I bought a small amount of the metal and made three pairs of small earrings. Unfortunately at this point my skills were not sufficiently developed to make this step. The earrings never sold, largely because I was embarrassed by them and only exhibited them once. However, I still had them and, supplemented by some scrap that I was given, they became a resource that I could draw on.

I recently decided that it was time to try working in gold again. This time I decided to make some of my best-sellers, including two small heart-shaped pendants, from the metal. The experience was very instructive and quite exciting.

The technique of anticlastic raising, on which most of my work depends, is a dynamic process involving a lot of give-and-take between the practitioner and the metal. One must hold a piece of sheet metal, bent into the desired curve, under tension whilst hitting it into a former with a hammer or mallet. (I demonstrate the technique in a beautiful video made for me by Bip Mistry of Transition Film which can be seen here.) Silver and gold behave quite differently under these conditions.

I had always imagined 18 carat gold (that is, gold which consists of 75% elemental gold alloyed with other metals) as quite a soft material. I knew, for instance, that 9 carat (only 37.5% elemental gold) is much harder to work. However, I swiftly discovered that 18ct gold is considerably tougher to carry out anticlastic raising with than Sterling silver is. This is a double-edged sword; it holds its curve better than silver, in which the curve tends to deform a lot more during the process than with gold, so gold needs less correction afterwards. It is also possible to get the same results with thinner sheet. However, it is harder to correct deformation with gold so it takes longer to get the piece right, and twisting the forms requires much more effort.

The images below are chosen to illustrate the processes described and do not show any one piece of jewellery.

I started by melting the scrap gold and old earrings into a blob like a particularly precious Jelly Tot. This was then milled out to the required width and thickness using a rolling mill - there was a lot of elbow grease involved!

The blanks were cut out with a piercing saw. The edges were hammered and the flat pieces forged out to graduate the thickness and give an attractive texture.

They were then curved and hammered under tension into formers to give anticlastic raising’s trademark opposing curves. This usually takes several courses or bouts of raising (hammer work) interspersed with annealing (softening by heating to cherry red) and pickling in citric acid to remove oxides formed by some of the non-gold metals in the alloy.

A last step before twisting is to close up the anticlast by tapping with a mallet whilst holding the piece under tension to avoid the curve opening out again. The tension is necessary because there is a reciprocal relationship between the two opposing curves; tightening one causes the other to open out. A degree of force must be applied whilst malleting the anticlast to preserve the overall shape of the workpiece.

A final step - not necessary with every design - is twisting the anticlast. In the case of the Ripple heart pendant, the twisted ends are also soldered into place.

I have really enjoyed working with gold. This is in large part because of gold’s particular aura. Silver is a beautiful metal, but gold looks and feels quite special. Of course this is partially attributable to its higher value, but it’s more than that. Historically, going back to the very beginnings of metalworking, gold has been regarded as highly desirable. Possibly this was partly because metallic gold could be found as nuggets, requiring no smelting in order to be usable. The fact that gold is relatively inert and so does not react with naturally occurring environmental factors to tarnish or degrade must also have played a part; but I believe it is probably also due to its inherent beauty. 18ct gold has a gorgeous buttery lustre which is extremely seductive. It has certainly wormed its way into my affections.

I have so far completed two pendants and a pair of earrings in gold and started another pair of earrings. I hope to show all of them at my next event, the Sussex Guild’s contemporary craft fair at Pashley Manor Gardens near Ticehurst in Kent. This will be held over the August Bank Holiday weekend, 26th-28th August 2023. This is a particularly beautiful venue and well worth a visit in its own right. (Click on this link for further details.) The gold pieces will be unveiled there; they have to be hallmarked first so they won’t be available until then. I am looking forward to introducing my new babies to the world!

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