Computer Workstation Joins Jeweler’s Workbench

Jewelry design and manufacturing are joining the rest of the manufacturing world by adopting the technology of CAD (computer-aided design) and CAM (computer-assisted manufacturing). The technology is especially useful to jewelers who want to build their custom design business.

At the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, N.Y., for example, jewelry designer and educator Dominic Ventura is applying other industries’ CAD/CAM methods to jewelry design and manufacture. Using a high-end personal computer and design software called Cadkey, Ventura creates an on-screen 3D “wireframe” representation of a design. Then he adds color and texture to the metals and stones using separate rendering software, completing a realistic image that can be printed for display or presentation to a customer.

The process is slow, but the software environment allows him to change the proportions and scale of each design component individually and to view the design from any angle. Components of other stored designs can be imported into a new design file as well.

The technique’s true beauty, however, lies in the CAM half of the CAD/CAM equation — the ability to create a true-to-size plastic prototype of a design. Ventura saves the computer file into a specific file format that can be translated by a stereolithography machine.

Manufacturing service bureaus own such machinery, which stacks very thin layers of plastic one by one to create a three-dimensional object. The service costs upward of $150, depending on the size and complexity of the finished model. But Ventura says the costs involved in traditional modelmaking run much higher. Once a design has been perfected, the plastic model is used to make a mold.

Learning curve: Ventura doesn’t suggest that every designer trade in pliers and torch for a CAD-capable computer system. “There’s a very steep learning curve,” he warns, noting that mastering such a system and its language takes tenacity.

And the system isn’t cheap — computer and software will cost a minimum of $5,000, says Cadkey press agent Belinda Jones. Ventura says spending $6,000-$7,000 for the computer itself wouldn’t be unusual because the software requires a powerful machine. But he believes that experienced modelmakers such as himself can and will make the jump. “Jewelry design has been the same for 2,000 years,” he says. “All other industries are going this way. Large jewelry manufacturers, especially, need this to be competitive.”

Anthony Lent, chairman of F.I.T.’s Jewelry Design program, agrees. “It’s the future of all manufacturing,” he says. “CAD and CAM are standard practice in every other industry.”

Lent says Ventura’s expertise will undoubtedly influence the jewelry design curriculum at F.I.T. “Dominic is creating ‘virtual jewelry,'” he explains. “So much of what’s done on computers today is translated from paper. But Dominic understands forms and space, and he creates those forms on the computer directly.”

For information about Cadkey software and its system requirements, contact John Hayes at Cadkey at (860) 298-8888. To contact Dominic Ventura about his experience with CAD/CAM jewelry design, leave a message for him at F.I.T., (212) 764-6140 or send an e-mail to