Technology & Tools: World Gone CAD

The boom in the custom jewelry segment has led scores of retailers to computer-aided design. But how do you know which program is right for you?

As technology that powers everything from mobile phones to manufacturing continues to evolve at a breakneck pace, it should come as no surprise that high-tech tools employed by jewelry designers and retailers are undergoing a similarly rapid evolution. Although CAD (computer-aided design) programs have been a part of the tech-savvy jeweler’s lexicon for decades, advances in technology are making the programs more user-friendly, and lower prices are making CAD systems more accessible to even smaller jewelers who want to expand into custom business.

If you’re just taking a seat at the CAD/CAM table, read on to learn about the major players in the industry. If you’re already familiar with these companies, take a look to find out what they’ve been up to lately and how they’ve been streamlining and upgrading the design experience.

A screenshot of ArtCAM JewelSmith software in action


Developer: McNeel

Who uses it: Rhino is actually an industrial-design tool not specifically tailored for the jewelry market, but its low price makes it a good CAD entry point.

Features: Numerous third-party plug-ins allow users to execute more advanced functions. Two of the most popular, RhinoGold ($2,100; and Rhinojewel ($1,595;, tend to be thought of as distinctive products, says McNeel product manager Scott Davidson. However, since the software is not tailored to the jewelry industry, it doesn’t contain many of the automated functions and wizards of other CAD tools. It’s better suited for people who already possess a degree of proficiency with high-tech design tools.

Learning curve: Davidson says users already familiar with CAD programs are able to grasp the basics in a couple of days. After that, he says, it takes six to 12 weeks to gain proficiency.

Price: $975 for the Rhino software.

Courtesy of David Watt of George Pragnell Stratford-upon-Avon UK

Courtesy of Gemvision

Courtesy of Richard Gretz Goldsmiths

From top left: a necklace rendered using 3Design Version 7; Gemvision’s Matrix 3D Jewelry Design software; a pendant designed using Sensable’s Claytools program


Developer: Vision Numeric

Who uses it: Vision Numeric business manager Cyril Saelens says his customer base is roughly a 50–50 split between large manufacturers and small (even one-person) design shops. Mac users, take note: 3Design runs on PC, Mac, and Linux-based systems without any additional software.

Features: The newest version, 3Design CAD7, can create renderings from different views so the final picture looks more like the actual piece of jewelry. Another new feature is a sketching module, which lets users sculpt organic shapes using a mouse.

Learning curve: Familiarity with graphics programs like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw is useful but not required, say Saelens. Users can get the gist after a three-day intro course, but mastery takes a month or two if you have four or five hours a day to dedicate, three to six months if you’re working within a busier schedule.

Price: The license for the software costs $6,600; the initial training course is $1,500.


Developer: Sensable

Who uses it: FreeForm is a bit of a dark horse in the CAD space; launched in 1999 as a tool for sculptors, hands-on jewelry designers quickly adopted it for its unique interface. It has been used by brands like Mikimoto and Pandora, says Sensable.

Features: The program uses a robot arm and haptic feedback to let users literally design products in thin air that then appear in 3-D incarnations on-screen. “The combination of the input device and modeling paradigm allows people to create complex but realistic models very easily,” says Sensable senior product specialist Kevin Atkins. This isn’t a full-fledged jewelry design CAD tool the way many on this list are—so you won’t find functions such as a pavé setting or a wizard for making rings.

Learning curve: Learning the basics takes a couple of days; Atkins claims the program is so intuitive that jewelers can be creating in about a week’s time.

Price: Sensable charges $9,900 for the FreeForm license and haptic device.

ArtCAM JewelSmith

Developer: Delcam

Who uses it: “Our program is made with a very small shop in mind,” says sales manager Sean Plunkett. While he adds that big manufacturers can and do use the program, he says many users are solo designers—some of whom work on contract for big jewelry brands—or hobbyists seeking to refine their craft.

Courtesy of TDM Solutions
Flower ring modeled in RhinoGold by Eliania Rosetti, São Paolo

Features: JewelSmith lets users work extensively in a 3-D format, rather than having to toggle between 2-D and 3-D windows. The new version, released earlier this year, runs on a 64-bit platform, which means it is capable of handling more complex designs and running them more quickly than its predecessors. It comes with 200 post-processors that allow it to integrate with almost any CAM tool or program.

Learning curve: “We normally like to spend one to four days with relatively new users, teaching them the fundamentals of the software,” says Plunkett, who also notes that the “lion’s share” of users come to the program as CAD novices.

Price: ArtCAM JewelSmith is $7,500; Delcam makes related products with less functionality for jewelers who want a secondary designer seat without the production capabilities.


Developer: Gemvision

Who uses it: Sales consultant Tim Brown says the typical Matrix customer is an independent retail store staffed by anywhere from two to five people. “They’re who we target, and that’s how they compete against the big-box stores—by doing custom design,” he says, adding that nine of 10 are CAD beginners when they purchase Matrix.

Features: Matrix was originally built as a plug-in for Rhino but has matured into an independent product, although it uses the Rhino platform. (Users do not need to buy a separate version of Rhino to run Matrix.) In addition to reading and creating standard CAD STL files, Matrix also works with Illustrator files. Matrix includes functions that automatically save and update attributes of a piece, allowing users to experiment with different versions without starting from scratch each time.

Learning curve: Brown says users can create models suitable for prototype creation in three to six months. “In six months to a year, you’re going to be pretty proficient in terms of being able to address any design you want.”

Price: Matrix costs $6,700, which includes the software itself, one year of technical support, and the next version of the software at no charge.

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