Jewellery designers using 3D printers to change the dynamics of mass production and handmade artisanry. By Fleur Watson.

Scan-made objects

Susan Cohn and Justin Clemens’ Valentine cc_1402_2014.
Susan Cohn and Justin Clemens’ Valentine cc_1402_2014.
Credit: Courtesy Susan Cohn/Anna Schwartz Gallery

Contemporary jeweller Bin Dixon-Ward’s work is deeply connected to ideas embedded within the local culture of Melbourne and yet, paradoxically, is produced remotely on the other side of the world via a 3D printer.

Drawing on the notion of the Hoddle grid – the 1837 layout of Melbourne’s city streets – Dixon-Ward’s interlinked, geometric and architectural necklaces, bracelets and cuffs take their form from an investigation into the evolution of the grid as the city shifts, matures and grows.

Digital technologies provided Dixon-Ward with the capacity to materialise these concepts. “I wanted to capture the shifting nature of the grid and reveal its dissolving, porous nature once people are embedded within it,” she explains. “The process of using the computer and 3D printing enabled the use of forms that I’d previously been trying to make by hand in metal and just not succeeding. I just couldn’t refine the skills I needed to translate the ideas from the hand drawing to the object using traditional gold and silversmith techniques.”

Along with disciplines such as architecture, product and fashion design, digital processes such as CAD (computer-aided design) software, CNC (computer numerical control) routing and 3D printing, and platforms such as networked manufacturing, crowd-funding and social networking, are rapidly changing the way that many contemporary jewellers are working. Yet, the democratic and accessible nature of the technology is also provoking important social and cultural questions and dividing practitioners into those who embrace new technologies as providing new ways of making and those who see digital production as a devaluing of the hand.

Dixon-Ward is acutely aware of the factional positions around new technologies. “The handmade is still the revered ‘high priest’ of contemporary jewellery,” she explains. “There’s still a lot of rhetoric about the importance of the hand of the artist as being the element that gives the work its cultural value. I don’t agree that 3D printed work is completely devoid of the hand of the artist. I think there’s still space for each piece to have its own personality and a language that is informed by its maker.”

Dixon-Ward’s Grids series – at Craft Victoria until August 30 – is produced using CAD software such as Rhino and selective laser sintering, a process of bonding microscopic grains of nylon by laser. The objects are built up layer by layer and then colour is applied by hand. “I still get really excited when a piece returns from being printed and there’s a translation from the rigour of the drawings to what comes out with the 3D print,” she states. “Beyond the fact that the work exists in three dimensions, there are very particular material properties that are present – reflection of light, texture and porosity. These all result from the print, and that process of transformation is really interesting to me.”

While there is a distinct sense of play and experimentation to her use of digital technologies, there is also an intellectual rigour to her process that resonates deeply with Melbourne’s artisan culture. The Grids series recalls an architectural scale, sitting both on and apart from the body with a manipulation of space and interlocking pieces and a gradation of colour. The nylon is simultaneously fragile and robust.

The series also reflects something of the Melburnian mindset. Dixon-Ward’s interest in the Hoddle grid was born out of research into its application onto the landscape, and Melbourne’s Indigenous and early settling communities. She realised that despite imposed constraints, a robust community will always find ways in which to subvert and dissolve containment and to express individuality.

Susan Cohn, renowned jewellery designer and curator of the exhibition Unexpected Pleasures, suggests: “The difference with Bin’s work is that she is using the process of 3D printing to create her own language rather than using it as a kind of ‘wet dream’ technology. Her work looks at how the city might be given a three-dimensional form. The work is spatial – you can see through it as it falls on the body, it moves and has all these different layers. This is something that can only really happen with 3D printing so it’s very interesting to see how technology may be used to make something that utterly speaks of its time.”

In her own recent project – Valentine cc_1402_2014 – Cohn questions the wider social implications of new technologies on our contemporary culture. A collaboration with poet Justin Clemens, the project is a critical commentary on the contemporary ritual of Valentine’s Day; a tradition that brings together two ancient artforms – poetry and jewellery – and yet is now global, generic and corporate. Cohn and Clemens have created a “love pack” comprising a how-to guide for constructing a lover’s poem and a sizing template for ordering matching rings that are produced out of 3D printed nylon. The white sugar cube quality of the rings is an analogy to the purity of a new relationship with the intention that the nylon will gradually become “soiled” as it accrues the dirt and realities of everyday life. The work observes the fetishisation of new technologies and raises questions about the potential to devalue objects whose preciousness and intimacy is, in part, generated through their crafted production.

Undoubtedly the traditional gap between large-scale mass manufacturing and small-scale designer/maker production is shifting. At best, new technologies offer active participation in manufacturing, in a truly democratised means of production. A work can be created and the files downloaded and digitally fabricated anywhere in the world, offering small manufacturers and designers increased opportunity and reach. Yet, at the other end of the spectrum, the social and cultural impacts of digital can provide conflicting ethical implications.

A resonant example can be seen in curator Paola Antonelli’s compelling online exhibition Design and Violence for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, New York), which provokes debate about the ethics of the open source and hacktivist culture engaging new technologies such as 3D printing. Design and Violence profiles design objects that have an uncomfortable relationship with the notion of societal “good”. One such piece is The Liberator – an open source set of instructions for creating a firearm using a 3D printer posted by Texas-based non-profit group Defense Distributed. The work exposes the darker underbelly posed by the democratisation of digital manufacturing and the unpredictable nature of how these technologies may be used.

Reflecting further on the implications of digital production, Cohn and Clemens aptly sum up: “It’s only when something is so democratic in its technological capabilities, such as the 3D printer, that people can freely say who they are for the first time. It offers a remarkable insight into an individual’s imagination and power.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 16, 2014 as "Scan-made objects".

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Fleur Watson is a curator for RMIT Design Hub and a former editor of Monument magazine.

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