Collaborative Ceramic Jewelry

Maia Leppo: Over four years ago, I met Jen Allen at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, while I was a resident artist and Jen was teaching a workshop. Our artistic (and friend) connection was immediately apparent when Jen walked into my studio and started moving pieces around to commission a pair of earrings from me. I loved her idea and that collaboration has not stopped since. Following my residency, I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference was held that year. Jen suggested we plan a collaborative show of ceramic jewelry to run during the conference. For almost a year we planned and sent pieces back and forth and figured out a working flow. After taping a video for Ceramic Arts Network and teaching a joint class at Arrowmont, we are excited to share our tried-and-true techniques so you too can make finished ceramic jewelry.

Ceramic jewelry involves two components, a ceramic piece and a metal finding. Start by creating the ceramic element for the piece of jewelry you wish to make. A good beginning piece for anyone new to jewelry, but with a little ceramic experience, is a pendant with a relatively simple ceramic element.

Jewelry Making Definitions

  • Bail: Any part of the finished pendant necklace that allows it to hook on to a chain or cord
  • Bench pin: Tapered block of wood with a V-shaped center cutout, used as a surface to support metal while sawing using a jeweler’s saw 
  • Cold connections: Refers to connections that do not use heat or soldering, including rivets, hooks, and prongs
  • Finding: Any part of the finished jewelry that is added to make it wearable, including clasps, earring posts, and pin backs
  • Jump rings: Little metal wire circles that attach two separate elements
  • Prongs: The metal parts that hold the focal piece in place and attach it to the rest of the jewelry

Clay Component

Maia Leppo: Any flat-bottomed clay piece will work for this beginner project. To make a simple, flat piece for a pendant, I used a ¼-inch Plexiglass die and pressed a small ball of clay (I used cone-6 porcelain from Standard Ceramic Supply Company) into the die opening (1). I scraped away the excess clay with a rib, removed the clay from the die (2), and let the clay dry to leather hard. Smooth out the edges and surface with the sponge and let the clay dry completely before bisque firing it. Any type of clay will work, but I choose porcelain for the look and hardness.

After the bisque firing, I used masking tape to create a resist design on the surface (3). Next, I brushed colored underglaze onto the surface and then wiped it away to achieve a stained or wash effect (4, 5). I removed the tape, then repeated the same process for the back of the piece (6). The piece was then fired to cone 6.

1 Using a 1/4-inch Plexiglass die, press clay into the die, then scrape the surface flat.

2 Remove the die, let the clay dry to leather hard, then smooth the edges and surface.

3 After bisque firing, use masking tape to create a resist design on your surface.

4 Once the tape is secure, paint underglaze onto the surface.

Ceramic Surface Considerations

Jen Allen: There are so many options for surface decoration. You could keep it simple with raw clay or apply underglazes, glazes, lusters, decals, etc. Maia brushes on multiple coats of underglaze for more saturated color, while I use a bit of everything. Underglaze washes over porcelain create a contrasting, patinaed surface that pairs well with the steel. You can choose to keep the underglaze surface as is, or apply a clear matte, clear satin, or clear glossy glaze on top.

Other surfaces I’ve had success with are colored flashing slips fired in soda or wood atmospheres. I have also experimented with wedging different aggregates into my clay to get a more textured surface. Textured surfaces also work well in contrast to the smooth steel. When it comes to surfaces, the sky is the limit!

5 Wipe away the underglaze to get a stained effect and then remove the tape.

6 Do the same to the other side of the piece, the fire again to temperature.

7 Draw the outline, prongs, and bails on paper, secure it to the steel, then cut it out.

8 Use a flex shaft and drill bit to pierce the hole for the bails and the center.

Metal Component: Prong Set Pendant (No Soldering)

Maia Leppo: Once your ceramic component is fired you can begin to set it. Start by tracing around your ceramic object on a piece of paper (or you can make a photocopy), then draw in prongs and a bail (see 7). Make the prongs longer than you think you will need as you can always cut them shorter. The bail can be as simple or complicated as you want. A simple pierced circle at the top is just fine. Rubber cement the paper template onto the sheet of metal (see 7).

For this piece I chose steel because it is very inexpensive, lightweight, and durable, and I like the industrial finish that I can achieve with the metal. Other metals that would work are: copper, brass, and silver. I would recommend 18 or 20 gauge, which is thick enough to support the clay, but thin enough to allow for bending the prongs.

Secure your piece of metal in a vice or bench pin and saw around the exterior of the outline (7). Sawing out metal takes some practice to get the hang of it, but once you do, you will be able to make a lot of different types of jewelry without soldering. When sawing, make sure the metal is at chest height, so you are looking straight on at the piece, rather than straining your neck by looking down. I use a computer chair with adjustable height for sawing. It is always a good idea to wear safety glasses when sawing or using the drill.

Next, to prep your metal piece for cutting out the interior shape, pierce a hole in it to fit your saw frame and blade. Using the flex shaft, or other small hole-making tool, drill a hole into the center (8). I used a #60 drill bit, but you can use whatever size you have that your saw blade will fit through. If you are trying to conserve as much of the metal that you are piercing out, you will want to drill as close to the line as possible, without drilling through it. Thread your saw blade into the hole, secure it to the saw frame, and cut out the desired shape (9). When finished, unhook your saw blade  from the frame and remove it from the internal shape. Using files and sandpaper, smooth out the sawed edges. Pierce the hole for the bail and cut that out as well (10).

9 Insert the saw blade into the pierced center hole and cut that space out.

10 Insert the saw blade into the pierced bail holes and cut those spaces out.

11 Use files and sandpaper to smooth all the edges of your cut steel finding.

12 Position the ceramic piece, then gently bend up the prongs to keep it in place.

Once your metal finding is cut and sanded, it’s ready to set with your fired ceramic object (11). Set your ceramic piece on the cut metal and fold up the prongs (12). Determine how long the four prongs need to be. In general, you want them as short as possible to hold the piece, having the end of the prong just bend over the lip of your ceramic element. Cut the prongs down to size and smooth out the ends with a file. The ends can be any shape you want, round, square, pointed, etc.

When you are satisfied with your finish, bend the prong tips over, rolling and pressing the tips all the way down to capture your ceramic piece. Hold the ceramic element in place with your fingers, then roll the prongs up on a hard surface. Start with one prong, bend it down a bit, then rotate the piece to bend the next one, continuing until all of the prongs have been bent. If your ceramic piece still jiggles, use chain nose pliers to bend the prongs over more. Add a piece of masking tape over the prong and frame
to protect the metal, and then squeeze the prong down.

Attach jump rings (which can be store bought or you can learn to make your own by watching our Ceramic Arts Network video) and a chain or cord to make a finished pendant (13).

13 Attach jump rings to the bails and a chain or cord to make a finished pendant.

Supplier Recommendations

Conclusion

This article discusses just one way to combine metals and ceramics to create jewelry. If you are interested in delving deeper, we go into more depth in our Ceramic Arts Network videos, Ceramic Jewelry Making Part 1 with Jen Allen and Maia Leppo and Ceramic Jewelry Making Part 2 with Jen Allen and Maia Leppo (available at https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/shop/ceramic-jewelry-making-part-1-with-jen-allen-and-maia-leppo). There, we discuss processes needed for soldering posts onto earring backs, making your own jump rings, other prong techniques, and so much more. We hope that the information on these pages and in the video will get you fired up about making your own ceramic jewelry designs!

Photo credit for Jen Allen and Maia Leppo’s collaborative jewelry pieces: Jocelyn Negron.

Jen Allen received a BFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and a MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington. In March 2008, NCECA recognized her as an Emerging Artist. In addition to keeping a home studio, Jen teaches ceramic classes at West Virginia University, is an active member of Objective Clay, and is the founder of the Mo’town Studio Tour. She lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her husband, their two kids, and two dogs.

Maia Leppo graduated from Tufts University with a degree in biology and community health. She received training in jewelry and metals from various craft schools, including Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, Pocosin Arts School of Fine Craft, Penland School of Crafts, and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, and earned an MFA from SUNY New Paltz. She has participated in artist residencies at Arrowmont and Fallingwater and has taught at institutions around the country including Penland, Arrowmont, Pocosin, and Touchstone Center for Crafts. She currently works out of her studio in the Brew House Association on the south side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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