Jen Allen and Maia Leppo return to Pottery Making Illustrated to demonstrate a new collaborative technique for making beautiful ceramic jewelry in your own studio. Jen and Maia first appeared in the January/February issue of PMI to share the basics of jewelry making with ceramic components. They gave as a quick tutorial on tools and materials, then taught us a simple technique to make a clay/metal necklace. You can find that article at: https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/toc/pottery-making-illustrated-jan-feb-2021.
Jen Allen: Ceramic jewelry involves two components, a ceramic piece and a metal finding, which is added to make it wearable, and includes clasps, earring posts, and pin backs. I like to start by sketching various earring ideas.
I have several go-to ceramic components that work well for simple, beautiful jewelry pieces (1). First, I like to roll out small, pea-sized balls (no hole) of clay and attach these balls directly onto Kanthal wire. The balls will shrink onto the wire as they dry and the glaze, once fired, helps secure them. I use cone-6 Laguna Frost porcelain for most of my clay components.
Second, the combed half circles (see 1) are made by rolling out a thin (2mm) slab. You can add texture to the slab with texture rollers/stamps/impressing fabric into the clay or combing the clay with serrated ribs. From the slab, I cut out round disks using a circle cutter (made for fondant), which then gets cut in half. I bend little U shapes out of 20-gauge Kanthal wire and stick them into each half circle. That loop is where the ear wire is eventually attached.
Third, but not last, my feather shapes are cut out of a thin slab using a metal rib on end (bent into a subtle curve). I pinch the clay to create a feather-like shape. I use slip-trailing bottle tips to make holes in the clay feather so that the ear wire can be attached. Since ear wires are most commonly 20 or 21 gauge, I use a 19-gauge tip for a 20-gauge ear wire and a 20-gauge tip for 21-gauge ear wire.
After the clay is bone dry (and no cracking is present), I use brushes and slip-trailing bottles to apply underglazes and glazes to the clay components. This helps achieve a variety of color and texture in the work.
Kanthal Versus Nichrome
Jen Allen: I am often asked what the difference is between Kanthal and nichrome wire. Both are useful for ceramic jewelry applications as their melting points are 2730°F (1500°C) and 2552°F (1400°C) respectively.
Kanthal is a FeCrAl alloy. The chemical composition is iron (Fe, 70–80%), chromium (Cr, 20–30%), and aluminum (Al, 4–7%). When heated, aluminum oxides form a protective layer on the surface of the wire that prevents further oxidation. I only use Kanthal wire because it does not contain nickel (Ni), which is a common cause of allergic contact dermatitis.
Nichrome is a NiCr alloy usually composed of nickel (Ni, 80%) and chromium (Cr, 20%). When heated, an outer layer of chromium develops, which prevents further oxidation.
Earrings with French Hook Ear Wires
Jen Allen: The two most common ways that earrings attach to pierced ears are by posts or ear wires. With ceramic jewelry, posts are often glued onto the back side of a clay component. Post-style earrings are then secured to the ear with an ear nut. To avoid using glue, you can choose to make earrings that use ear wires, which are lengths of wire that are looped and shaped to fasten an earring to a pierced ear. In this case, you either need to add a hole into your clay component or attach a loop of Kanthal wire that the ear wire can connect to. I most often make French hook (French curve) ear wires and begin by sketching out my designs so that I know which part will be the clay component, which part will be a loop of Kanthal wire, and which part will be the niobium ear wire. Note: Niobium (Nb) is a hypoallergenic alternative for people with metal sensitivities. I use 20-gauge niobium to create French hook ear wires.
Start by choosing the gauges of Kanthal wire you want to use for the design. I most commonly use between 22 gauge and 14 gauge. Next, cut two 3-inch lengths of Kanthal wire using flush-cut pliers or a jeweler’s saw. Tip: Use inexpensive flush-cut pliers as the Kanthal is a very hard wire and can damage nice pliers. The diameter of the first loop is selected by using the stepped jaws of bail-making/looping pliers. These pliers are great for production work as you’re able make consistently sized loops every single time since there is no taper. Stepped pliers also allow you to make multi-sized diameter loops using only one tool.
Wrap the wire around the selected step on the pliers to make a loop at one end of each 3-inch wire (2). This is the foundation loop (3), it will hold the Kanthal elements as well as the ear wires.
Once you have a foundation loop for a pair of earrings started, you can create other wire components to add linear interest to the design. Bend triangular shapes using a combination of flat-nose pliers and stepped bail-making pliers (4). Attach these triangular shapes to the foundation loops (5).
Next, thread the wet to leather-hard porcelain forms onto the wire (6). Allow the clay to dry completely, apply glaze (by brushing, trailing, or dipping), and let dry again. Now, suspend the assembled pieces on to a pre-made bisque clay form (7) and once-fire them to temperature in an electric kiln.
Making Your Own Ear Wires
You can purchase pre-made niobium ear wires from Riogrande.com (item #631306), or you can easily make you own. Using a jeweler’s saw, cut two 1¾-inch lengths of 20- or 21-gauge silver wire or niobium wire to your desired lengths (8). Next, use bail-making pliers to form loops that will attach the earring to the ear wire (9). Before attaching your earring design to its ear wire, sand the end of the ear wire that will go through the ear with either fine sandpaper or with a cup burr attachment for a rotary tool. Caution: Always wear a professionally fitted respirator when sanding or filing metal.
Finally, to work-harden the ear wire so that it will keep its shape better, lay it down flat and hammer each side with a raw-hide mallet. Now you’re ready to attach your earring to the ear wire. To do so, use pliers to open the small loop on the front of the ear wire, thread your earring design onto the ear wire, and use pliers again to close the loop to secure your earring.
There are many options to ear-wire styles, including angular and curvilinear. To create angular ear wires, bend the angles using flat-nose pliers (10, 11). To make curvilinear ear wires, bend the curves using stepped bail-making pliers (12, 13).
If you are interested in delving deeper into ceramic jewelry making, we go into more depth in our Ceramic Arts Network videos, Ceramic Jewelry Making Part 1 (and 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 for soldering posts onto earring backs, making your own jump rings, 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!
Photos of collaborative earrings: Jocelyn Negron.
Jen Allen teaches ceramic classes at West Virginia University and lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her husband, their two kids, and two dogs.
Maia Leppo currently works out of her studio in the Brew House Association on the south side of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.