In the corridors of Art Basel Miami, visitors are rushing to see a bold piece they’ve never seen before, wanting to know more about it, wanting to touch it, maybe even wanting to buy it.
Taken aback by the interest, Jenny Wu returned to her Oyler Wu Collaborative architecture design studio with the idea to start a new business. Seven years on, her LACE jewellery brand has launched a wedding collection, a men’s line, and recently expanded into Europe. Underpinning all that success is 3D printing technology.
It was the autumn of 2014 when Wu’s first LACE line of jewellery was launched, just a year after she first used 3D printing to make a fashion statement while speaking publicly and attending events. Among the first products on sale were the Tangens necklace, which features interlocking elements and was initially produced with Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technology, and the Papilio ring, a design inspired by the movement of a butterfly wing that has been additively manufactured in nylon and metal materials, while also cast in sterling silver.
Each of these designs began with a sketch, before moving into an extensive prototyping phase that first assessed form and fit and later considered the best material for production. The process used for production, though, has been subject to much deliberation over the years, for not every step of Wu’s journey with LACE has been a walk in the park. “For the first few years, there was definitely a lot of learning,” she tells TCT. Case in point is the Tangens necklace, one of LACE’s flagship products and the kind of piece that was drawing the attention of so many in Miami. While the design remains much the same as it did back in 2014, the production method needed changing.
“Back then, it was mostly FDM and to print a lot of my jewellery was challenging, there was a lot of limitations for the kind of work I wanted to do and how it might translate to 3D printing,” Wu says. “With the support systems, FDM was impossible, so now I mostly work with SLS [Selective Laser Sintering], which, being powder based, obviously makes it more feasible to do interlocking pieces, [for example].”
Finding the right process to produce this piece was paramount for Wu since she had insisted on the necklace being completely 3D printed, including the latch, with zero assembly. Since the necklace was a big and bold piece, it needed to be flexible and durable, but not so hard that it would hurt upon contact with the skin.
“Figuring out how to print the necklace was probably one of the most challenging things,” she recalls. “Just the latch itself, I probably printed that latch 50 times because when it’s too tight, the customer will yank on it and the whole thing will pull off, and then if it’s too loose, someone knocks you and it falls off, and so, in the end, we figured out using SLS with a TPU was the best method, but even within that, looking at the tolerance of each intricate [interlocking] piece and trying to make sure they move but don’t collide, that was a lot of work.”
A lot of effort, as well, has gone into finding the right material to use for pieces, especially as the additive manufacturing industry has made great strides in expanding users’ options in that regard over the years. Some materials have been too soft and easily breakable, others too stiff for the specific application.
It has led Wu to look beyond polymers and closer at what metal 3D printing can offer, resulting in many new designs that polymer AM couldn’t address, such as the Mobius ring, while offering metal versions of several existing designs that had previously been released as plastic pieces, like the Papilio ring. Per Wu, most of what LACE now offers is done in precious metals and steels, largely for reasons around durability and wearability – considering how a customer might bang their ring on a table or not feel when their earrings have fallen out because they’re too lightweight – but also because, “I was always interested in elevating 3D printed jewellery into a fine jewellery brand and not a fashion jewellery brand.”
The latest LACE piece is the limited-edition Velum ring, released in 2020 with only 35 units going into production. It came after many months of design and prototyping using a resin 3D printer, making adjustments ‘slowly and constantly’ before eventually printing a final iteration in precious metal. Velum, as with all LACE products, is produced on-demand and is available in stainless steel, bronze and grey steel, which are 3D printed, or cast in silver after the piece has been printed in wax.
Velum is said to have taken LACE into a new direction with regards design and the inspiration behind this piece tells you it could barely be possible without 3D printing.
“Sometimes I think about the work we do in architecture leading the way, inspiring the work in the jewellery, but Velum is one that is happening at the same time as what we’re doing in architecture,” Wu explains. “We’ve been really inspired by taking a soft, draped surface, but then producing it in a hard material; trying to get the undulations and the reading of fabric, but hard. We’ve been interested in that type of design for some time. We won a competition for this drapery inspired canopy for a museum, and at the same time, I was working on this Velum piece. It’s nice to have things that are working at different scales and, obviously, with the soft surface and curves, 3D printing is just completely suited for that type of application.”
Though Wu has been working as a jewellery designer for seven years now, she has never seen it as a departure from architecture. Rather, she considers it architecture at a smaller scale that is placed on the body. While the Oyler Wu Collaborative endeavour sees the implementation of additive to produce scale models, LACE has enabled her to explore the full potential of the technology with greater freedom. It has also allowed her to do so in a manner that matches her values, that considers the wants of her customer base at an intimate level and allows her to bring to market something unique in style and design.
Each LACE piece begins on a sketch pad, is modelled digitally and printed repeatedly until the design is finalised, before production is outsourced. A workflow typical of many a jeweller. But it is done Jenny Wu’s way.
“For me, 3D printing has completely changed the way a business model is run, especially in fashion and jewellery,” Wu finishes. “There was a point when you consider, ‘should I just have this [mass] produced somewhere and instead of printing it in small batches,’ and in six years of building this company, I found that I was able to evolve my design over time, I was able to hold small inventory, and I’m able to print to order and be nimble about when I can launch a piece.
“When I talk to more traditional brands, just making a mould for a piece of jewellery costs a lot of money and then the time between conception and production could run between one to two years. You’re making a huge investment and you’re expected to order 100,000 pieces otherwise you can’t recover the cost of R&D. You just think about all that fast fashion out there, and the fact we have sweatshops and they’re just pumping out massive amounts of [products] that people may or may not want, and then you have this huge sell out at the end, it just feels like this is not the right business model to work in this time and age. Obviously, our cost per piece will be higher than if it was mass-produced, but I feel like this is the more sustainable and ethical way of practicing.”
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