WASHINGTON, January 7, 2014 — Three-dimensional printing promises to change the way people shop online. This amazing technology will give consumers a future in which they may print clothing, car parts, and even pizzas from the comfort of their home.
As businesses continue to experiment with the many different ways this technology might be used, consumers remain unsure what permanent changes 3D printing will impose on the way they shop.
Among the many potential products that could be printed using the new technology is jewelry. So far, most of the media attention has gone toward costume jewelry that consumers can either fashion themselves or print from existing designs.
Some industry observers have predicted that 3D technology will allow the world’s top jewelry designers to offer affordable versions of their products online, since the purchase of materials will be left entirely up to the customer.
Here’s how precious jewelers have joined the mix. A New York-based jeweler is allowing customers to design their own jewelry, which the firm then prints on a Solidscape T76 3D printer.
Currently, only customers willing to pay top dollar can create their own designs, but other clients may choose from a variety of ideas on the company’s website. Once the order is placed, the jeweler prints a wax model that’s used to create a mold for casting the final piece.
Since most consumers are years away from affording a 3D printer in their homes, the immediate future of 3D jewelry printing will center on custom design. Customers will be allowed to draw up their own ideas and create a piece of jewelry that is as unique as the person cares to make it.
Custom creation in this manner will add a new layer to gift giving, and couples can make romantic statements that are far more personal and unique than a piece of jewelry made — and perhaps copied multiple times — by someone else.
One of the biggest challenges involved in precious jewelry printing is the jewels themselves. 3D printers are now able to sinter almost any metal alloy and produce metal jewelry directly. Gem stones are beyond the current technology, but the technology is racing ahead. What happens when a printer can deliver natural, high-quality diamonds?
Jewelry retailers are seeing a high demand for natural, untreated diamonds, such as those sold under the Forevermark trademark. This can be interpreted as a sign that customers won’t settle for a 3D-printed imitation of a gem.
Even if 3D printing could recreate a clean, pure diamond, would it be the same as having a natural diamond in one’s possession? If the markets for natural and synthetic (lab-grown) gems, like sapphire and emerald, are any indication, the answer is “no.” Superb lab-grown versions of several gems are available, but the natural stones continue to command much higher prices. Lab-grown gems do not seem to compete with natural gems, but to satisfy a different market.
For the time being, 3D printing will probably continue to be used primarily as a mold-maker, and skilled jewelers will perform the work of adding gold, silver, and gemstones to the piece.
This could enhance the jeweler’s role as an artist, rather than someone who works with existing pieces, especially if consumer demand increases for custom-designed jewelry. Until custom jewelry is available through 3D printing, jewelers will continue to experiment with the technology to blaze the trail for future artisans and designers.
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