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What is Reticulation?

Posted by Charmed by Heather on June 1, 2011 at 10:43 PM


Reticulation is a metal texturing method used exclusively by skilled studio jewelers.  The result of this technique on sterling silver and gold mimics the crumpling ridges and deep valleys of the Earth’s surface providing a striking play of light and shadow when worn as jewelry.  Reticulated gold and silver jewelry pieces are wearable art and they should be considered investment pieces.


Reticulation was first used in the late 1800s by Russian court jewelers, including Faberge, who created textured liquor flasks and cigarette cases amongst other items.  Faberge’s studio closed during the Bolshevik Revolution but his Finnish craftsmen carried the art with them to Scandinavia.  It was Finnish metalsmith, Heikki Seppa, who pioneered the technique of reticulation in the United States.

Silver is the metal most commonly used in reticulation but gold works as well.  Personally Charmed designs use sterling silver (.925) in the reticulation process but the Finnish smiths mostly used an alloy of 82% silver and 18% copper because silver with a higher copper content tends to create a more dramatic pattern. Reticulation silver can be purchased from sources like Rio Grande in an 80/20 alloy and comes already reticulated.  This pre-reticulated silver cannot be stamped sterling as it is not 92.5% silver.

 

How is it done in the PC studio?

The first step is a process called depletion gilding.  A sheet of sterling silver metal is heated with a torch to an annealing temperature of 1100 degrees and held there for several minutes.  It is then pickled,washed, and scrubbed with a brass brush and lubricant.  I use Dawn dish washing detergent but Faberge used stale beer.  (I haven’t tried that yet, as I tend not to have any leftover beer.) 

 

This process is repeated several times, up to eight times on larger pieces and at least two times on smaller pieces.  The purpose for the depletion gilding is to reduce the copper from the surface of the silver bringing a layer of oxidized fine silver to the top.  During the reticulating process, the oxidized layer on top will melt at a higher temperature than the layer of metal inside. It is the inside layer of metal that actually causes the ridges and bends that we see on a finished reticulated piece.

 

After the silver has gone through the depleting process, the soldering block is preheated and the metal is ready to reticulate.  I use a large cooler flame to bring the silver up to the correct temperature. Just after it begins to turn red, the silver on top will begin to flow and as the torch is moved away from the flow, the cooling will force the copper layer beneath to bend and wave; this is reticulation.  A deft hand and good eye is required at this stage or the metal will melt and it is very easy to burn a hole into it.  During this stage small items can also be fused to the design providing even more texture and focal points like in this example created by Kwant of KwantEssentials on Etsy.

                                                                                    

After the silver is reticulated, it must be quenched,pickled, and cleaned again before forming. Reticulated silver can sometimes be brittle and should be formed very carefully.  Once the piece is formed, I usually put it in a liver of sulphur bath to add a nice patina, then I polish it by hand to highlight the dips and ridges.

One of the benefits of owning a reticulated piece of jewelry is that one can guarantee it is handcrafted and one of a kind.  It is not possible to mass-produce reticulated pieces as the process requires skill and control and cannot be done by a machine.  Each piece of metal reticulates differently, so no two pieces are ever the same.  The buyer can also be sure that they are purchasing something from a skilled craftsman who spent a lot of time and concentration working on the individual piece. A reticulated silver piece is truly a work of art and an investment piece.


This ring is the same design as the first ring pictured but notice how different the reticulation is; this is what I mean when I say that no two pieces will be the same.  Both rings were created by Heather Brownlee of Personally Charmed/Charmed, by Heather in the same studio using the same equipment:


It is important for all silversmiths to study the art of reticulation wether they plan to create and sell pieces with this finish or not.  By understanding the process of reticulation, a silversmith begins to understand the way metal moves and works.  An aritist who can control this process can easily handle other tasks such as soldering and fusing.  Personally, I love the look; I think it screams mordern, organic, artisanmade and those are trends that are flying off the shelves lately! 

Visit http://www.charmedbyheather.etsy.com to order a custom reticulated ring like the one above or pay Kwant a visit for other reticulated styles.

 


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1 Comment

Reply Kwant
4:35 AM on June 2, 2011 
Interesting and informative article Heather, it is a fun process once you get the hang of it with often magical results.