What is electroforming? (for customers)
A question I get asked constantly is “what is electroforming?” and usually the answer makes peoples eyes glaze over, so read on…at your own peril.
“SEXY. METALS. MAGIC.” At least, that’s what my fabulous jewelry/metals/enameling instructor Andrew Kuebeck would say. It’s a little bit of science (aka a whole bath of finicky chemicals), a little bit of math (how do I calculate surface area again?), and a whole lot of creativity when it comes to use of materials. Basically, a thin skin of copper is grown on a surface, which can be made up metal, found objects, organic materials, and so much more. Bugs? No problem! Plastic figurines? Easy peasy! The possibilities with electroforming are endless as it can take on the look of fabrication, casting, or even the more natural hand-formed look of precious metal clay.
Electroforming is a process that creates a metallic end product by electrodeposition onto a metallic or non-metallic surface. It is an electrolytic reaction that moves copper particles from the positively charged anode (copper pipe or sheet) to the negatively charged anode (the piece to be formed). It uses a machine called a rectifier that provides DC current which is needed to facilitate the movement of metal ions in the acidic solution.
If this sounds like electroplating to you, that’s because it pretty much is! The process is nearly identical and the terms are often used interchangeably in the jewelry world. Electroforming can be a bit of a misnomer because it is meant to define a process in which the original surface is removed after the skin has grown, whereas electroplating is when a skin is grown on a metallic surface and the surface is left on the inside. Most “electroformed” jewelry is actually somewhat of a combination between the two processes. In any case, if you would like to find more jewelry in this style, your best bet is to use the term electroformed.
This process is very SLOW. To maintain all of the details in a surface, the trick is to use a low current over a long period of time, sometimes up to 24-48 hours! This is necessary for long term stability of the piece, especially when it comes to wearables. Those dainty looking rings with the thinnest layer of copper can be quite charming, but from personal experience, tend not to withstand the test of time (and my clumsy grip). The best place to look for evidence of plating thickness is right around the stone. If the stone doesn’t look secure, it’s a safe bet that the rest of the piece has an equally thin coating of metal. This process requires frequent checking to make sure everything is going according to plan (*spoiler* it frequently doesn’t). However, its unpredictable textures and outcomes can sometimes be the most captivating part of the process and can lead to some brilliant results.