The time-honored tradition of browsing a jewelry store -- wallet in hand and heart in throat -- is being turned upside down, thanks to one New York jeweler's tech-forward thinking.
American Pearl is using 3D printing to let customers create their own finely detailed pieces of gold, silver, and platinum jewelry, quickly, and more cheaply than the traditional jewelry-making process, without ever setting foot in the store.
That's right, guys: You can order that Christmas engagement ring while in your pajamas, without ever leaving your laptop behind.
“What we love about 3D printing is that consumers save a lot of money and lot of time having something 3D printed,” said Eddie Bakhash, CEO and son of the founder of American Pearl, which has had a storefront in New York City’s Diamond District since 1950. He called the technology “very disruptive” to the $85 billion a year U.S. jewelry industry.
Bakhash has cracked one important component necessary for making 3D printing accessible for mainstream consumers: He's put the power of creation into the hands of the buyer. Right now, you work from American Pearl's existing designs (though high-rollers can approach Bakhash with their own designs, too) to choose the size and type of gemstone, the metal type and color, and the piece’s form and fittings, such as an earring backing or a clasp.
American Pearl then uses a Solidscape T76 3D printer to create a wax model of the piece; that model is used to create a thermoplastic sculpture of the piece, followed by a mould made of latex, rubber, or silicone into which they pour gold to fashion the final piece.
The company plans to create more intricate designs using 3D sintering next year. In this process, the company goes from the digital file directly to gold metal using additive manufacturing: The precious powder is hit by a high-powered laser, which causes the metal to heat, fuse and add a layer to the main form. The process is repeated until the full piece is finished.
This approach lets American Pearl offer a diverse range of jewelry for all budgets. Bakhash hasn't added up all of the permutations he offers, but hazarded a guess that it numbers in the millions. His company began offering the platform on some products in November; today the vast majority of its jewelry is 3D printed. You can find something on the cheap, or go big if you're ready to drop six figures on an eight-carat diamond. The choice is yours.
“We never knew how much consumers wanted to change the products they were buying until we offered the option,” Bakhash told FoxNews.com.
Over the past three years, Bakhash has quietly put together a team of 3D engineers in Silicon Valley to build an end-to-end 3D platform. It handles design of the printing process and provides a 3D browser and customization engine for the consumer to view renderings of their concoction.
The company designs its rings, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings using proprietary software that makes it relatively easy to create multiple views of a piece. Together, this 3D rendering and printing platform is proving popular in boosting sales: In November alone, Bakhash says sales doubled year-over-year, an impact directly attributable to the 3D printing process.
While there was once cachet to the idea that a skilled jeweler had hand-tooled a piece, 3D printing means precise lines and symmetry, he said.
“In the old way, jewelers had to spend a lot of hours carving [by hand]. It would take me two weeks to create that piece. We can do it in a day now,” Bakhash said. “There's no way we could have all of these pieces if it weren't for technology. The jeweler has been replaced by software.” Depending upon the piece, creation can take just a few hours.
Another benefit: All of American Pearls' 3D-printed products are made in the USA. This stands in contrast with other jewelry, which often came in from overseas where labor costs are lower.
A third benefit is the efficiency. Not only does American Pearl save time on designing its catalog, but it also cut down the process by 90 percent because 3D printing is so much faster. “Typically the savings are passed off to the consumers,” Bakhash said, noting that his prices tend to cost one-quarter of standard retail prices.
“No one else is doing what we are, though a lot [of makers] quietly use 3D for the creation of designs behind the scenes. But no one else has an online interactive system.”
With that head start on the industry, American Pearl is looking to the future. “[Eventually] we'll allow you to virtualize your hand on the product, and we'll allow you to create your own designs from existing objects. That will be coming next year,” he said.