Traditional Jewelry Production
Traditional handmade jewelry begins with an artist carving wax into a model that takes the shape of the future jewelry item. The wax is then surrounded by plaster (“casted”) and heated. The heat melts the wax, which is extracted from the hardened plaster, leaving behind a mold in the desired jewelry shape. The mold, which can be used many times, is filled with molten precious metals to create pieces of jewelry. 
Creating these wax models by hand is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and error-prone. Over the past decade, digital design and 3D printing of wax models has enabled jewelers to produce more intricate molds, more accurately, in shorter lead times – a cost-effective method for many-unit jewelry production. 
Breaking the Mold
As the process for 3D printing metal has improved, technologically-advanced jewelry producers have started directly printing custom metal pieces. Toronto-based jewelry manufacturer Daniel Christian Tang (DCT) has started to print end products, which can take hundreds of hours to design but less than an hour to print a copy of.  3D printing of most metal has been highly challenging technically: the high melting points of precious metals make traditional it difficult to print from sheets of metal using Laser-Induced Forward Transfer.  Material innovations have made metal printing possible by printing and heating metal powder to create a solid.
Image Source: https://www.danielchristiantang.com/
The concept for DCT was predicated on the application of 3D printing to the jewelry world. Cofounders Mario Christian Lavorato and Heng Tang met while pursuing a Master’s in Architecture. The duo realized they could turn their digital architectural prototypes into wearable pieces of art.  As printable powdered metal becomes more accessible financially, companies like DCT will be able to print finished goods at attractive margins. DCT already boasts a 40% average margin, compared to the jewelry retail industry’s bleak average of 5%. 
Other jewelry manufacturers are leveraging 3D printing for rapid prototyping of custom designs for consumers. After discussing desired specifications and designing them digitally, jewelry makers will print a wax model for the customer to review in under an hour. This rapid prototyping has greatly reduced the time and cost required to respond to customer design requests, and the potential speed to market is attracting new designers. 
Scaling a 3D-Printed Design Operation
3D printed jewelry is estimated to reach $900m in market revenues by 2026, a small percentage of the global jewelry market (estimated over $200bn in revenue by 2020).  As materials and machinery costs continue to fall in additive manufacturing, more artisan jewelry makers and tradesmen will invest in 3D printing tools to create molds and print individual pieces of jewelry. DCT has opened a factory in Hong Kong in an attempt to produce their intricate, high-fashion printed jewelry at scale.
Further enhancements to CAD software and user interfaces will also drive growth in 3D printed jewelry. Designers like John Brevard believe the future of his business depends on the customer-designer relationship. Brevard launched a digital customization platform called Thoscene in which customers can input personal astrological data to create a custom-designed piece of jewelry.  The flexibility in small production 3D printing allows jewelry manufacturers to bring customers into the product design and development process much earlier.
I believe commercialization efforts need to pick up for 3D printing jewelry to continue to grow. In the ultra-high-end jewelry markets, customers won’t be involved in the product development process, as they are paying designers to create works of art that will be unique and fashionable. In the low end, fast-fashion market, jewelry needs to be mass produced, also precluding the customer from giving input into design. In these cases, the advantage of rapid prototyping is lost. The middle market for highly-customized printed jewelry seems to be more niche than scientists, bullish on the technology, make it seem. I think partnerships with established jewelry retailers may be an attractive path to market for new entrants to leverage the technology while limiting capital for marketing spend.
Room for Debate
While promising, the market for 3D printed jewelry is still nascent. Will the technology and economics of printing precious metals ever eclipse wax-casted molding? Will consumers accept a piece of “art” that has been printed? And if we allow customers so much influence over product design, will that be the end of innovation in art and fashion?
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- “Toward 3D Printing of Pure Metals by Laser‐Induced Forward Transfer.” Advanced Materials, June 2015. Accessed via Wiley, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/adma.201501058
- “Canadian label Daniel Christian Tang transforms 3D prints into statement jewelry.” Calgary Herald, March 2016. Accessed online, http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/fashion-beauty/canadian+label+daniel+christian+tang+transforms/11784128/story.html
- “They Facilitate 3D Printing.” CE Noticias Financieras, October 2018. Accessed via Factavia, https://global-factiva-com.prd1.ezproxy-prod.hbs.edu/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&an=NFINCE0020181002eea2002hh&cat=a&ep=ASE
- “SmarTech Publishing: Annual Revenues from Additive Manufacturing in Jewelry Expected to Top $900 Million in 2026.” Travel & Leisure Close – Up, Feb. 2017. Accessed via ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1871488697?accountid=11311.
- “Jewelry Makers Sieze on 3D Printing’s Speed and Ease.” Financial Times, March 2016. https://www.ft.com/content/3f870cbe-c4e5-11e5-808f-8231cd71622e