3D printing and the jewelry boutique: A model for small business success

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Cameron and Rebecca Stern, co-creators of Stern Design Works, are able to bring together their innovative approach to traditional jewelry manufacturing with a fleet of Ultimaker professional desktop 3D printers. Undaunted by the hustle-and-bustle and high-volume demands of the retail jewelry boutique trade, each year Stern Design Works delivers thousands of pieces of their original fashion jewelry to online customers and local boutiques across North America.

Stern Design Works is a multidisciplinary design studio that produces STEM-infused fashion jewelry and accessories. Their pieces celebrate the intersection between science, technology, and art, using techniques ranging from traditional metalsmithing to 3D printing. Not only are their customers drawn to the quality and intricacy of their finished pieces, but also to Cameron and Rebecca Stern’s passion for science and natural history, which has populated their collections with a clever and playful range of subjects and categories.

Fashion jewelry meets science, technology, and art

"Our love of science and quirky history has inspired our collections and kept them growing," Cameron Stern said. In their design lab, they “play around with 3D printing and nylon miniature animals, scaled up proteins, HeLa cells, flea circus props,” and other unique subjects on their journey to identifying new pieces to add to their current season collection or studio archive.

An Ultimaker 3 at Stern Design Works
An Ultimaker 3 printing in the Stern Design Works studio

As visitors to their retail outlets, boutiques, and online store quickly discover, if you love science, natural history, and imagination, Stern Design Works has something to strike your fancy. One popular design began first as a custom project for an organic chemist—a 3D printed necklace of the molecular lattice structure for a diamond that he gave as an "actual diamond" to his wife. Other offerings like anatomically-correct (sweet)heart pendants jostle next to T-Rex pins, Sine Wave Squiggle rings, and thumb-sized Giraffe Dioramas staged in 20 ml glass beakers.

We let subjects ranging from protein folding, museum dioramas, architecture, industrial design, art history, chaos theory, and the cosmos inspire us.

But maintaining such a vast and diverse range of pieces in active collections is itself a tough challenge. In order to keep resellers and outlets stocked with enough on-hand pieces to suit unpredictable customer appetites, Stern Design Works was forced to commit itself to a production route allowing the team to start a new batch of any of hundreds of actively selling items on the spot in their production workshops.

Rebecca Stern finishing a piece
Rebecca Stern working in their studio

And once produced, the parts must be shipped within mere days to sites as far away as the west coast of California, or as close as their own high-traffic stalls in New York City that can be exposed to thousands of visitors a day during the height of the tourist season.

This stock requirement alone bars many custom and handcrafted fashion jewelry from the retail boutique market but proved to be a production inspiration to the Stern Design Works team. “We’ll put out about five hundred pieces of jewelry a month, but when it comes down to our big wholesale seasons and the major clients we have, it can be two thousand plus pieces in a single month,” Cameron said.

Desktop 3D printers: a jewelry designer’s secret weapon

One of the key secrets that makes it possible for Stern Design Works to continue to maintain their diverse and quickly expanding collection: a fleet of Ultimaker desktop 3D printers to produce jigs, molds, and metal casting-ready production positives, as well an increasing number of end-use printed wearable art pieces.

Stern Design Works specimen ring
A ring created by Stern Design Works

Cameron and Rebecca have been experimenting with desktop 3D printers within their jewelry practice for a while, and had committed themselves to Ultimaker printers as the production solution for Stern Design Works several years ago. Each generation of Ultimaker printers they have tested has proven to be reliable, high-performance, high-resolution FFF printers, perfectly suited to their work and pipeline at each stage.

Ultimakers have worked for us because they do exactly what they say they do, right out of the box.

Rebecca explained, “With 3D printing, you can make one piece or ten iterations of something, and you have ten tries to get a perfect piece back from the foundry. And working with a 3D printed piece versus a wax piece takes a quarter of the time.

And that time,” Cameron added, “is better served by painting models or getting orders ready to go out to our wholesalers. It’s not just the time we saved, it is what else we are able to do with that time that has been the biggest savings.

Stern Design Works booth
Stern Design Works with their Ultimaker 2 Extended+ at an event

In addition to using them in their production workshop, they find that having desktop 3D printers in their high-traffic retail and event locations have made for excellent conversation starters. Their regular retail locations within the Artists and Fleas at Chelsea Market and in Williamsburg locations in NYC put their work and their working process on view for thousands of visitors daily. They find they are even able to produce pieces in the retail locations that they can sell on-site as final items, or take back to the workshop for casting and post-processing.

Working with manufacturing partners

While many jewelry designers have struggled with experiments to make use of desktop 3D printers and replace prohibitively expensive traditional 3D wax printers, Stern Design Works has put in the research and testing necessary to master the process and production opportunity for their Ultimaker printers. They have done so by working closely with their foundries and casting partners, to educate them on approaches to working with desktop 3D printing-friendly print materials such as PLA.

Astronaut Necklace Stern
Threading an astronaut necklace onto a chain

The role of the 3D printer doesn’t end with the metal parts. They have taken care to optimize not only the steps to produce castings, but also to think through to how they might simplify the process of grinding, polishing, and refining the metal pieces afterward. As a result, they are able to leverage every aspect of the capabilities of their desktop equipment, integrating both new tools and traditional hand-wrought jewelry methods to produce truly hybrid metalwork and metal casting techniques.

The Ultimaker 3: the latest tool in their shop

Recently the Stern Design Works team has added an Ultimaker 3 to their fleet in order to experiment with printing in two materials. “Adding in PVA support has been just the biggest boost to what we can do with the 3D printed miniatures,” Cameron said. “We are thrilled by seeing what is now possible for producing our designs.

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