Wax carving is an essential skill for jewellery makers, allowing them to craft wax models that can be used to produce beautiful and intricately detailed jewellery pieces through the lost wax casting method. Also known by its French name, cire perdue, lost wax casting is an extremely versatile technique capable of accurately reproducing complex designs in metal, but it is also an ancient tradition with a rich history spanning more than five millennia.
The exact origins of lost wax casting are shrouded in mystery and it is possible that the technique was developed independently in different regions, but archaeological records suggest that the method was first used at some point in the fourth millennium BC.
Prior to this, molten copper was transformed into relatively rudimentary tools and weapons using simple open or two-part moulds made from stone or clay. The bright idea of first carving a wax model, around which a clay mould could then be formed and heated – a process which both hardens the clay shell and melts away the wax – meant that much more elaborate metal objects could be cast, and opened the door to a whole new world of craftsmanship and artistry.
Some of the earliest known objects produced in this way are decorative copper items found in the Nahal Mishmar hoard, in Southern Palestine, which have been dated back to 3700 BC. Other early lost-wax-cast pieces, from delicate miniatures and dress pins to life-size statues, have been found all around the world, in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, as well as in Africa and the Americas.
As the use of lost wax casting spread, new techniques and variations were introduced to the process. As well as copper, metal workers began casting pieces in bronze and gold. Furthermore, the development of hollow casting allowed for the production of hollow objects that could be made more cheaply, while the introduction of indirect casting made larger-scale pieces viable.
The biggest changes made to this ancestral technique, however, did not occur until the 20th century. Following initial developments in the dentistry sector, the jewellery industry had its own brainwave in 1936, when Danish engineer Thoger Gronborg Jungersen patented a method involving rubber moulds that could be reused to make multiple wax models without having to carve each one individually.
Today, between CAD and 3D printing, jewellers have a wide range of hi-tec design and production tools at their fingertips. But hand carving wax models for lost wax casting allows them to get in touch with the ancient roots of their profession by practising an art which, to this day, is still one of the most accurate methods of reproducing a detailed design in metal.
If you’re interested in trying your hand at wax carving at BAJ, sign up for our Wax Carving: Practice and Casting Theory short course in Birmingham at https://baj.ac.uk/courses/wax-carving-practice-and-casting-theory/.