Lost wax casting

Lost wax casting meets the computer age.

A fair fraction of the jewelry you see is made by lost wax casting. An original is made of wax, that’s encased in a plasterlike material known as investment. After it sets up the wax is burned away leaving a cavity that can be filled with gold, platinum, or some other molten metal. When the plaster is broken away, what remains is a metal copy of that original wax model. That’s the lost wax. This process has been in use for thousands of years with only relatively minor changes in things like the recipes for the wax and the investment or the way the metal is forced into the mold.  It’s been used to make things from jewelry to statues to ship parts. Starting about 2005, everything started to change. The process is the same but what’s new is the way the wax is made in the first place. The old school way involved a sculptor using very specialized tools to carve it. As you would expect, some were a lot more difficult than others to carve. Some carvers were a lot better than others. It’s a labor-intensive process and results would vary quite a bit. The wax is destroyed in the process, so difficulties later meant starting over at the beginning. It’s a time and a labor-consuming way to make things.

Wax ring model
Model by Brian Gavin for lost wax casting.


This process is becoming both more and less common. Now it’s done on computers and it’s overtaking fabrication and other techniques. CAD takes quite a bit of skill too, but it’s a very different skill set. Failure later isn’t a total reset, just more time on the 3D printer and maybe some touch-up work. Put another way, it’s a lot cheaper to use a computer, especially for highly technical pieces.

One side effect is that the old school lost wax skills are becoming rare. Old jewelers keep getting older and young jewelers aren’t learning it. Not surprisingly, this takes a lot of practice to get good at this and the two paths are very different skill sets. The direction this all is going is obvious but it raises an interesting problem for appraisers.  Hand carving is more work. It’s harder to find. It may or may not be ‘better’, but is it like kind and quality?

Neil Beaty GG, ICGA