A couple of years ago, entrepreneur Sungdo Lee had a hit with a series of apps based on music hits, including Harlem Shake Booth, which turns users’ pictures into dancing avatars and scored 12 million downloads. Lee, however, wanted to do something that would have more longevity than entertainment apps. So he turned to 3D printing.
“The lifetime of an app is very short, so we wanted to do a business that would last longer,” says Lee. “Then we looked at 3D printing and we thought, what is a good item to be printed? Jewelry.”
Portlandia sketches aside, making jewelry is not an easy craft to get into once a designer wants to move beyond basic beading and wirewrapping techniques. For starters, there’s the cost of materials, like stones and metals, as well as the expense and time of traditional production techniques such as lost wax casting, which involves first painstakingly carving a wax model of a design and then using it to make a mold. Jewel District wants to make jewelry production more accessible.
To work with Jewel District, designers first upload a 3D model, which is then printed using wax in 30 micron layers to allow for finer detail. The wax model is turned into a rough casting in brass or sterling silver (the company plans to add gold soon), which is then polished into the final product.
The piece is electroplated, polished, and set with stones by professional jewelers in Seoul’s jewelry district and inspected before it is shipped out. The process takes about 5 to 10 days, depending on the complexity of the piece and whether techniques like oxidation are used to finish it.
One of the benefits of 3D printing jewelry is that it allows for detailing and structures that would be very expensive and difficult, if not impossible, to create by hand. I saw several samples of Jewel District’s creations at their workshop in Seoul and was impressed by the intricacy of their design.
Jewel District’s clients currently include professional jewelry companies, as well as aspiring designers who need to find an affordable way of bringing their creations from sketch pad to fruition. For designers who need to create more than one of an individual piece, Jewel District recently launched a molding service.
The company currently does production work for individual designers, but is planning to launch a marketplace soon so jewelry makers can sell pieces directly consumers, with Jewel District taking care of production and shipping.
Jewel District, which launched three months ago, was initially funded from money Lee made from in-app purchases on Harlem Shake Booth and his other entertainment apps. The company is currently seeking outside funding.
Future plans include expanding the array of production options for designers and making it easier for them to order larger volumes of jewelry at reasonable rates. Jewel District says its ultimate goal is to become the top 3D printing service for fine jewelry makers around the world.
“We are developing other features for designers, like stone setting and other options. From now on, most jewelry designers won’t have to produce by themselves,” says Lee. “They can upload their designs to companies like us.”