Wire wrap jewelry is probably the oldest of jewelry techniques. Archeologists have found wire wrapped artifacts dated as far back as 2000 B.C. and the technique is probably a great deal older than that. Many ancient cultures employed wire wrap techniques including the Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks and Egyptians and many of the methods they employed are still used by modern artisans.
You might wonder why this technique goes back so far in history. Well one reason is that the making of wire was one of the very earliest of achievements in ancient metallurgy. Soft metals like copper, silver and gold can easily be drawn into wire even with primitive equipment, and in fact many modern wire artisans still do this by hand to get the precise dimensions and hardness that they need for a particular piece. Another reason is that there is no need for complicated casts or soldering to set stones or beads and almost any shape of rough or faceted material can be wrapped with no special tools. Additionally the level of complexity can be just as simple or as detailed as the artisan chooses including weaving in multiple elements of widely differing media. Ancient and modern artisans alike have used wire wrap techniques to incorporate bone, wood, fabric, ceramics and just about any material you can imagine into amazing wearable art.
You can see that due to the wide variety of possible materials, defining what wire wrapped jewelry is can be a daunting task. For those looking to purchase truly artisan made products it might be easier to say what it is not. From a purist standpoint any technique that uses solder or glue to hold the media to the setting is not truly wire wrapped. This precludes the artisan from using a pre- fabricated wire setting and simply adding the stone or other media later. A key feature of wire wrapped jewelry is that each piece must be unique and not be mass produced in any way. This leads us to another point. Manufactured castings should not be a major feature of the piece. I'm seeing a great many pieces on the market that use inexpensive castings that closely mimic the way that wire wrap looks but are mass manufactured. It is only a matter of a few seconds work to take one of these castings, add a stone or bead to it and call it done instead of the hours (or indeed days) that a true artisan would take to create a one of a kind piece.
Another issue I see is those who really aren't familiar with wire wrapped jewelry calling any technique using wire, "wire wrapped". I've even seen this in commercial books and dvd's authored for crafters and DIY'ers learning jewelry skills. Often multiple beads and findings are combined into lovely bracelets, necklaces and earrings using wire. These can be really remarkable works in their own right and very beautiful, but, at least in my mind, if the wire is not a primary design element and is used only to connect the beads, then the piece cannot be properly called "wire wrapped."
So what should an informed buyer be looking for when purchasing artisan made wire wrapped jewelry? There are many techniques, far too many to list here, but most wire wrapped jewelry you'll find on the market today has some things in common. Firstly the bezel or primary setting of the piece will not be a single solid piece of metal (this would probably indicate that it's a casting, not wire) it will instead be a multi stranded bundle of wire either bound together with other wire at key junctures, or in the case of Viking weave techniques it might be a more or less continuous coil of wire. These are generally called binding wires. Next the bail (where the pendant or earrings are suspended from their chain or ear wires) is usually formed from the same wires as the bezel- not a separate piece. If the stone is a "cabochon" and not a bead, it will be held in place on the back and the front of the stone with wires bent in from the side of the bezel. You might also see prongs holding in the stone but if it's truly wire wrapped the prongs will be formed out of bent wire added on to the bezel and not soldered on.
As you can see from the discussion above there are features intrinsic to how wire wrapped jewelry is made that make it a good choice for those looking for jewelry or wearable art that is completely different from any other form. Firstly, the methods used to create it dictate that each piece must be distinct. Most other forms of jewelry rely on castings or molds that allow mass reproductions of the same design. If you buy jewelry from a box store (or even Tiffany's) you can be assured that there are hundreds if not thousands of people with exactly the same piece! Secondly because the artisan is not restricted to a casting of a particular size or shape they are free to set stones or other objects of nearly any shape or dimension. This feature also makes accessible to the artisan a whole host of lapidary materials that you will never find in a box store especially since the artisan is not restricted to exclusively using small. expensive, faceted gems. Slabs of sliced mineral, precious and semi- precious gem cabochons and even raw stone nuggets in the artisans hands can show their own unique beauty and make incredibly stunning finished pieces. Lastly wire wrapped jewelry is not only beautiful and unique it is extremely durable. Well made wire wrapped jewelry uses the fluidity of the wire to it's upmost to securely embrace the focus piece in multiple dimensions. Wire wrapped jewelry doesn't rely on just flimsy soldered on prongs to hold the stones and even if the piece were to be dropped or otherwise banged around as long as the stone remains intact the wire can generally be gently reshaped into place.
As you can see if you are looking for a break from cheap mass produced jewelry or from overpriced cookie cutter designs, artisan made wire wrapped jewelry can be a truly unique and striking alternative that will make a statement and last for generations.
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