Nicholas’ Blog: Leap years and hand engraving

Hello and I hope you are all enjoying this amazing weather and the beginning of Mad March.

As we all know, 2016 is a leap year and I hadn’t realised that an extra day every four years is needed to align the modern day Gregorian calendar Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 12.42.11 pmwith the Earth’s revolutions around the Sun. If this day wasn’t added then the yearly calendar would decrease by a whole day over a period of four years and by a decade we would lose approximately 60 hours. Over a 100 year period we would lose 24 days. Whoever worked this out?

Well, Julius Caesar introduced the Julian Calendar over 2000 years ago and added a leap year but his formula produced too many leap years. This was corrected 1500 years later with the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar and we still use this calendar today (image:

Leap year is a time for many odd and interesting customs. Supposedly it is a year that women can propose to men and helps to create a balance between women and men in the same way that the extra day every four years creates balance in the calendar. It was also a very quirky custom in some countries for the man to present a woman with 12 pairs of gloves if he refused her proposal of marriage. It is said that this allowed her to hide the fact that she wasn’t wearing a ring on her engagement ring finger. It is also said that money often changed hands so the woman in question kept his refusal quiet. I guess it was all done to save face. Thank goodness relationships seem a bit more relaxed these days.

On the topic of getting married, I have been recently researching all the amazing wedding rings we have made over the years and how the fashions have evolved. engagement-ring1When I was first an apprentice jeweller in Adelaide in the mid 70s, the style of wedding rings was very restrained and most women and men (if men chose to wear a ring) chose very plain rounded rings either in platinum or yellow gold. Every now and again we made something different and I began to encourage couples to have rings that reflected their personalities and lifestyle. I began to produce wide rings, but they often didn’t sit with an engagement ring because there wasn’t a lot of room left on the finger. If the client didn’t want the ring to be too plain, I started to stone set the wedding ring so the ring was really a combination of a wedding and an engagement ring in the same ring. This saw the return of bezel set and pressure set stones allowing ease of wear because the settings were very low and didn’t catch.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 6.14.17 pm

I remember Maggie Tabberer wore a plain, very wide, yellow gold domed wedding ring and she definitely seemed to be at the forefront of a new trend (image:

Today I find that there a no rules and couples choose what they like from a vast range of concepts. The most popular engagement rings at the moment are antique-inspired cluster rings, often known as ‘halo’ rings, engagement 1where a centre stone is surrounded by diamonds and even the bands and settings are diamond set. To match these rings, I often design diamond wedding rings which give the set of rings a lot of sparkle. For those who don’t want a lot of ‘bling’ I often design rings with maybe a single stone and contrasting metal colours, for instance yellow and white gold, white gold and pink gold or three tone gold. Sometimes the wide rings are hand engraved with a pattern or initials. Hand engraving is a beautiful way of personalising a piece of jewellery and creates a very unique look.

engravingHand engraving methods are centuries old and for those who don’t understand the difference between hand engraving and machine engraving, let me explain with the help of information from ‘The Hand Engravers School Journal – London 1953’.

‘Hand Engraving can be described as the process in which a hardened, shaped, and sharpened piece of steel, called a ‘graver’ is pushed through the metal’s surface.



This is done by one of three methods : 1) by hand pressure (push graver)

2) with a small lightweight hammer and chisel (graver)

3) or with a pneumatic air-driven hammer. (Pneumatic AirGravers emulate both the push and

hammer and chisel graver techniques).

To begin, the graver is ground to a pointed shape adhering to very specific angles. These angles allow the graver to properly enter the metal surface and travel forward, continuously curling the metal directly in front of the graver face, while leaving behind a small furrow. The shape of the graver and the angle at which it is held will ultimately decide the furrow shape. The angle can and will often be continuously altered during the process, allowing for the furrow to contain thick and thin graduations of the cut line giving the design greater emphasis.

We tend to favour the push graver method, and the steel graver is fitted into a small wooden handle and held in the palm of the hand. The graver remains stationary in the hand, and the item, once held firmly in place by a bench mounted rotating vice, is fed into the graver’s tip and often rotated to allow for circular or curved lines.

engraving1A ‘direct’ design is where the detail of a design or initial is engraved exactly as you want to see it into the surrounding metal (like the one pictured right).  ‘Relief’ engraving is where the background is removed away leaving the design prominent (see the signet ring below). Often the background is textured so the design looks more obvious and there are occasions where the background is darkened to highlight the detail. engraving10

Another method with a more specific purpose is ‘in reverse direct’ where most commonly a family coat of arms or crest is engraved into the metal in ‘mirror reverse’, engraving6or back to front. When the image from the metal is pressed into molten sealing wax the design turns out the right way up. Not used much today, sealing wax was often red in colour and used to seal a letter or stamp the bottom of a document.  In the case of a letter, this seal was a engraving3security measure because if the letter was opened or tampered with, the seal would be fractured, and if you didn’t own the original item from which the seal came from, it couldn’t be repeated. So the unwelcome spy would be ‘sprung’.

Hand engraving is an art form and can be a fulfilling medium for an artist to express ideas in a permanent manner. The first and foremost ability a craftsperson needs to possess is the ability to precisely control the graver and to understand the technical skills required to achieve a desired result.  It often becomes a life-long study.

In contrast machine engraving is a process involving a hand held electric drill and metal burr drills which trace an outline of initials or of a design. The furrow tends to be at one depth level and rather than a crisp definite line or curve which hand engraving achieves, a jagged and sometimes distorted rough line or area is produced.

There is no comparison to the time taken – hand engraving is a very lengthy process, machine engraving is often done ‘while you wait’.

For those of you who are interested I have put together a display of images representing hand engraved designs that I have created. They are at the studio and I would love to share the stories with you so pop in and have a look.

Until next time, take care and enjoy the Festival!

Love Nicholas

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