Hand-crafted Knot Jewelry:
Decorative Marlingspike Seamanship rendered in precious metal.
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I've been tying knots ever since I was ten years old, both useful and decorative knots, and knots that fulfil both functions. I learned from my oldest brother, who was in the US Navy, and then I went on to study them wherever I happened to find them. I am especially fond of a book which I was given for my birthday, sometime in my teens, called "The Ashley Book Of Knots", which could be referred to as the bible of knot tyers the world around. It has been translated into many languages, and contains thousands of knots and stories about them and their uses.
My absolute favorite knot of all is the Turk's Head, a highly decorative knot which can also be quite useful. It's a cylindrical knot, frequently tied around a post or a stanchion on a boat, either as decoration or to provide a good grip. You'll also find them tied around one spoke of the ship's wheel to indicate the neutral position.
What I like to do with them, though, is to tie them in precious wire in a size that makes a beautiful finger ring.
The first ring I ever made is long gone. When I first learned to tie a turk's head knot, I learned to do so in string, and the process was to tie the knot, then work it down to the size and shape that would fit its ultimate purpose by pulling the slack out of each loop in turn. I proceeded to try to do this with a piece of silver wire, wrapping it around my hand and tucking the end through in all the proper places, until the knot was complete. Then, I tried to work the extra wire out of it by pulling the slack out, loop by loop. The wire became very hard, then broke, so I softened it by annealing and went back to work, eventually getting it down to the right shape, if not the right size. The wire looked incredibly beat up, as though it had been dragged along a brick street and stepped on at every opportunity, and I didn't think much of it.
First lesson: tie the knot the size you want it to be, because there won't be a second chance.
The first ring I made that actually came out ok was nearly half an ounce of 18K yellow gold, in a seven-lead by eight-bight knot, and it was very large. I wore it on my thumb, occasionally, but it got turned into a wedding set a few years back -- I untied it and recycled the wire into two new rings.
Second lesson: figure out what size you want and how to actually make the ring that size.
I found that I could tie a ring around a billiards cue, and that if I moved it toward the thick end that it would become larger in size and narrower, or, if I moved it to the skinny end, it could be spread out wide as the size was reduced. I experimented with several more rings made at various spots on the cue and serendipitously managed to make a few that were of a reasonable size; some I gave away, some I kept for a long time, though eventually most of them went to relatives or were sold. The problem was that I still had no assurance that a given ring would come out in a predictable size, and each one took days to make. I could end up making two or three of them that were too small or too large, while trying for a particular size. I stopped making rings for a few years, frustrated.
During this time I decided to go back to school and get my degree in Computer Engineering, so I found myself immersed in mathematics and geometry. Making the connection, I analyzed the structure of the knot and developed a rough theory to describe the amount of wire needed and the dimensions required for a given size of ring. I went back to my shop and used the calculations to begin a new ring, and it came out very close to the size predicted. If I were working with perfect materials and wire that was infinitely thin, it would be a lot easier, but the unavailability of the former and the unsuitability of the latter for jewelry purposes forces me to work with approximations, so I still don't always succeed on the first try.
Third lesson: (a very hard one) there's no such thing as "perfect", but a well made ring is worthy of admiration even if I do have to start over from scratch to make the "right" one for a customer. I've got a lot of rejects in my personal collection, now.
I sometimes make my own wire, all the way from the pure metal, through the processes of alloying it with the proper mixture for the desired colors, casting ingots, rolling out to square stock in a hand-cranked mill, to the actual "drawing" process, in which the material is forced through a series of smaller and smaller holes in a drawplate.
Why do I make my own wire? Well, a few reasons come to mind. When I'm making a ring, I have to select a wire gage that suits the dimensions of the finished piece, and if I had to keep coils of wire around in every possible gage, I'd go broke in short order. Even though I primarily charge for the labor and design costs of the jewelry, the intrinsic value of the gold would become a significant investment, and I just don't want to keep that much of it around. Another reason is the fabrication costs for someone else to make raw metal into wire for me; it is a little cheaper for me to buy small quantities of pure or alloyed gold and draw it myself. More importantly, though, is the fact that I enjoy the idea of making something "from scratch", and there is an almost sensual pleasure in drawing precious wire through a too-small hole in a hardened steel plate.
I used to mix my own alloys, purchasing 24K (pure gold) and various mixtures of base metals that will create certain colors when mixed with the gold. For example, there is a lot of copper in pink gold, but also some silver and zinc. In fact there are quite a few different colors you can achieve with just a little change in the proportions of those three "base" metals. There are some very special colors, however, which are like secret recipes, jealously guarded by the owners. One of these is "Peach Gold", a patented color available only from Hoover & Strong. I can't get just the mixing alloy, to use as needed, but have to buy 18K gold mixed by them. (To their no doubt exacting standards, of course) When I buy karat gold in this way, it is a little bit more expensive, and I don't get to play with it as much. I order it in 1mm wire (18ga) and draw it down to the size I need.
I also work in silver and platinum, which are both beautiful white metals. I have very mixed feelings about them, though. Silver is very easy to work with, and very inexpensive, a joy to use, but it is quite delicate. It remains soft even after it's been worked for a while, and it can tarnish over time. Platinum is not as pretty as silver, never tarnishes at all, and is an absolute nightmare to work. When I draw silver wire, I can pull it through five or six (or seven, or eight, or nine...) successively smaller holes in the drawplate before it starts to get hard and requires annealing (that's heating it and quenching it to make it softer). When I draw gold wire, I can pull it through two or three successively smaller holes before having to anneal it. Platinum, however, I have to anneal every single time. Not only that, I can't even coil it up to heat it all at once, because the simple act of uncoiling it will work-harden the wire again to the point where it could crystallize and break the next time I draw it through the drawplate. I have to pass the torch along the wire, inch by inch. Not bad when it's only a foot long, but very tedious when it gets to be longer than I am tall.
Solid strands are pretty, but one of the most common requests I get is for a twisted strand in the center, between either the same or contrasting colored solid strands. I have seen some twisted wire jewelry that appears to me to be two strands twisted together, but since my background in knots is intimately tied in with the sort of rope that is used on boats, I just naturally gravitated to a three-strand pattern. I feel, in addition, that there are some advantages to this, in strength and appearance. For a tripled strand the completed length is slightly less than one third of the original material, and the diameter is approximately twice the original, while for a two-strand twist the material is merely doubled and the completed length is somewhat less than half the original, and the diameter is approximately twice the original. Yes, I can hear the gears in your head going around and around: the same diameter for either, so it would be much cheaper to use the double-strand. Why "waste" half-again as much material? Because it's much prettier, much stronger, and suits my esthetic sense. It also feels better: when you're handling it, a two-strand twist will feel rougher to the touch than would a three-strand. If you were to make a clean cut across the twisted strand and examine it closely, you would see that the two-strand material has a cross-section that looks like an infinity sign, or figure eight, depending upon your perspective, and if you were to draw a circle around it you would find that the area of the two strands was considerably smaller than the area of the circle, half, actually. However, doing the same thing with the three-strand material, it would look like a trefoil, and drawing a circle around that cross-section, the proportion of material to empty space is much larger. The calculations are a little more complicated than with the two strand twist, but it works out to approximately three-quarters of it being solid. The work that I put in, when I'm tying knots in the wire, works out about the same regardless of whether I use solid or twisted strands. For example, when I made a bracelet with solid wire, it took me nearly forty hours to finish it, six or eight hours to make the wire itself and well over thirty to tie the knot in it. When I tied the same knot in twisted wire, it took me about twenty five hours to make the wire, and about fifteen to tie it into the knot.
I have often tried to explain my fascination with the knots that I tie, and the delight that I take in rings, in particular. The fact that I can combine the two and produce something that is lasting and beautiful is enough, I think, to justify all of the work that I put into it.

The other day, as I was showing one to a friend at my regular job (the one that pays me enough that I can afford to dabble in this) he said "Isn't that one that you've sold? How come you are wearing it around?" Well, that's a good question, I suppose. If I were making vacuum cleaners in a factory somewhere, I would certainly not take one home and clean my house with it before I put it in a box and sold it, so why would I treat these any differently? The reason is simple - I am not making things for sale, I am selling things that I make. I would make them anyway, regardless of whether someone ends up buying them, I think. Each ring represents a great deal of planning, a great deal of concentrated effort, and a great deal of love, and it is a wrench for me to let one go.

Just a few months ago (August of '99) I was showing my work to some fellow knot enthusiasts and one lady decided she wanted a particular ring that I had had for some time. In fact, I'd made it over seventeen years ago, and it was as much a part of me as any work I've ever done. I offered to make a new one in the same size, but she wanted that one. I pointed out that I had worked it and reworked it a number of times, that it was not a "new" ring, etc., etc., doing my best to talk her out of it, but to no avail. I sold her the ring, eventually, and comforted myself with the thought that her enthusiasm for it was the equal of mine, and that she would therefore be an appropriate custodian for it. Silly? Perhaps so, perhaps not. My work will outlast me, will undoubtedly outlast my memory, and will still be beautiful to others as long as it remains intact. That ring is worn every day, and gives pleasure to the lady, and perhaps she will hand it on to a beloved son or daughter who will enjoy it as well, and so on. I like that.

I did eventually make another similar ring, which I wear often, but it doesn't look quite the same. None of my rings looks the same as any other, even when I bend a particular effort to matching them up, and when I see an old one, I know it, every tool-mark and kink and soldered joint of it. I have a "maker's stamp", a little tool that puts a unique mark on my work as identification, but it is redundant. There are rings that were made and delivered before I had the stamp, and there are some rings that I have made since that didn't have any room on them for a one millimeter advertisement to be added. It just doesn't matter, and very likely never will, in my opinion. I can see myself in them, as clearly as in a mirror.

(This site last updated on 12-06-2018)

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