Designing a Necklace

When you think about designing jewelry, you would imagine this would be a purely aesthetic-driven design process. You’re designing a fashion accessory, something that has no function beyond decoration. However, when I paused to think about the process of designing a necklace, I soon realized that there was so much more to the process than simply picking out aesthetically pleasing shapes, colors, and textures.

When I started my jewelry business with my partner Jared, I knew that I wanted to use wood as the primary material. I love the look and feel of the material. We could utilize our laser cutter — lovingly named Richard — to cut and etch intricate designs. And when you cut the pieces it makes the apartment smell like a campfire.

When designing wood jewelry, there are many considerations that come into play, if you want the pieces to maintain their integrity through daily wear. One common complaint that we hear from customers is that most wood jewelry is too fragile. We heard stories of hugs from friends snapping wooden pendants in half. To address this issue, we decided to use Baltic birch plywood for all of our pieces. The stacked layers of wood with alternating grain prove to be far stronger than solid woods.

We also heard stories of wood jewelry becoming darkened by frequent contact with oils on the skin, and warping after getting caught in a downpour. Raw wood exposed to the natural elements can also crack, warp, and even rot. Therefore, we adopted techniques for finishing wood furniture — sanding, staining, and sealing — to make our pieces less susceptible to damage and discoloration.

In our jewelry designs, we also have to think about usability and comfort. We’ll take a look at the design process behind one of our new necklaces, as an example.

You would think that designing the attachment of a pendant to a necklace chain is pretty straight-forward — put a pendant on a chain, end of story. However, if your pendant only features a design on one face, you have the challenge of ensuring that the design is always facing forward when being worn by the user.

The traditional way of attaching a pendant to a chain is by using a jump ring. But this method still allows the pendant and chain to twist and turn. There is no way to control the orientation of the pendant.

Photo: Necklace pendant attached by jump ring.

One solution I developed for this issue was to connect the chain to two separate points on the pendant. This worked for keeping the pendant flat and right-side-out. However, it was difficult to keep the pendant centered on the chest — as the chain moved, so did the pendant.

Photo: Necklace pendant attached to chain at two points.
Photo: Pendant inspiration.

Then, I saw a design solution by another laser cut wood jewelry designer. It used the same principle of two points of contact for the chain, but instead of attaching to fixed points on the pendant, the chain strung through the pendant. Brilliant! I also thought this elegant solution made the pendant and necklace feel like a one cohesive piece, rather than a pendant hanging off of the necklace chain.

When adapting this design for my necklace design, I found that it still wasn’t quite perfect. In my design, I didn’t like the look of the exposed chain through the center of the piece. Also I found that the chain didn’t move through the pendant as smoothly as I would like. The chain made an abrupt right angle at the joint and the chain links would sometimes get caught on these edges.

Photo: First prototype.
Photo: Second prototype.
Photo: Sketch of how the chain threaded through the necklace pendant.

After a few prototypes and a lot of scrap wood, I landed on a U shape for the channel where the necklace chain threaded through pendant. This design minimized points of friction and allowed the pendant to fall freely to the center of the chest. It was also a cleaner presentation — the chain did not distract from the simple design of the pendant.

When I was designing this necklace, most of the thinking outlined in this blog post was not apparent. I’m reminded of last week’s Design Thinking reading, where interviewed designers credited their intuition when making design decisions. While a lot of the work I do as a designer feels like it comes out of thin air, it is clear when reflecting on my process for designing a simple wood necklace that I am pulling from past experiences, the knowledge of those around me, and experimentation.

Photo: Final necklace design.