Tony Davis doesn’t wear jewelry — not even his own wedding ring. But the online entrepreneur believes he can create a thriving “family jewelry” marketplace online with the help of 3D printing.
Davis’s website, Jewlr.com, enables consumers to customize rings, charms, pendants and earrings to celebrate such events as weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. Customers can create their own designs from styles, metals, stones and engravings provided on the site. They can also describe the inspiration behind each item on a dedicated page called “My Story.”
But it’s 3D printing that gives Jewlr an edge over other marketers of custom-made accessories. The technology means no inventory to carry, low product-development costs and rapid production turnaround. “There are many industrial applications for 3D printing,” says Davis, 52. “It’s new, it’s evolving. It’s a very powerful enabler.”
3D printing is the process of making a solid object based on a digital model through successive layering of materials. Also called “additive manufacturing,” it uses a type of printer technology, enabling designers to become their own manufacturers. 3D printers are already being used in industries ranging from jewelry to footwear, architecture to dentistry.
Davis doesn’t actually 3D-print a final ring, for example, but uses the printer to create a yellow wax model based on the customer’s design. The model becomes the basis for casting the metal for the actual ring. “You can use 3D printers to produce metal rings, but right now printing metal is too costly,” Davis explains.
Jewlr.com began as an experiment. Davis, a Toronto software engineer, tested several ideas for online businesses before zeroing in on jewelry. “None of us on the team are jewelers,” Davis admits. “We really didn’t care what we were going to sell. We wanted to find something that would be suitable for the internet.”
For the first year, Jewlr was merely a marketing middleman, processing orders and shipping product from manufacturer partners. Davis was intrigued that “people were spending $300 or $400 online on items from a company that had no background in jewelry.” So he took a jewelry design course. He found himself clashing with traditional manufacturers because, in developing new jewelry lines, he wanted to compress “years into weeks.”
The introduction of 3D printing presented a potential solution. Davis bought two 3D EnvisionTEC printers, at the cost of $120,000 each. They take up to six hours to make a wax model of a ring, and two hours for a pendant, earring or charm. By adding 3D rendering to the mix, Davis is in effect outsourcing the design to his customers. Once visitors have selected from the various options, they can see their designs turned into life-like models online.
Davis says 3D printing has proven to be an excellent fit for jewelry production. Not only can jewelers now get printers specially made for their needs, but the technology enables them to broaden their services. “A lot of companies have tried to sell jewelry online and have failed,” says Davis. “Why? It’s because they sell the same stuff that you can get in a store. Online is a different model, and if you can allow people to do stuff that they couldn’t do before, then you have a winner.”
Still, Davis cautions that 3D printers are complex, precise machines that need careful calibration. And they break down. He has two of them to ensure at least one is working at any given time.
But as the technology continues to develop, he believes it will transform the tradition-bound jeweler’s trade. “Without 3D printing, I could not have done this business.”