Any athlete can tell you that once muscle memory kicks in, many challenges are more mental than physical. A jeweler might tell you that the opposite is true—physical processes can't keep pace with their ideas and inspiration. Computer-aided drafting (CAD) is a game-changer, providing jewelers with technology that moves at the speed of their creativity. We sat down with Rio Grande's Scott Patrick, Senior Findings Designer with the Casting Product Development Team, to get his perspective on how CAD fits into the tactile tradition of jewelry making.
Scott has more than 40 years of experience at the bench. His technical repertoire spans millennia, from casting with cuttlebone molds to stone setting with burnishers to wax carving. He describes CAD as "wax carving on steroids." He points to one of dozens of intricate models on his desk and says "I could carve that, but CAD saves days." Scott appreciates the agility that CAD offers, and grins as he says that "It's a lot more fun to design in CAD."
He opens a 3Design file and a dimensional gold ring fills the screen. He clicks between design options, experimenting with setting type and stone shape. He rotates the model, examining each choice from various angles. The software's parametrics instantly adjust to every change, and the history function makes it simple to revisit versions. And that's only scratching the surface—there's a sculpting module for free-form work, as well as libraries of design elements that can be endlessly mixed, matched and customized. With CAD, trial and error plays out over seconds instead of days or weeks. Scott offers a good-natured warning: "It's easy to get lost in the design process. I could spend hours sitting here." He maintains that it's time well spent. "Once the basic layout is there, you can customize a master and get more designs out of it," Scott says. "And you're really able to visualize what you're working on."
That visualization is helpful for clients as well as jewelers. When he's not working at Rio Grande, Scott uses CAD to design custom jewelry. He emails realistic renderings to clients for production approval, sharing views that clearly illustrate the finished piece while protecting the specifics of his intellectual property. 3Design also provides the metal weight per piece, for accurate materials orders and cost estimates.
When it's time for production, CAD files can be used with CNC mills and 3D printers, or as the starting point for wax carving. "I've always liked to whittle away," Scott jokes. And speaking of carving, he is quick to point out that maximizing CAD's benefits requires real-world foundational skills. "Your experience at the jeweler's bench will serve you well," he says. "A .1mm prong might look beefy on screen, but a jeweler knows that it won't hold up."
He emphasizes that making jewelry will always be a creative, intellectual process at heart—no tool will ever change that. But tools like CAD let experienced jewelers push their skills with exponential design possibilities. "It's an exciting time to make jewelry," Scott says.
Curious about CAD? Rio Grande offers classes in our Albuquerque studio. Visit and bookmark our site to learn more. Ready to bring your CAD designs or virtual renderings to life? Check out the rapid prototyping and model-making equipment at Rio Grande.