6Shadows, Las Vegas
First Place, Professional Excellence (4 Years in Business)
First Place, Laser Distinction
By Tina Snyder
After spending a decade working as a professional architect, Sophia Hu of Las Vegas was at a crossroads in her career in 2009. “I felt unfulfilled and I no longer had passion for the work,” she says. “There were so many limits—from codes and rules to client requirements—that the creative freedom just wasn’t there.”
Around this time, Hu took up jewelry making as a hobby at a local craft center. “The first time I tried it, I knew I loved it,” says Hu. “Making something with your hands—whatever you want—is an awesome feeling.”
Thus began Hu’s journey as a self-taught jewelry designer. And although she stopped practicing as a professional architect over a decade ago, her background in the field still strongly influences her work today. This is apparent in her Vision Award-winning pendant/brooch Blooming Cage, which took top honors in the Professional Excellence (4 Years in Business) category as well as first place in the Laser Distinction category.
The designer sought to create an air-light spatial structure built entirely with precious metal wire and gemstones. Measuring 2 inches by 2 inches with a depth of 0.75 inch, Blooming Cage is clearly influenced by Hu’s architecture background.
Hu says the design takes inspiration from the type of building structure you’d see in a church ceiling. “Although I’m using very thin 26 gauge wires, the strength of the design comes from the tension among the wires, like the flying buttresses in a cathedral church,” she ex-plains. “The structure needs to be well planned ahead, as every wire and stone serves its own structural purpose. Every one counts.”
That said, while Hu carefully sketched out the design of the pendant originally, interweaving wires into 16 separate components, it wasn’t until she began playing with the wire at the laser welder that the final design took shape.
She started out by testing various gauges of wire—20, 22, 24, 26, and 28—to see which would best suit her design and the laser. “I wanted to find the tiniest wire I could deal with, and 26 gauge, which has a diameter of only 0.41 mm, was my limit,” she says.
She then experimented with different metals, including sterling silver, Argentium silver, platinum, and gold to see which would work well together. “I created over 50 little sculptures,” she says. “The laser allows me to work like a medical surgeon—grouping, dismembering, and repeating the process until I get it right. This technology enables me to join different components to test the composition first.”
Most impressed with how the Argentium welded to 18k yellow gold, she selected those two metals for her final piece, which features 88 pieces of 18k yellow gold wire interwoven with 72 pieces of Argentium silver. “Both the Argentium and 18k gold wires are very soft and flexible,” she says. “You can bend and twist them, but only to a very limited extent. I had many failed components before I worked out the final pieces.”
"Making a small piece of jewelry is a lot like constructing a big building. You need to go step by step, brick by brick, to get it right."
When comparing the Argentium to standard sterling, she found the former easier to work with at the laser welder, and felt it bonded better to the 18k yellow gold wire.
According to Peter Johns, a master silversmith and the inventor of Argentium who now serves as a research and development consultant for Argentium International Ltd. in London, Argentium is easier to weld than sterling silver due to its germanium content. “Germanium is a semi-conductor, and it makes Argentium about 25 percent less conductive than standard sterling,” says Johns. “As a general rule, resistive metals are easier to weld than very conductive metals, since thermal resistivity traps the heat in the area being welded.”
In addition, says Johns, germanium’s transparency to infrared light allows the Argentium alloy to couple light into its surface, rather than reflecting it away as sterling silver does, further complicating the welding process.
Hu liked the aesthetic effect of the silver and gold wires highlighting the interwoven structure of the piece. After welding the 16 separate components, Hu connected four at a time, creating identical quarters, then welded those together to complete the design.
“This would be an impossible task to connect these wires by traditional jewelry torch soldering,” says Hu. Even with the laser welder, Hu admits she had to take extreme care to avoid melting the tiny thin wires.
To add color as well as integrity to the structure, Hu incorporated two white diamonds, two yellow diamonds, and 12 rubies into the design. She pre-set the stones in 18k gold prong settings prior to welding them to the wires.
“The gemstones add spring garden colors to the design, but they are not only for decoration,” she says. “The gemstones serve as important structural elements, providing more support at the intersections to stabilize the design, like a keystone in an architecture arch.”
It’s clear Hu’s architecture background informed the design of her award-winning pendant, which would not have been possible without the laser. “Making a small piece of jewelry is a lot like constructing a big building,” she says. “You need to go step by step, brick by brick, to get it right.”