Throughout history, civilizations have used hand engraving as a means to honor rulers, signify wealth, celebrate family, and personalize heirlooms. Over time other forms of engraving have emerged with the use of manual engraving machines and even lasers. While these newer forms of engraving have their purpose, they cannot replace the broad flowing strokes and deep relief of engraving done by hand. Hand engraving is an art form, and each engraver has his or her own style. This makes a hand engraved piece even more unique in that each engraver will view a given design in a different way and have different strategies when it comes to shading and making the design come to life.
The most important tool we use to carry on the tradition of hand engraving is experience. While there may be many people able to sit at a computer and use a machine to cut out a design with some simple instruction, it takes years of consistent practice to be able to control the slight hand movements required to hand engrave. It is an art that takes the eye of an artist to not only cut a design but to also cut the metal in such a way as to show shadows and highlights, creating the illusion of a 3D image on a flat surface.
All of our engraving is done on specialized ball vises set under high-powered microscopes. This allows us to use subtle and precise techniques so that when the piece is viewed from a normal distance, the design is pristine and has the desired effects of depth and movement. The ball vises are rotated by hand as the engraver works to create smooth cuts.
A sharp tool called a “graver” is what the engraver uses to cut through the metal. There are many different shapes, sizes, and styles of gravers. Each graver has several facets that are sharpened and polished to exact specifications to help it cut through various types of metal and to create different styles of strokes. Most engravers have a favorite style of graver that they have fine-tuned to accomplish their individual style.
Step 1: Sketch
A design is sketched out by hand with paper and pencil or using a special program and a tablet. With the tablet, we are able to produce a rendering overlayed on a photo of the watch or jewelry item that is to be engraved in order to help clients visualize the finished piece.
Step 2: Transfer
Once the design is finalized, it is transferred onto the metal’s surface. This can be accomplished in different ways.
Step 3: Engrave
The engraver will often cut out the basic outline of the design with a shallow cut first. This way, if the surface of the metal is rubbed or disturbed, the pattern will not be lost. If the design requires deep relief, the engraver will then burr out the negative spaces with a rotary tool. The edges of these spaces are then given a combination of deeper straight cuts and bright cuts called “bevel” or “flare” cuts. The bevels help give the impression of highlights and depth. The rest of the original shallow lines are cut again with this same technique. Shading lines are added next and are what give the design the most dimension and make the image pop. The shading lines are tapered lines placed in strategic places of the design. The design itself can be beautiful, but if there is too little shading or if the shading is placed incorrectly, it can make the design much less impactful.
Some of these steps may seem simple, but cutting a simple line is more difficult than it appears. The engraver must control the speed, depth, and pressure of their hand simultaneously -- all while moving the work around with the other hand. Even with years of experience, it can take many hours to complete all of these steps to arrive at a finished piece.
Our hand engraving artists would love to help you create a one-of-a-kind piece for you and your family to treasure for generations to come. Hand engraving holds value not only in tradition and due to the time and expertise it takes to create such a piece but also in the ability to make a beautiful and deeply personal impression on something as strong and enduring as metal.