Feeling nostalgic for your school art classes? Fancy reliving the hours spent in clay-tainted pottery rooms, sitting at workshop-style benches? Ductac arts centre in Mall of the Emirates is happy to oblige. As well as a regular roster of gallery shows and stage productions, the centre offers a programme of creative classes for adults and children, ranging from oil painting to henna art. However, it’s Ductac’s newest course that caught my accessories-loving eye. Silversmith and former design and technology teacher Don Sankey, 50, a long-term British Dubai resident, has just launched an eight-week introduction to the basics of silver jewellery-making. I decide to get my hands dirty to see if I have a creative streak to rival the likes of Bulgari or Cartier. You have to aim high.
Walking into the jewellery-making classroom at Ductac is a little like stumbling into your dad’s shed to look for a tape measure: there are hundreds of tools, pliers, wires, table grips, blow torches, vices and other things I don’t know the name of, all staring back at me with the intimidating air of a scrapheap junkyard. But any trepidation I feel is quickly erased when I learn that Sankey knows his way around this place like a pro, and is going to guide me through the process.
‘No previous experience is required,’ he explains. ‘We give students a selection of projects they can interpret in their own way. Over six or seven weeks we build up a bank of skills, then students use those skills to branch out into their own designs.’
Today, my project is to make a ring in an hour, although students attending the eight-week course will have much more time to craft the one or two pieces they’ll take home with them at the end of the course. I decide to jump on the Jay-Z bandwagon and make a ring for my little finger (although I later learn this isn’t the brightest idea). After measuring the size of my finger (close to that of a grasshopper), we place the device over the ring gauge, a cone-shaped stick with individual measurements marked on it, to calculate the size of the wire we’ll need to cut. From here, Sankey uses the wire to again measure the circumference of my finger, before using that to determine the size of flat sheet silver we’ll need to cut.
This is where things start to get a little tricky: as I attempt to saw the 5cm-wide piece of silver to the correct length, my measly muscles prove no match for the grip, and I find it hard to keep the metal steady as I saw. After a few attempts, Sankey tells meto scrap that idea and retreats to the metal cutters to fine-tune the silver.
Next, I use a file to add my own twist to the ring: small crenellations cut out of one edge of the flat metal. I then use the pliers to bend the ends to meet each other, which is where a bigger piece of metal would have come in handy (darn my tiny fingers). As I attempt to bend the piece around onto itself, beads of sweat start to form on my forehead; Sankey knowingly informs me that I can also use the hammer to make the ends join. Phew.
It seems jewellery making isn’t designed for the weak and weedy. The next step involves using tiny specks of solder and flux (a material with a wet-salt-style consistency) to join the edges of the ring. Taking care to avoid singeing my eyebrows, I use a flame to heat the entire ring and watch it turn a fiery-hot orange. Sankey tells me I need to ensure the whole piece is the same temperature, so the solder melts like mercury into the gap and seals the ring’s ends together.
Grabbing the scalding-hot ring with the tweezers, we place it in a bowl of cold water and then transfer it to a weak solution of sulphuric acid to rid it of the charring. Placing the distorted ring over the ring gauge again, I take a hammer and bash the entire piece until it’s perfectly round – finally, I’m starting to see the end product. Using two different types of sandpaper, I start to gently file the ring, taking it from a matte finish to a smooth, polished look. Adding the last design detail, I use a dome-shaped hammer to tap away at my ring, giving it a dented appearance. Mission accomplished.
The next day I flaunt my new jewellery at work and my colleagues are genuinely encouraging about how nice it is (assuming they’re not just being polite). I’d definitely recommend the course to anyone who wants to learn the basics of jewellery design and those interested in some old-fashioned workshop adventuring.