In the MoMA Design Store in New York, a bevy of customers is flocking around a collection of bracelets. Made by a new company called Nervous System, they were created on a 3-D printer. One piece, the Wave Bracelet, a mesh plastic cuff with irregular circles undulating in a tangle of ripples, could be art or jewelry or even mistaken for a piece of coral. It’s impossible to picture it being spit out from a printer—at least in the traditional sense.
To be sure, 3-D printing technology, by which an object is formed through the successive layering of a material—any will work: resin, nylon, metal, even biological tissues—has been around for decades, just not widely available. When MakerBot launched in 2009, its DIY printer kits propelled the technology into the public consciousness, and innovations in the field made 3-D companies the most anticipated at the International Consumer Electronics Show in January. Now anyone, from architects to toymakers to fashion and jewelry designers to hobbyists, can buy a desktop version, ranging from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.
The idea of clicking “print” to create jewelry—a craft that can involve intricate hand-carving, molds—sounded too good to be true, so I decided to try it for myself, heading to Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to a handful of 3-D printing companies surrounded by dozens using the technology, including Nervous System.
The company was founded in 2007 by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, who met at MIT and wrote computer programs that could create an infinite variety of necklaces, rings and bracelets. In 2009 they launched their first collection, now a best seller at MoMA’s store. Their algorithm has since grown into a web app, enabling anyone to design his own piece.
It’s surprisingly simple. With a few swipes of my finger across an iPad screen, I change the bracelet’s cellular pattern, making it bigger in certain places. I adjust the color and elongate its shape. I’m ready to hit print.
In an antiquated industrial building, 3-D printing company Formlabs looks more like an artist’s studio than a high-tech haven. Funded via Kickstarter, the almost two-year-old company’s printers, about to hit the market, are geared toward individuals and small companies. Along the walls are rows of their printers, brushed-aluminum bases with larger, orange-tinted clear boxes on top. My design will be uploaded to a computer connected to one of the boxes and printed in blue resin in four hours.
When I try on my bracelet, I can’t decide whether it’d be better decorating my bureau or my wrist. Annabel Tollman, a stylist who works with Scarlett Johansson, thinks there’s potential. “It’s functional and looks cool, but it’s in its infancy,” she says. “Right now the concept is the focus; the relationship to fashion is secondary.” She has a point, and even if the pieces are selling out in museum shops—where the line between art and jewelry is blurred—they have a long way to go. Still, designers are seeing dividends. “Our business has doubled yearly since 2009,” says Rosenkrantz. “3-D printing is going mainstream.”
Jewelry in 3-D
Nervous System’s Wave Bracelet will grow out of a liquid polymer shaped by a laser. The polymer is poured into the printer’s base, like ink. A laser beam traces each layer of the structure, printing the item sliver by sliver until it appears whole. The object is then snapped off the support structures and rinsed in solvent. Voilà!
Fact: In 2011, 23,265 3-D printers were sold in the U.S., a nearly 35,000 percent jump from 2007, when just 66 units were sold.