From prototype to product: Creating glowing jewelry with 3D printing

Christopher Boynton is a co-founder of Fire & Bone and a self-taught 3D modeler and designer with a passion for product design. He has been using Shapeways to prototype and create a new line of luminescent, 3D printed jewelry called L Ī T. I caught him about his design process, how he moves from inspiration to prototype to product, how 3D printing is powering the future of jewelry design and tips for running a succesful crowd funding campaign for your product. 

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Tell me a little bit about your background – who are you and what do you make?

I’m one of three co-founders of a small company called Fire & Bone that makes miniature animal skull replicas, to wear or collect, using 3D scanning, 3D printing, and lost wax casting in silver and bronze. We launched our first collection in a very successful Kickstarter campaign last December. I’m also a product designer and the creator of L Ī T (I pronounce it “light” on account of the macron), which is a line of 3D printed luminescent (glow-in-the-dark) jewelry that I launched in late June 2014 on Kickstarter.

What inspired you to create luminescent jewelry?

As a kid, getting a glow-stick was always a special treat and I’ve always been fascinated by the quality and color of light they give off. But L Ī T really is a study in lighting design and that’s how I approached it. Shapeways strong and flexible nylong plastic has a wonderful way of interacting with light so it was the perfect material to work with and, 3D printing and modeling made it easy to play with different forms and different ways of manipulating that little bit of neon light. I’m working on several full-scale lighting design projects right now so don’t be surprised if you see a giant descendant of L Ī T with an LED tube instead of a glow-stick in the future.

How did you learn to 3D model?

I taught myself the basics in Sketchup and now I work primarily in Rhino with a little Zbrush thrown in.

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How did you discover 3D printing for jewelry design?

Jason Bakutis, one of the co-founders of Fire & Bone, is a sculptor and jewelry designer and he was an early adopter of 3D printing for jewelry design. A few years ago, he showed me a few of his pieces that were produced using 3D printing and lights started going off in my head. The first piece of 3D printed jewelry I made was done in Shapeways sterling silver.

What is your design and iteration process like?

I usually use pencil sketches early on just to crack an idea and figure out how to approach it. However, I prefer to talk it out with Matt Kroner, who is a product designer and the third man behind Fire & Bone. We speak the same language when it comes to design so if I need to make one piece fit more Kentucky with another piece (look it up) and make the whole thing look more like that weird lego piece with the backwards studs he’ll let me know. Most of the heavy lifting is done in Rhino. I like to get a physical prototype as early on as possible so I have something to turn over in my hands and learn from.

Having a physical prototype can reveal solutions and open all kinds of possibilities that a virtual model can’t. 3D printing is great for that because I can make a prototype and see how well it fits with other parts, like how snugly a glow-stick fits, for example. Then, make a change to the model and have a finalized piece much more quickly than if I had to produce it any other way. I like to decide on an overall form quickly and then do several iterations, making subtle changes and adjusting tolerances and smaller details until it feels like it’s ready to be a Thing with a capital “T”.

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Can you give an example of how you go from idea to finished product?

The ideas I get the most excited about tend to happen late at night and my favorite design solutions tend to get dropped on me just as I’m waking up. However, ideas and solutions rarely occur on consecutive nights and sometime not even in that order. The idea for L Ī T grew out of two other projects. One was a silver ring I was working on that had a hollow tube in it for keeping secret notes and the other project was trying to figure out a cheap way to prototype a full-scale LED light without having to worry about wires and soldering because I was living in a tiny apartment at the time. I was thinking about using glow-sticks, just for proof-of-concepting, as a possible alternative to LEDs and the hollow ring was sitting right there.

My first prototype ring was in Shapeways black strong and flexible nylon plastic so it masked the light and had Morse code. I printed one in white polished just out of curiosity and when I saw how it diffused the light I realized there was a lot more potential there. I started playing with different forms, testing just how far I could push and stretch that little bit of light. 3D modeling and Shapeways made it so fun and so easy to try different shapes that I got a little carried away. I’ve used Shapeways to make masters for mold making and prototypes before but L Ī T is the first time I’ve used it to manufacture the final product. I don’t think it could be made any other way.

You are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to support the production and expansion of your line. Do you have any advice to other creatives who are interested in launching a crowd funding campaign to support their product?

  • Make whatever you’re making because it’s fun challenging work.
  • Create a simple compelling story. This is harder and more elusive than most people think, which leads us to . . .
  • Get some talented and trusted friends to help you write, edit, shoot, revise, revise, revise, and review, your campaign. I’m lucky enough to know the folks behind launchpack.net who have helped put several successful campaigns, including Fire & Bone, together.
  • And, get your campaign in front of as many eyes as possible. For me, this is the most daunting and difficult step.

How do you think 3D printing will impact the future of jewelry design and production?

3D printing is a boon for all design and prototyping work. It opens up a whole new world of shapes and forms that would be cost-prohibitive or impossible to make using more traditional techniques. It also has the potential to make it much faster and cheaper to iterate. 3D printing blurs the lines between concepting, prototyping, and manufacturing so designers can start “sketching” in 3D objects. Having those physical iterations to examine and test so early in the process is changing the way designers work.