Rock & Gem
What Dentists Know About Making Jewelry
Dr. Kathy King, DMD didn’t make every item in her jewelry box, but she could have.
“I’ve made all kinds of jewelry - earrings, pendants - I even made my own wedding rings,” says King, who has operated a private dental practice for years. “I know how to make jewelry because learning how to manipulate and cast gold has long been part of traditional dental training.”
According to King, who also proctors exams for dental licensing boards for several states, prospective dentists take entire classes on how to choose materials, and how to cast dental crowns and other dental appliances using the lost wax method before they can pass their final exams.
While what they learn is meant to be used in patients’ mouths, it is the same technique that novice jewelers learn to practice their craft.
“For example, dental gold is different,” she explains. “24-karat gold is too soft so we use 18-karat gold because it can stand up to the acids in a person’s mouth. In jewelry making 18-karat gold is harder and more durable. That’s why most jewelers prefer it.”
Meanwhile, the lost wax technique used by dentists and the operators of dental labs, is very similar to the one craftspeople use to make everything from gem mountings to bracelets.
“It’s exactly the same process,” says King. Casting – whether for a tooth or a pendant – involves sculpting an original wax model then enclosing the design in a plaster-filled metal container. Once dry, the plaster is placed into a kiln and slowly heated to more than 1,000°F to melt away the wax.
What’s left behind from the melted wax is the item cast in molten precious metal.
“Then we polish the dental crown or the piece of jewelry,” King explains. “Either way, it’s going to be worn for a long, long time.”
Though learning how to cast precious metal is still part of a dentist’s education, much of that work is increasingly being done by specialty dental labs.
The combination of her knowledge and the manual dexterity that she cultivated over the years, stands King in good stead when she wants to craft something special for her collection of jewelry.
“People who make jewelry are always surprised about the technique they use to do it,” says King. “But the truth is dentists are just natural jewelers.”