Lynne MacLachlan is a former aerospace engineer who switched careers to become a jewellery designer. With her extensive use of CAD systems, 3D printing and complex geometries, she is setting a new trend on the catwalk.
Take a stroll down Piccadilly and pop into the Royal Academy's gift shop. There, among the coffee-table books, reproduction prints and other bric-a-brac you normally expect to find in shops like this, you'll also discover some very intriguing jewellery.
It's not made from precious metals, and you won't see rare and expensive gemstones embedded into the design. 3D printed in nylon, Lynne MacLachlan's jewellery is the product of an engineering mind. Her work is based on complex geometries, produced using CAD modelling tools on a laptop, and made using stereolithography equipment more usually associated with the production of rapid prototypes for automotive or aerospace components.
"I think of myself as a pattern designer," says MacLachlan. "I design 3D patterns, and I experiment with technology, tools and materials." She explains that since jewellery has no literal function, there are times when she has to mentally wrestle with what the purpose of these designs might be. But as an engineer there is something more to her story than simply a philosophical desire to create things that look nice. Working with the latest software to develop her symmetrical shape, she seems to occupy the space where applied technology is pushing back the frontiers of what's possible in a creative field. 3D-printed jewellery is the opportunity many fashion designers have been waiting for, and as it starts to appear on the international catwalks of Milan, Paris and New York, it is defining a trend that could be with us a while yet.
The 33-year-old jeweller has, perhaps surprisingly for someone who works in the arts, a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Glasgow. After graduating, she worked in industry for a year for a company that writes software for space applications. Realising that she wasn't going to get the hands on experience of "making things" that was so important to her, MacLachlan returned to academia, only this time instead of pursuing her technological path, she set up camp at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design at the University of Dundee, where she studied jewellery design.
As I ask her how someone apparently destined for a career designing control systems for aeroplanes ends up becoming a jeweller, MacLachlan admits it is a question she often asks herself. "I went into aerospace engineering expecting it to be different. I thought I'd be inventing things and problem solving. But it was just applied maths, and we weren't doing anything other than working with maths problems."
All of which was well within MacLachlan's intellectual grasp: it's just that for someone who had "always been really good at art and design", it simply wasn't exciting or creative enough. "Don't get me wrong. There was one project I really liked, where I developed a computer program." But MacLachlan suspects that the satisfaction she derived from this stemmed from the fact that she was simply doing something other than dealing in maths. "I think I was a bit too sensible about the whole thing," she explains, before going on to say that she was a victim of the idea that she needed to sit at a desk. "You can't do that for the next 50 years."
MacLachlan is at pains to point out that she doesn't find engineering boring and that her career transition was more an attempt to reapply her engineering background to a project that she felt more suited her personality. "It was my engineering background that gave me the confidence and skills to do a lot of the technical things that I'm doing today." She says that it is interesting to see on jewellery courses how frequently arts students show a marked inability to exploit the computer resources available to them, with some of them even "frightened of the technology. I found myself ready to start experimenting, so that I could see where the technology would lead me".
One of the most revealing characteristics of MacLachlan's jewellery – and especially evident in her popular Phase collection – is that the artefacts she produces are recognisably influenced by engineering components, with many of her radial pieces bearing more than a passing resemblance to turbines. It comes as no surprise to find that they have been designed on CAD systems and produced using stereolithographic 3D printing.
Although she occasionally works with precious metals, a significant point about MacLachlan's designs is that they are made from low-cost materials, where it is the geometry rather than any intrinsic value that gives them their worth. You can expect to pay as little as £40 for the smaller items, and yet they still attract interest from top fashion designers looking for something different. With haute couture brands such as Swarovski already looking at ways to exploit the 3D printed market, it's easy to see why more and more aspiring jewellers are taking the computer-designed route.
Working in the virtual world
MacLachlan's main software tool is the Rhino 3D modeller that is used widely in many forms of product design, from digital camera bodies to motorcycle components. She describes the software as an industry standard CAD program which she enhances with the graphical algorithm editor plug-in Grasshopper, "that allows you to program Rhino and is very similar to a lot of the software I was using when I was in engineering. If I am designing a shape, this will allow me to change variables such as the radius, or alter the number of wires and so on. In fact, it's a powerful way of sitting back and simply playing with the design".
MacLachlan doesn't sketch out her designs, preferring to turn them over in her head before sitting down at the laptop. She describes her work process as "a lot of messing around, and yet when you do finally get to a design that you are happy with, the rest of the collection can fall out quite easily.
"Getting to the first one is the problem. I spend a lot of time wrestling seemingly incompatible ideas into one piece, the one that's going to work. I'm interested in the moir' patterns that the radial struts produce within the cone shapes. I use cones to get a nice gap between the front and back sections to allow the changing patterns to emerge."
MacLachlan recalls how these patterns started to become dynamic while working in the software environment. That was the moment she thought "this is it. This is what will make the jewellery interesting".
Every piece that MacLachlan produces is made using a process called selective laser sintering (SLS), an additive technique that is more usually associated with low-volume production of prototype components. The problem with this technique is that there is no mass production option available and, as a result, no economies of scale. "You have to make each piece one at a time, although there is in theory no limit to the number that you could produce."
However, the potential to quickly (and relatively cheaply) produce bespoke jewellery is enormous: if a designer wants something to go with a collection, only it needs to be a different size or colour, then a few parameter tweaks in the software reveals just how powerful the system is for making changes on the fly. Once the design is final, MacLachlan emails a file to a prototyping agency in Belgium where the pieces are generated by the SLS process before being returned for hand finishing and dyeing.
MacLachlan's jewellery is mostly made from nylon, which she cheerfully admits has no intrinsic material worth. It follows that traditionalists, who tend to think of the genre as being an expression of wealth, will question whether what she is doing qualifies as jewellery in any real sense of the word. So, are these plastic 3D wearable geometries actually jewellery?
"Yes," comes the answer without any hesitation. "Jewellery is about adorning the body and it is one of the first marks of civilisation. The earliest jewellery that archaeologists have ever found is in fact seashells with holes in them.
"Jewellery has been around for as long as humans have, and it's not always been made from precious metals, in any case. The idea that it needs to be made from expensive stuff to qualify is a bit of a myth. In fact, there is a long tradition of using all sorts of materials. Intrinsic value is not as important as the capacity for the ornamentation to intrigue."
Design of the times
The availability of software with the power to produce complex geometric designs, coupled with rapid prototyping's capacity to produce artefacts in cheap materials at low cost, means that MacLachlan's world teems with possibilities that were once not within the scope of a traditional jeweller. Does she feel that what she produces is the result of exploiting technological horizons, or is it more a question of technology allowing her access to the designs in her head?
"People design differently. But my way of designing has always been, even when I was using precious metals, process-led. I'm interested in process and I don't think that's a bad thing, because I believe that craftsmanship is about exploring tools and materials and getting the best out of them.
"I do sometimes lie awake thinking that I'd like to design something more functional. But I tried that in designing control systems for aerospace applications. So you could say that I've gone from one extreme to another."