Seashells are beautiful and fragile and make striking jewellery. Setting shells in silver, as one would set a stone, is very rewarding once you master the techniques. While there are hundreds of shell species, this will describe setting a cupped shell such as a scallop, oyster, clam or muscle. The unusual pieces of jewellery you can make by combining shells with silver make stunning gifts or items to sell.
Determine which side of your shell is the one you want the viewer to see. Consider the orientation of the shell. Try the deepest part of the shell up, down and even on the diagonal. Choose the setting style that you feel will best display your shell: a prong setting, frame setting or covered back with front bezel.
Create a prong setting by choosing the 14- to 18-gauge fine silver wire that looks best with your shell. Use cross-lock tweezers to hold the end of your wire vertically over the flame of a gas stove or torch until the silver forms into a ball. Immediately remove the wire and quench in a bowl of water.
Bend the wire around the lip of your shell and wrap it to the centre of the shell's back. Cut the wire with wire cutters at this point and repeat the process to make at least three balled wires. Craft a bail by making a loop in the top wire with round nose pliers before cutting it to length. File the end of all the wires to make them smooth.
Cut a small piece of flat silver that mimics the shape of your shell, but is one-eighth the size. File the edges until smooth and lay your wires against the disc as they would be when grasping the shell. Use a fine-tip marking pen to register the placement of each. Flatten the wire where it touches the disc by hammering on an anvil or by using a jeweller's file. Solder the wires into position using hard solder. Bend the wires into place around the shell after cleaning and polishing.
Put your shell face down on a piece of paper to begin making any setting with an edge or frame bezel. Trace around the shell's edge with a pencil. Write "back" in the centre of your tracing. Cut out your tracing with a pair of scissors, place it front-up on another piece of paper, and trace to make a shape that is the same as the front of your shell.
Fashion a simple frame setting by purchasing a sterling or fine silver strip that is half an inch longer than your traced line and 3/8 of an inch by half a millimetre wide. Use a smaller dimension if your shell is smaller. Fold your strip in half lengthwise around a round wire of any metal gauged to match the thickness of your shell. Use urethane or nylon lined pliers to make the fold.
Form your strip to the front view of your tracing with the round wire still inside. Mark the place where the shape meets itself. Remove the round wire and cut the inside of the strip from the edge to the fold using wire cutters. Bend the remaining tail upward to 90 degrees. Smooth all the cut edges with jeweller's files and use your lined pliers to pinch the tail into a completely flat fold.
Fit the frame around your shell as closely as possible, remove the shell and solder the inside seam with hard solder. Replace the shell to check the fit. Remove the shell and use round nose pliers to bend the tail into a bail. Solder the end of the bail to itself with medium solder. Make a line of household glue around the edge of the shell. Refit the shell and shape the back of the bezel tightly around the shell.
Create a covered back modified bezel setting by sourcing 20-gauge dead soft sheet silver that's at least an inch wider than the edge of your shell on all sides. Purchase a dapping block, which is a cube with varying sizes of craters in it on all sides and is made of wood, brass or steel.
Find the depression closest to your shell size in a dapping block. Use your thumb or one of the dapping tools that came with your block to gently press the silver sheet into the depression, stopping frequently to see how the silver is conforming to your shell. Continue until you have a good fit.
Trace the edge of the shell on the inside of the silver with a fine-tip marking pen. Draw a parallel line 1/4 inch toward the edge of the silver from your original line. Cut along the second line using a jeweller's saw. Add any pieces that require soldering at this time. File the edge of the cut silver until it is smooth. Replace your shell after polishing the silver cup and gently bend the silver edge over the shell until it is as even as possible.
Make a paper version of your setting to see what kind of problems you might encounter. Large folds can be remedied by cutting away the excess material to form an unsoldered joining of the paper and, ultimately, your silver. Seashells will disintegrate in the heat of a torch and easily crack under pressure. Perform all of your heat related tasks, such as adding bails, before your shell is in place. Use as little pressure as possible to bend metal around your shell and use your fingers instead of pliers for the best results. If you need to use heat near a shell, pack the shell in wet paper towels and use the lowest heat possible. There is no guarantee that this will protect your shell and you run the risk of ruining it. When balling wire, remove the wire and quench as soon a ball is formed. Heating the ball longer will cause it to drop off of your wire.
Use protective gloves and eyewear, along with proper fire prevention measures, when working with an open flame.