Employees at Chris Ploof Design make jewelry retailing for several thousand dollars.
Leominster jewelry maker uses ancient designs and materials to achieve global dominance
Chris Ploof Designs does more than just manufacture jewelry; the company and its workers craft Symbols of Love using Damascus steel, a four-billion year old meteorite, and the ancient Japanese technique of mokume gane.
Ploof offers three distinct lines – Damascus rings, meteorite rings and mokume gane rings – to customers all over the world.
Unique meteorite rings
Each of Ploof’s meteorite rings begins in Namibia where the 4.5-billion-year-old Gibeon Meteorite was discovered in the desert in 1838. The meteor’s epic trip through space allowed for a slow cooling process that produced a unique crystalline pattern. The meteorite suffered deep fractures during its travels and sat exposed to the elements for thousands of years. As a result, Ploof Designs is forced to reject more than one out of every 20 pieces of meteorite it receives before finding a piece suitable for forging jewelry.
The design process begins with Chris Ploof himself, but must undergo the approval of other skilled artisans to guarantee the ring will withstand time. An engineer ensures the pieces will be durable and can be constructed in a cost-effective manner. What happens next is a combination of strong forging and graceful goldsmithing.
Once the meteorite is cut, forged, and fabricated, it is combined with platinum, gold, or mokume gane. This process requires thorough knowledge of the melting points of materials.
“First, in the case of mokume gane or meteorite mokume gane, between 15 and 35 separate layers of metal are bonded together to make a solid billet,” Chris Ploof said. “After bonding, the billet can be twisted, cut, and re-assembled, then ground down in areas with burs and shaped with punches or chisels. It is then rolled out to a workable thickness, revealing its new patterns. Or, it can be formed into seamless rings and other jewelry.”
The ring is etched in the final processes to enhance its individual pattern, which can never be replicated.
A finishing expert studies every nook and cranny of the ring before passing it along to the stone setter who must make sure a stone can be held securely.
Chris Ploof Mokume Gane Red Gold And Meteorite Ring
Materials: Meteorite, 14k red gold
Price: $6,000 (Greenwich Street Jewelers, NYC)
Ploof meteorite rings can be paired with diamonds, yellow gold, red gold, platinum, white gold and yellow gold.
The Ploof production process includes bonding, forging, processing and patterning for each separate ring line, followed by machining, chemical etching, and all traditional fine jewelry processes such as fabrication, forming, soldering, polishing and stone setting, depending on the ring.
Each Ploof ring can be customized in the final production process with items such as engaving and stone-setting.
The whole process can take between 50 and 500 steps, depending on the complexity of the ring and the material, before the items are shipped express to destinations all over the globe.
Rings of legends
Ploof’s team also manufactures rings from Damascus steel, a material viewed as the metal of legends. Not only was Damascus steel sought after treasure during the Crusades, but the ancient Damascus steel swords of the Syrians were known for cutting a piece of silk in half in mid air.
The Damascus process involves welding multiple layers of two different steel alloys into one solid piece. The material is then forged to yield complex patterns, much like mokume gane, but requires tremendous force.
“The evolution of Damascus steel from tools to jewelry is only natural, due to its amazing beauty and incredible strength,” Ploof said.
World famous, out of Leominster
Ploof’s studio has five full-time employees in Leominster, but he calls on other experts in the field of jewelry making throughout the manufacturing process, depending on the complexity of each piece.
It is hard to believe Ploof’s first forge was once constructed from a 55-gallon drum, some fire bricks and a hair dryer. Now, Ploof is an industry leader. His work appears in countless jewelry publications like Inside Weddings and InStore, and his talented team has been featured on popular television and radio shows like CNN and NPR.
Chris Ploof Designs is primarily a wholesale manufacturer, working with retailers as well as other jewelry manufacturers.
“The primary avenue to reach customers in our industry has always been trade shows, but Chris actually took a very different route for the first 10 years of the business, focusing instead on researching and seeking out the best retailers and other partners for our unique product,” said Ann Cahoon, designer and sales director.
The company’s personal and targeted approach lends itself to finding (and keeping) the right retailers.
Chris Ploof Designs is active in research and education at events like the Santa Fe Symposium on Jewelry Manufacturing.
Chris Ploof, designer and maker
Education: Largely self taught
Annual salary (based on industry estimates): $73,000
Jewelry, with a side of skydiving: In his former life, Ploof spent a great deal of time jumping out of airplanes.
Ann Cahoon, designer and director of sales
Education: Double honors bachelor of fine arts in metalsmithing and jewelry and ceramics from the Maine College of Art; certificate in jewelry making and repair from North Bennet Street School
Annual salary (based on industry estimates): $63,000
Craft life: Ann is an avid knitter.
Kaleb Kielisch, bench jeweler and setter
Education: Certified bench jeweler, New Approach School for Jewelers
Annual salary (based on industry estimates): $53,000
Scratch cook: Kaleb likes to mountain bike and experiment with new curry recipes from scratch.
Krysta Kowal, office manager
Education: Bachelor of art, Mass. College of Liberal Arts
Annual salary (based on industry estimates): $43,000
Mixologist: In addition to her role at Chris Ploof designs, Krysta Kowal is an award-winning bartender; she continues to work in the service industry on the weekends.
“You can’t sell what folks don’t recognize or understand, and we work hard to increase awareness and technical understanding through our research projects and papers,” Cahoon said.
The company maintains a presence on social media platforms, especially Instagram (chris_ploof_designs). The stores carrying Ploof’s work range from small independent galleries, to multigenerational local jewelry stores, to larger multi-location independents.
When asked if the jewelry manufacturer plans to expand beyond rings, Ploof said he is always hungry for a challenge.
“If my customer wants a Damascus bathtub, we will make it for them,” he said. ◾