What is Milgrain? A Guide to a Classic Jewelry Technique

You’ve likely seen milgrain incorporated on a piece of jewelry before without associating it with its technical design term. Many feel this design technique for jewelry provides an antique or vintage feel, and for good reason. The history of milgrain dates back to ancient times and has been revitalized in many eras. Often described as “tiny dots” along the edges of a piece, milgrain is a jewelry design technique where small beads of metal are used to create borders.

Always connected with unique details, skilled craftsmanship and precise design, milgrain has held steady as a popular look for engagement rings. We get many inquiries about milgrain and love working with this technique to bring to life truly classic and beautiful creations. Since there’s still a lot of confusion over milgrain, we hope our guide to this jewelry technique and how to feature it with your engagement ring, brings clarity and inspiration.

The History of Milgrain

Most associate milgrain with the Art Deco period when it was at the height of its popularity for modern times. This is when it got its name, which is derived from the French ‘mille-grain’ and translates to “a thousand grains.” But this design technique dates back many centuries, originating in Southeast Asia. Among artifacts excavated from ancient sites of this region, earrings were the first items discovered featuring milgrain. Later, many examples of rings with a milgrain design were revealed.

The technique continued to be developed and spread, but did not become widely popular until the Edwardian Era of the very early 20th century. Milgrain was seen as a delicate, finely detailed, ornamental element that perfectly suited the wealth and excess of the time. Platinum was the metal of choice for fine jewelry, and the invention of the acetylene torch allowed skilled jewelers to create stunning designs with milgrain as a main feature.

The Art Deco period that followed saw milgrain become more available to the masses as jewelers incorporated the technique with white gold jewelry pieces. The popular and exciting geometric designs of the day highlighted clean lines that were well-suited to using milgrain. It is during this period that milgrain became heavily associated with engagement rings and wedding bands.

How Milgrain is Created

There are three methods by which milgrain is achieved on a piece of jewelry. Two of them are long-held traditional techniques that require the skill of master craftsmen. These two techniques have only seen the very recent addition of a third technique with the advent of technology and computer-aided design, or CAD.

In the first method that dates back to the earliest milgrain creations, each tiny bead is crafted by hand and then individually placed in the design and hand-soldered to fuse together. This method is extremely time-consuming and requires painstaking levels of attention to detail and expert precision. For many, the added level of care and time spent on an engagement ring or wedding band with milgrain translates into a lovely romantic sentiment.

The second method features the use of a custom tool called a knurling tool. Imagine a much smaller pizza cutter and you can envision the knurling tool. The wheel part of the tool is called the milgrain wheel. Most often the wheel features a round milgrain pattern as that is the most widely used design. But wheels are designed with oval or square milgrain as well and can come in various sizes.

To achieve the milgrain using the knurling tool, the wheel is placed on the metal edges and rolled carefully along the border. Small bumps or dots of milgrain become engraved in the metal creating the desired milgrain look and texture.

The modern third method is most often accomplished through the use of 3D-CAD computer software. Jewelers can design a milgrain effect for a piece of jewelry within the program, which then sends it to a printer to produce a wax mold. That wax mold is then cast in metal die form. This is certainly the most efficient method although it lacks much of the appeal that the care and expert craftsmanship of the first two methods brings.

What to Consider About Milgrain For Your Jewelry

Today, creativity with incorporating milgrain into jewelry pieces, especially engagement rings and wedding bands, has greatly expanded. Experimenting with size, quantity, and placement has opened up a wide variety of ways to use milgrain. From being a subtle detail all the way to a main focal point, modern milgrain looks are very unique.

When considering milgrain for your jewelry, there are quite a few benefits it delivers. The texture of the design delivers an additional sparkle that will complement any gemstone. It’s also a lovely, precise, and subtle way to frame a gemstone. Think of the popular halo setting but featuring milgrain instead of diamonds - it draws the eye to the gemstone centerpiece.

As with other design techniques, milgrain adds personality to a ring or piece of jewelry as an intriguing element. The touch of antique elegance it delivers is reminiscent of artistry and hand craftsmanship that adds to the uniqueness of the piece.

milgrain halo diamond engagement ring

Additionally, milgrain does not usually increase the cost of the piece of jewelry. Other considerations, like the quality of the stone and the type of metal, will have a much bigger impact on the price. Milgrain is also a feature that can be added to a piece at a later date after it has already been constructed.

Every piece of jewelry, especially your engagement ring and wedding band, will require maintenance and care over the years that it is lovingly worn. The presence of milgrain on any piece of jewelry will add a couple of additional considerations for its care.

Milgrain makes your piece of jewelry harder to clean. Just as with pavé settings, dirt and oils can get caught and build up between the milgrain beads, reducing the sparkle. A regular schedule of cleaning milgrain pieces with warm water, mild soap, and a small, soft brush will remove this occasional build-up and return the metal sparkle.

Lastly, because milgrain is a feature of the metal, it has a limited lifespan. The tiny beads will gradually wear down with frequent wear as it’s rubbed and touched. Restoration work about once every decade is an important aspect of maintenance for milgrain pieces of jewelry, especially with the daily wear of milgrain engagement rings. It isn’t expensive or difficult to do, and when done by a skilled jeweler, carries no risk of harm to your jewelry.

If you’re looking for an old-world touch or romantic design feel for your engagement ring, you really can’t go wrong with milgrain. The effect pairs well with any cut and shape of diamond or gemstone and can be achieved in any metal. And we’re always happy to explore ways to add milgrain in a way that is unique and special for your perfect piece.

Have questions? We're happy to help.

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