riveting an altered tintype brooch commission

A woman contacted me after seeing my work that was featured in a recent article of The Florentine, “The historical roots inspiring contemporary jewelers.” She already owned a collection of jewelry made from found vintage and antique photos and liked the mysterious narratives they allude to, of these unknown characters, just as much as I do. I had some old tintypes just waiting to be repurposed into jewelry, similar to ones I have made in the past. Although I appreciate these antique photographs as historic objects, I respect them in my own way by giving them a new life, allowing them to be seen by more people than they would be just sitting in a box in someone’s attic, only to be sold later in a local flea market. I showed her the ones I had available and she chose a beautiful portrait of 3 children, reminding her of her own 3 grandchildren. Luckily, she likes larger-scaled jewelry, for this one was to become a brooch/pendant.

The first step was to design a frame that best fit the image. I used a typical frame shape from photos of the era, the late 1800s. The tintype, actually printed on iron with lacquer and enamel, is somewhat less precious but more sturdy than it’s predecessors, the daguerreotype and ambrotype. I slightly altered the image by scratching in and painting an oval form, visually connecting the children and completing the composition. The image, being on metal, pairs well with sterling silver and gold, but needed to be incorporated with a cold connection, such as a rivet. Therefore, it was necessary to solder the bail and the pin on first. The frame, photo, and back plate were pierced and secured with rivets in sterling silver and 18k gold to create contrast with the darkness of the image. The challenge was with 19 rivets (3 as decorative buttons), every drill hole needed to line up precisely in order to feed each hand-formed rivet through 3 layers. The rivet heads mimic the dots of the upholstery tacks in the photo. The sterling silver has a patina made with liver of sulfur to give it an aged look.

I had so much fun making this bespoke piece of jewelry that will hopefully become a sort of family heirloom from 2 unrelated families that were joined in a randomly international way. I’m not sure where the photo originated from, but I made the brooch in Italy and delivered it to Canada. It compliments my series of tintype jewelry pieces, and I am content that a simple request from a stranger instigated the new narrative at my jewelry bench.

Here is a short video of the rivet making process, with instructions below.

how to make rivets

Rivets are one of the easiest way to connect two or more materials that cannot be soldered if they might be damaged by heat (leather, wood, a book cover, fabric, plastic, photographs, etc.). It is what is called a “cold connection” and does not require any soldering. Any soldering should be completed before rivets are applied. Rivets can also be used as a decorative element or to attach a bail for a chain.

  1. Consider the placement of rivet during the design of the piece. To allow movement, only one rivet may be necessary. To stabilize layers, two or more are needed.
  2. Drill holes in the parts to be connected where you want to place the rivets. Use a drill bit of the same diameter as your wire. If the wire is slightly too big to fit through the hole, it can be sanded with fine sand paper. The hole should not be so big that the wire freely moves around. It’s important to drill all of the holes to line up precisely in each layer and to finish each layer’s surface (sanding, polishing, patinas, textures, etc.) before completing the cold connection as these processes might damage another layer and sanding around a rivet isn’t practical. Drill holes in the top layer first and mark subsequent layers through these holes with a pencil or a sharp tool. When many rivets are involved, drill only 2 or 3 holes in the other layer(s) and temporarily rivet or pin the layers together and drill again through the top layer’s holes down to the bottom layers, being careful not to enlarge the previously drilled holes.
  3. Cut small lengths of wire (1mm or 18-19 gauge is a good size), depending on the thickness of your layers, but a few millimeters longer. File any clipped wire tips that are irregular. Keep wire as straight as possible in all steps.
  4. Tightly hold the wire between flat pliers (without teeth) leaving only a millimeter exposed, resting the tip of the pliers on a steel block or anvil for support, letting the wire hang over the edge of the anvil so that it does not bend. Try not to squeeze the wire too hard or the roundness will be deformed and not fit through the hole.
  5. Using a tiny metal ball peen or chasing hammer, tap on the wire tip to form a head, enough so the wire won’t slip through the hole. This requires a lot of patience!
  6. Slip the rivet through the hole and trim the wire leaving about 1mm of length. If the clipped end is too long, it will bend or crush when hammered. Hammer the remaining end until it is secured in the hole, being careful not to scratch your piece.
  7. File and/or sand as needed, polish. If working on leather, you may want to protect the leather surface with paper or tape while you are working.


If you want to allow for movement, you can place a piece of thick paper between the pieces and remove/dissolve it when finished. This will leave a space for motion.

If you are riveting onto a soft material such as fabric or leather, you will want to make a type of washer to hold the rivet in from the back side, otherwise the hole will stretch and your rivet will come out. Try to incorporate these into your design or cover them over, for example, decorative paper can be added to the inside of a book cover.

Rivets can be inset in the surface by burring out the hole at an angle. Decorative ball ends can be made on the rivet tip, but a torch is required for this.

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