Tapping Into the Nervous System: 3D-Printed Jewelry Looks to Nature for Inspiration

The Somerville shop is staking a claim in the 3D-printing world.

3D-printed shirt image via Nervous System

3D-printed shirt image via Nervous System

Somerville-based Nervous System, which fuses nature’s complexities with original design work in order to make uniquely patterned jewelry and household items like tables and lamps (and most recently, 3D printed clothing) was born at Harvard from the conceptual framework of a futuristic architecture project.

“Someone saw my project and said ‘that would make a great bracelet,’” said Jessica Rosenkrantz, one of the company’s founders.

And it did.

“That’s 100 percent how it actually started. I put it on an Etsy store and people loved it,” she said.

Now, Nervous System is stretching the limits of what can be made from its smallish headquarters near Union Square, and giving clients a chance to manipulate and form their own custom accessory designs using computer programming written by the founders. “We use [the nature processes] as new ways to generate our designs for products,” said Rosenkrantz. “Each one has a different shape and different pattern, we don’t make the same one more than once.”

Before it finally settled down in the heart of Somerville, Rosenkrantz and cofounder Jesse Louis-Rosenberg moved the business around the block and back again. In its earliest stages, Nervous System made its way to Los Angeles before returning to the East Coast and finding a spot in upstate New York. That venture soon turned into a trip back to Western Massachusetts before Rosenkrantz and crew were bound for the Boston area once more.

Now situated in the same warehouse-style building as Taza Chocolate, Rosenkrantz said Nervous System continues to focus on its efforts to develop design processes for products that are inspired by how patterns are formed in nature—for example, how the veins of a leaf, if looked at up close, stretch across the surface like small rivers jutting out of a main body of water. This particular design pattern was the inspiration for a series of small, white lamps on display as you walk into the shop.

Rosenkrantz said what’s exciting about this particular type of design work—known as digital fabrication—is the originality. “You can make things all different for the same price that you might make them all the same. With traditional manufacturing you might invest in a mold—some like, monolithic thing used to cast 1,000 pieces that are all the same—but with 3D printing you tell the machine to do whatever you want and it doesn’t cost anymore.”

A 3D-printed necklace from nervous System

A 3D-printed necklace from nervous System

The problem, however, was figuring out how to drive the differences in products. Nervous System’s solution has been to look at the way nature creates systems that adapt and grow to different conditions and develop their own personalized software, in-house, to allow customers to create products directly on their website using the applets.

This way, each piece of jewelry adapts to a customer’s varying needs, tastes, sizes, and styles. “We write computer programs that allow you to design the jewelry that follows a certain logic or structure,” said Rosenkrantz.

Currently, Nervous System has several programs on their website. One, called Kinematics, uses 4D printing to create complex, foldable forms composed of articulated modules. These are then printed and become flexible, wearable goods.

Another program lets you make flat-metal or wood earrings and other accessories using a program called “Radiolaria.” According to the Nervous System website, Radiolaria lets users manipulate a web of connected cells on screen to create a huge variety of biologically inspired patterns. “[These programs let] you easily create designs,” said Rosenkrantz, adding that the price range for the jewelry changes as a user plays with the product. “We are trying to make tools that are fun and intuitive, so they have a direct interaction that is updating live.”

Once created, 3D-printed jewelry designs are shipped off to ShapeWays, a 3D-printing company in New York responsible for making many of the products for Nervous System.

Rosenkrantz said they don’t do the printing in the shop because the “selective laser-sintering machine,” costs upwards of $500,000. The printer uses a special nylon powder to print the jewelry, which is an industrial waste product that’s relatively cheap. Because it’s nylon, it’s also very smooth, so the cross-section lines stacked up on each other during the printing process are less visible.

Depending on the type of jewelry, once a product comes back to the Union Square headquarters, workers will sit and examine each one to make sure nothing was incorrectly fused together, and check for other blemishes. Then the jewelry sits around in bins for a while, protected from the light so it doesn’t turn yellow, before they’re dyed a specific color or spray-coated with a protective finish.

Beyond bracelets, earrings, and laser-etched puzzles that buck the trend of traditionally shaped pieces, Nervous System has been working on creating 3D-printed clothing, too.

One of their featured pieces, a tank-top style shirt, called a “bodice,” debuted in New York City last month at the opening of the exhibition “Coding the Body,” at apexart. Comprised of 1,320 unique hinged pieces, and rendered from the shape of Rosenkrantz’s torso, the bodice came out of the 3D-printer as a single part and could be worn instantly without assembly. It was printed in a folded pattern to maximize space inside of the printer, something that proved difficult—but doable—for the team.

This project is on the leading end of what 3D printers are capable of, and could set some standards for future printable clothing items.

“What if we could take a structure that we design that is supposed be flexible, like a dress, and crumple it up, and then print it in a crumpled form? Wouldn’t that be neat? Because then when you take it out [of the printer] and unfurl it, the piece is much larger than the printer,” said Rosenkrantz. “Our practice as artists and designers is about taking the restrictions and benefits of 3D-printing and mixing them together to find the most interesting things you couldn’t make any other way.”

Rosenkrantz said the company plans on continuing to play around with the concept of 3D-printed clothing, and hopefully will expand into creating a full-length dress. In the meantime, they have fielded requests about their innovative 3D-printed clothing from places like Cirque du Soleil, and a company making a comic book movie. “There’s not a lot of things out there like this,” she said. “I think 3D-printed clothing is something people are excited about, and it’s getting closer all the time as the materials get better, and the processes get cheaper.”

One day, they even plan to make the products marketable to the general public.  “We are working towards that,” said Rosenkrantz. “I don’t know to what extent it’s going to become a product we sell a lot of, but we have plans to productize it somewhat.”

Founders Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg

Founders Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg

Nervous System's 3D-printed Dress

Nervous System’s 3D-printed Dress

Nervous System's 3D-printed lamps

Nervous System’s 3D-printed orb lamps

Nervous System's Hyphae Lamps

Nervous System’s Hyphae Lamps

Nervous System 8

Nervous System’s series of White Cell Cycle Cuffs