witzerland is unique in that it is home to the heart of the world’s watchmaking industry, as well as to some of its leading research centres. When the two meet (which is still all too rare), sparks can fly. The case of Rayform SA, launched in 2016 by a team of researchers from the EPFL, is a perfect example of this.
Romain Testuz and Yuliy Schwartzburg founded the company in order to take their theoretical work and put it into practice. In a specialised laboratory at the Lausanne institution, the two scientists began with geometrical calculations, eventually arriving at a technology which, as they themselves explain, allows them to “sculpt light” in order to concentrate it and reflect a projected message. And it’s not just a cool trick; the technology also has the potential to combat counterfeiting.
Rayform SA, launched in 2016 by a team of researchers from the EPFL, embodies the encounter between the world of research and Swiss jewellery and watchmaking.
In September 2019 the research team teamed up with designer Noémie Arrigo to launch a jewellery brand, The Rayy, that incorporates this technology. They answered our questions.
- The co-founders of The Rayy: Romain Testuz, Noémie Arrigo and Yuliy Schwartzburg
Europa Star: How was your technology born?
Romain Testuz: Between 2012 and 2015 I, together with my colleague Yuliy Schwartzburg and Professor Mark Pauly, explored the potential of geometric calculations in a specialised laboratory at the EPFL. We developed a new technology that allows us to “sculpt” light, using the reflection of light rays, which can come from any source, from the sun to a phone flashlight. When light reflects off an object with a precisely worked surface, the material reflects it by projecting a message with a meaning.
Was this fundamental research, or were you already looking for ways to apply this technology?
Romain Testuz: Basically, there was no real motivation to apply the research. We were acting purely out of scientific curiosity! We were inspired by the optical phenomenon that can be seen, for example, when sunlight passes through the water surface of a swimming pool, creating patterns that are called “caustics”.
“We were inspired by the optical phenomenon that can be seen when sunlight passes through the surface of water, creating beautiful patterns.”
What is fascinating is that you can’t see the image or the message at all by looking at the surface of the object – it can only be revealed by the projection of light. The effect was impressive, even with the first prototypes we developed at the EPFL. By endeavouring to master this optical phenomenon and make it reproducible, we soon realised that there were many possible applications in different fields, including jewellery.
- The Rayy was founded in September 2019, based on technology developed at the EPFL.
How did you take your findings from theory to practice?
Romain Testuz: In 2016 we founded the start-up Rayform with the aim of integrating this technology into various products. We started working with watch brands, as well as with artists for special installations. Over time, we have been able to improve the technology and miniaturise it to apply it to very small surfaces. This opened the doors of the jewellery industry.
Why launch your own brand of jewellery rather than associating yourself with an existing brand?
Romain Testuz: On the one hand, it’s a complicated technology to integrate into existing products. On the other hand, we wanted to be able to enjoy total creative freedom. The concept was to imagine products around this technology, rather than trying to adapt it to an existing product. Our meeting with Noémie Arrigo, our artistic director, was also decisive. The Rayy was finally born in September 2019.
“The concept was to imagine products around this technology, rather than trying to adapt it to an existing product.”
How did you guys meet?
Noémie Arrigo: Romain contacted me because I already had my own brand of jewellery and they liked my style. Our initial collaboration focused on wedding rings, which are very classic in style and which are well adapted to the project. Even though we come from very different worlds – design and science – we share the same sensibility in terms of creating a very minimalist unisex brand that lasts over time. This type of design is very appropriate for this new technology, because the jewellery can be worn even if there is not enough light to reveal the secret messages.
What are the steps involved in the creation of these pieces that “sculpt” the light?
Testuz domain: The first step is algorithmic, and consists in making geometrical calculations to understand how a certain message can be reflected off a certain surface. The process is quite complicated because our intention is to keep the metal surface perfectly smooth, without angles or facets. We play with volumetry. On the surface, we create a small “wave”, on which we direct the light rays, which are then concentrated in order to reflect a message.
To draw a parallel, the reflection of the light plays over the curves like the waves over the surface of water. Once these calculations have been made, the actual manufacturing begins with a 3D file that describes the curves of the surface, which is then executed by extremely precise CNC machining.
- The surface of the jewellery gives no clues as to the word, symbol or message that will be projected.
Does it work on all types of surfaces?
Romain Testuz: Theoretically, we could apply this technology to many different materials. But some materials such as silver will oxidise over time and lose their reflective property. We use 18-carat gold for our jewellery because of its special properties. It is our favourite material.
“The first step is algorithmic and consists of making geometric calculations to understand how a certain message can be reflected off a certain surface.”
What is the minimum brightness required for this property to work?
Romain Testuz: It depends on the ambient light. Typically, a mobile phone flashlight will work very well if there is no sun. The only sources that don’t usually work are neon lights, because they produce very diffuse light. The power of the light itself is not very important but the rays must be very concentrated.
From a design point of view, does the application of this technology require a different way of working?
Noémie Arrigo: I did somewhat the opposite of what I usually do, because I knew I needed a surface of a certain size to be able to reflect a word, or even several lines. So I knew already beforehand the possible dimensions of the jewellery. Then it was a question of creating a rather flat surface. Since everything is new with this technology, the way of working is also innovative; it’s a combination of R&D, design and application.
What are the most popular words or signs requested?
Noémie Arrigo: We naturally get a lot of initials, those of the partners in a couple, or those of the children in a family. But also secret messages that only make sense within the couple, or universal symbols such as a heart or the infinity sign. From time to time, we receive a small drawing that has a particular meaning for the person concerned. For example, a musician wanted the first notes of one of her compositions. The drawing must remain simple and we study each case individually.
- The messages hidden within the jewellery can be personalised, and can display up to three lines.
But if it’s a very intimate message, isn’t everyone going to see it?
Romain Testuz: No, it really doesn’t appear unless you want it to, because the light has to come from the right direction and distance. It has never happened to me to have a message appearing without my knowledge.
You also introduced a collaboration with the tattoo artist Maxime Plescia-Büchi and his studio Sang Bleu.
Romain Testuz: From the very beginning we wanted to work with the world of tattoos, which play around with personal symbols and messages. We knew of his work with geometric shapes and Maxime wanted to try his hand at jewellery. He immediately got hooked on the project and drew the twelve signs of the zodiac – a very common theme in the tattoo world – for a series of pendants. He interpreted the signs of the zodiac as animals that “come to life” and can change size and form according to the direction of the light on the jewellery.
- A collaboration between The Rayy and tattoo artist Maxime Plescia-Büchi (Sang Bleu) has resulted in a series of pendants displaying motifs from the zodiac.
What price range do you work in?
Romain Testuz: Our pieces vary between 2,000 and 10,000 francs. Personalisation is also a little more expensive than what we consider to be standard motifs or messages, such as the signs of the zodiac. You have to add 500 francs for a personalised message, which can take up to three lines – it is possible to include a small poem for example.
How are your products distributed?
Romain Testuz: For the first year, we chose to focus on e-commerce. And that was fortunate, in view of what happened. So we were able largely to continue working even during the pandemic. As we designed a truly international site, we can deliver worldwide. At the same time, we invested a lot in social networks to make ourselves known. As our concept is very dynamic and interactive, it is quite easy to produce an engaging video.
“In the first year, we chose to focus on e-commerce. And that was fortunate in view of what happened.”
- A white gold pendant made in collaboration with the Sang Bleu studio
And for 2021?
Romain Testuz: We are going to focus more on physical points of sale, because it is important for customers to see our technology with their own eyes. Currently we have jewellers representing us in Lausanne, Geneva and Beijing. At the moment, the clientele is mainly local. Our aim is to be represented in the major capitals, but we are not moving towards volume distribution.
Did similar technologies exist before yours?
Romain Testuz: No. We have filed several international patents that protect the technology. Involuntarily, car headlights could produce images (laughs). But mastery of this optical effect had never been applied, let alone to jewellery.
- MB&F has applied the start-up’s technology to the crown of its HM3 Frog X model, which displays the symbol used by the watch brand.
You must have been approached by many groups looking to apply this technology in different areas.
Romain Testuz: Yes, all the more so as our system offers a bulwark against forgery, because the precision required for the work on surfaces cannot be copied, and the messages are often unique. So all you have to do is pick up the phone to check whether it is an original model.
We have ongoing projects with major brands. We can’t talk about them because several products are on the way to being launched. The only collaboration we can mention is with MB&F, which has applied our technology to the crown of their HM3 Frog X, to display the brand logo. We collaborate with third parties in areas other than jewellery, but we retain the exclusivity of this technology for our own jewellery brand The Rayy.
“We have filed several international patents that protect the technology. Mastery of this optical effect has never been applied before, let alone to jewellery.”
Another feature of your brand is your use of lab-grown diamonds.
Romain Testuz: Indeed, for ethical reasons we only use lab-grown diamonds, in order to know exactly where they come from. In fact, it is mainly new brands that use them; established companies and the big brands find it difficult to develop a strategy, because they can’t use some natural diamonds, with some lab-grown diamonds alongside – it would create an ambiguous dialogue. They will probably join the movement in the long term but not via their main collections, perhaps by introducing dedicated start-ups.
Concretely, what is the difference between natural and lab-grown diamonds?
Noémie Arrigo: Even looking through a loupe, you will not notice any difference between the two types of diamonds, which have exactly the same physical and chemical properties. Unfortunately, I believe that the terminology is confusing, and detracts from the so-called “synthetic” diamonds, even though they are just as original.
Romain Testuz: It’s a really fascinating process, a kind of “philosopher’s stone”: you can recreate the growing conditions of a diamond, exactly like what happens underground, and accelerate them. The diamond is then cut in exactly the same way as a diamond from a mine, but with the guarantee that it is not the result of poor working conditions. One of the best known laboratories is Diamond Foundry in Silicon Valley, one of whose investors is Leonardo di Caprio. In addition, the laboratory growth process uses renewable energies, including solar energy, which is at the heart of our brand concept.
“The terminology is confusing and detrimental to so-called “synthetic” diamonds, even though they are just as original as those that come from a mine.”
- The brand is seeking to expand its physical distribution network internationally. The Rayy is currently represented by jewellers in Lausanne, Geneva and Beijing.
What has been the impact of the pandemic on your company, and on the jewellery sector more broadly?
Noémie Arrigo: I have the impression that jewellery remains very dynamic: on the one hand, we are seeing many new online sales platforms, and on the other hand, the high-end sector is holding up well. And let’s not forget that in times of crisis, gold is prized – and jewellery is made of gold... In recent years, there has also been a new trend of wearing exuberant and prominent jewellery, for example by wearing several chains together. It’s hard to say, without hindsight, whether this is just a passing fashion or a long-term trend. What is certain is that it is now acceptable to wear pieces that would have seemed ostentatious ten years ago.