Being a Bench Jeweler–the Pros and Cons

We have two full-time bench jewelers at our store.  They are always busy, repairing and creating jewelry.  We know them well but, for the general public, they seem a mysterious breed–tucked out of sight in the dark recesses of the shop.  They work with tools and heat and chemicals that can be dangerous. From the shop come loud noises that sound like wheels whirring, metal clinking, or compressed air escaping. “What’s happening back there?  What motivates them to do this kind of work?”

I asked them the pros and cons of being a bench jeweler. From the comments and letters of other bench jewelers there is a broad consensus on the following:

PROS

A bench jeweler is fulfilled by making pieces of art that people will treasure.  Clients are usually full of admiration and gratitude for the jeweler who can repair a sentimental favorite or create a masterpiece.  

A bench jeweler gets to be creative.  Whether he/she is making a custom piece for a client or for the store, there are a lot of decisions to be made on gemstone colors, metal design, and the engineering of the piece.  Even if the job is a repair, there’s creativity involved in solving the problem.

 Bench jewelers have lots of variety. Each repair, each creation poses different challenges.  If you don’t like a steep learning curve, don’t be a bench jeweler. 

No college degree is needed, however it helps to study at a trade school or design studio.  Much of what a bench jeweler needs to know is learned on the job from a mentor.

The environment back in the shop is one of collaboration. Our bench jewelers have shared memories of repairs they’ve done and jewelry they’ve made. Camaraderie is the natural state for a bench jeweler.  

CONS

As with all careers, there are downfalls.  The work of a bench jeweler can be dangerous.  It’s not uncommon to get cut or burned.  One of our bench jewelers described hot metal flying out of a centrifugal casting machine and being burned in several places.  

Even without injuries on the job, years of sitting and bending over tiny jewelry is hard on the eyes and the back. It’s a sedentary job, complete with the multitude of health issues that can come with not moving much.  

Bench jewelers often feel pressure to complete jobs.  Clients don’t want to be without their jewelry.  There’s additional pressure around holiday times, so overtime during the Christmas season is common.

It takes a long time and a lot of practice to be good at this work.  In the meantime, you are someone’s apprentice and probably not making much money.  

A bench jeweler has to be very patient.  He/she has to be able to concentrate for long periods.  Just imagine having to work daily with tiny parts, gems, and tools!

IN THE END

Bench jewelers are a special breed– good-humored, courageous, sympathetic, and humble. They must be willing to put up with interruptions from their colleagues and impossible requests from their clients. They must be prepared to take on difficult jobs with potentially expensive consequences because, as one bench jeweler put it, “Somebody has to do it!”  They must understand that, regardless of the quality of the jewelry, it has special value to the owner.  And they must accept that, stuck in the back of the shop, they won’t always receive credit for their efforts. 

And that final quality attributable to bench jewelers–playfulness. They jokingly say that they love playing with fire and banging away with their hammers. They may be kidding, but I think they really mean it! 

 

 

The Anatomy of a Ring

Engagement Ring - Wedding Band - Michigan

The other day a customer came in to get her ring sized.  She was amazed and somewhat alarmed to learn that our bench jewelers would be cutting her ring with a saw blade in order to size it.  Her beautiful ring–a piece of art–subjected to the saw!  But jewelry is more than art and more than an expression of sentiment.  It’s also a piece of engineering.  It’s built with shanks and prongs, bails and bezels, and many other findings.  It’s adjusted or repaired with the use of tools like saws, hammers, and torches.  Using rings as our example, let’s explore the Anatomy of a piece of jewelry.

MOUNTING: This is the general name for the metal that holds the stone(s) in place and encircles your finger to keep the ring on your finger.

SHANK: This refers to just the curved part of the ring that goes around your finger.  Shanks can have profiles(or cross-sections) that can be quite flat to very round.  The width of the shank can also vary.  And the shape of the shank, while usually circular, could be oval or even rectangular.  A EURO-SHANK is curved on the sides but has a squared off bottom.  There are adjustable shanks, too, which operate with hinges, allowing more room for a ring to slide over the knuckle. 

SETTING: Sometimes a synonym for mounting, a setting probably refers more to how the stone(s) are held in place.  Setting techniques include prong or shared prong set, bead set, tension set, channel set, bar set, flush set, bezel set, pave set, and invisible set. 

PRONG: Tiny metal wires that suspend the stone, holding it in little “claws” (HEAD), so that light can enter the diamond from all sides. 

BEZEL: A frame of precious metal that surrounds the stone, bezels can be thin like a wire or wide so that the side of stone is unseen. 

FINISH: Whether the metal is shiny or more dull depends on the finish.  You can have a polished finish, which is shiny or a matte finish, which is smooth but less shiny.  Other finishes like satin, hammered, engraved or stone can give texture to the surface of the ring.

MILLGRAIN: This is a common embellishment on the shank of a ring.  It’s a border of tiny beads that acts as a boundary or edging.

I could go on–there seems to be about ten- thousand terms that bench jewelers use.  I learn a new one almost every day.  Instead, let’s re-cap with a picture and save Anatomy 102 for another day.  The important thing to glean from today is that jewelry is a designed and constructed piece of art.  It’s engineered to be art that you can wear.

Engagement Ring with an Engraved Finish

Engagement Ring with an Engraved Finish