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! 

 

 

Made in Michigan Jewelry

Michigan isn’t known as a state rich in gemstones.  We have Petoskey (our state stone) and Isle Royale Greenstone (our state gem).  There are no sapphires, emeralds, or rubies, but this hasn’t stopped us from making our own gems.  Be thankful for the ingenuity of artists who use the materials readily available to them.  If you’re a Michigander, you can be proud of our “Made in Michigan” gems. 

Detroit is the Motor City.  Henry Ford started making automobiles around the turn of the 20th century.  Little did he know he’d be helping the jewelry industry!  But Fordite, or “Motor Agate” as it’s sometimes called, is made from the same kind of lacquer or enamel paint that graced the cars of the mid-1900s. Today the material is used to make such things as pendants, earrings, and cuff links.  

Fordite Pendant made from Cadillac Paint

For decades, automobiles were spray painted by hand in rooms called painting bays. The painted car frames sat on skids that could then be moved to the oven when the paint was ready for curing.  Over time, excess paint on the skids, baked hard by many trips to the oven, made the skids less efficient.  Workers would chip big chunks of psychedelic enamel off, and, at some point, they realized that the colorful chunks could be cut and polished.

According to experts on the material, the heyday for Fordite was in the 1970s, because such a variety of color was offered.  Experts can look at a piece of Fordite and know, approximately, when the piece was formed. For example, bright colors of red, green and yellow were popular in the 1960s.  Earthtones of olive green and brown were popular in the 1970s.  Experts can also distinguish Fordite from the creations of contemporary jewelers who can make their own “Fordite-like” pieces.  Obviously, the “natural Fordite” is more valuable.

By the late 1980s, innovation in the painting process reduced the amount of wasted paint.  Today’s cars are painted with robotic arms and a magnetic process which eliminates the chance of overspray.  Sadly, colorful Fordite is no longer made.  If you want to own a piece of Fordite, don’t wait too long!

Fordite isn’t the only example of recycling in jewelry.  In the town of Leland, near Traverse City, jewelry is made from the slag by-product of an iron smelting process.  Back in the late 1800s, Leland was home to the Leland Lake Superior Iron Company.  Situated close to the harbor, right on Lake Michigan, the company separated iron from the raw ore.  The glass-like slag, made of silicon dioxide and metal oxide, had useful purposes when the company was in business, but when it folded in 1885, heaps of unneeded slag were dumped into the harbor.  Within a few years green, blue, gray, and even purple pieces of the slag were coming up on shore like beach stones.  Snorkelers find larger chunks of the slag further out in the harbor.  No one seems to know who first decided that the material could be shaped and polished for jewelry, but it’s been used for at least 30 years. Today, almost any jewelry store in the Leelanau Peninsula has jewelry made from Leland Blue. 

Leland Blue Rough

 

Let me mention one final example of recycled material in jewelry. A young company, Rebel Nell, figured out how to use another of the Motor City’s commodities. They make sterling silver jewelry from peeling and fallen graffiti paint. The process Rebel Nell uses to stabilize the paint is a trade secret, but it’s no secret that they are doing great work. The mission of the company is to employ, educate, and empower disadvantaged women living in local shelters.  The work they do, making bracelets, rings, pendants, and earrings, allows the women to transition to an independent life. 

 

Graffiti paint bracelet, made by Rebel Nell

Recycling is a strategy that only grows in popularity.  Michigan jewelers take slag, paint, and other things that have little value (think beach glass and copper nuggets) and make new treasures from them.  It’s the Michigander way!

 

 

Happy Birthday to Plymouth!

I’m not sure it’s ever been explained in this blog, but Dearborn Jewelers isn’t actually in Dearborn anymore.  After 53 years, the store moved to Plymouth, Michigan, and that’s where it’s been for the last 14 years.  Those of us who work at the store are very proud of our town.  We support the other businesses as much as we can, we donate to many worthy local causes, and, most recently, we’re contributing to the celebration of Plymouth’s 150th birthday!  

Plymouth was incorporated as a village in 1867 and upgraded to a city in 1932. The “Old Village” was actually the center of town when the Starkweather brothers first settled here.  Over the years, Plymouth has become well known for its special “features”:

  • the only place in Michigan where railroad tracks are laid in all four directions
  • the “Air Rifle Capital of the World” because it’s the home of the Daisy Air Rifle Company
  • its annual events, like the Ice Festival and the Art Festival, earning it the phrase, “There’s always something going on in Downtown Plymouth.”
  • Kellogg Park, once owned by John Kellogg and now the site of about 150 events per year.  To celebrate Plymouth’s 150th birthday, the park’s famous fountain will be re-done, thanks to a generous grant from the Wilcox Foundation.

the Fountain in Kellogg Park during the Breast Cancer Walk

 

In honor of this great city, and to help support the Plymouth Historical Museum, Dearborn Jewelers created a one-of-a-kind diamond pendant.  One hundred fifty diamonds, totaling almost 150 points (that’s 1.50 carats), decorate a white gold pendant.  The letters of PLYMOUTH are subtly woven into the piece.  Design elements of the 1860s were incorporated into the pendant. Many of us here at Dearborn Jewelers worked on the design, and we are so proud of our team effort! Someone is going to win this pendant–someone who’s bought a ticket to the Historical Museum event on July 26, 2017.  

Plymouth’s 150 Years Commemorative Pendant, created by Dearborn Jewelers of Plymouth

If you’re interested in supporting the Plymouth Historical Museum and, perhaps, winning a beautiful diamond pendant, buy a $25 ticket from either the museum or from Dearborn Jewelers.  The event begins at 6:00pm and appetizers and beverages will be served.  While the event is sure to be fun, you do not need to be present to win. The winner will also receive a booklet which explains how the pendant was designed and made.  

Good luck to you if you purchase a ticket!  And don’t forget to wish a great big HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Downtown Plymouth!!

 

Mother of Female Jewelry Designers

For centuries jewelry was designed by men. Seems odd, doesn’t it, when most all jewelry is worn by women? But the design field was male dominated for the same reason most fields were–men were seen as the more capable sex and the bread winners of the family. When did it become clear that women could design for women?
Perhaps the first to recognize this talent in a female was Rene’ Boivin, a Parisian goldsmith and engraver in the late 1800s. He married Jeanne Poiret, a woman who became his business partner in his jewelry workshops. Together they created fabulous designs which were in high demand among their elite clientele.

Egyptian Emerald Ring by Maison Boivin

When Rene’ died in 1917, everyone assumed that Jeanne would sell the business but, instead, she and her daughter, Germaine, assumed control. Jeanne, though not trained as a jeweler, knew a lot from working with her husband. She’d think out the designs and have someone else render them. She also had a talent for finding good talent, hiring young Suzanne Belperron in 1921 and, when Suzanne left in 1931, the talented Juliette Moutarde took her place.
Suzanne Belperron opened her own jewelry design firm with Bernard Herz, and later, his son, Jean, in a partnership that lasted over 40 years. Her designs were so distinctive–very fluid and organic. Even while those around her embraced Art Deco, with its straight lines, Suzanne elevated a more modern design. Famous women like the Duchess of Windsor and Mona Williams (pictured below) bought her jewelry. Her work was never signed, though. She always said that her style was her signature.

Sketch and finished piece by Suzanne Belperron

Juliette Moutarde worked with Jeanne and Germaine at House Boivin until they sold the company in 1976. Jeanne had died in 1959, but her daughter, a talented jewelry designer in her own right, kept the business going. Throughout these successful years, custom pieces were never signed by the individual artists. Perhaps it was seen as too bold, too assertive, for a woman to sign her work back in the early 1900s.

Design attributed to Moutarde, made for Claudette Colbert in 1936.

But because of these women, and a few others like Italian Elsa Schiaparelli, female jewelry designers today feel empowered to open their own studios, sign their names to their pieces, and earn their own success in the design world. Thanks to these pioneers, we know names like Paloma Picasso, Elsa Peretti, and Ippolita Rostagno, who have had their own jewelry lines for decades. And because of THEM, contemporary female designers–from Kendra Scott and Irene Neuwirth to Farah Khan Ali and Erica Courtney find success in the always competitive jewelry industry.

contemporary Ippolita design

Today we don’t think much about gender when choosing a designer. If you like the creation, you respect the designer! But it wasn’t always like that, and I wanted to lift up the courage of Jeanne Bouvin and her team of female designers. They worked and made their way successfully in a male world. Good for them and thank goodness for us. Their combination of talent and determination allowed women who came after to enter the field with confidence. Because of that, I want to nominate Jeanne Poiret Boivin for Mother of Female Jewelry Designers!

The Story of Campbellite

campbellite

I’ve lived most of my life in Michigan and my maiden name is Campbell.  Most people don’t know that because I’ve been married so long!  But I always thought Campbell was a good name, so I was both happy and surprised to learn that there is a gemstone named after. . .no, not me, nor my kinfolk, but after the Campbell shaft of the well known Bisbee Mine in Southern Arizona.

So, what’s the story of Campbellite?  As explained by one of the stone cutters at Arizona Lapidary, Campbellite is an uncertain  mixture of minerals like cuprite, azurite, malachite, calcite,chrysocolla, pyrite, quartz, and copper.  Its color and look varies because there’s no set amount of these minerals.  It was first discovered by miners looking for copper.  The bosses weren’t interested in this unusual rock, and told the miners to discard it.  But the miners had a different plan.  They saw its beauty.  So, yes, they dumped the Campbellite in the trashcan.  But they separated it carefully from the real trash.  And when no one was looking, they loaded the discarded gem into the back ends of pickups.  Campbellite has been showing up in the market, piece by piece.  There’s not a lot of it–I’m sure plenty WAS dumped.  The mine closed in 1975, and there is no other known source of Campbellite.  But I bought one piece of it, cut into a smooth cabochon, and plan to make a bolo tie for my dad.

I learned a little bit about the mine shaft itself.  It was first developed in 1927, originally as a way to get oxygen to other parts of the Bisbee Mine.  But soon it was one of the best producers of copper ore, with yields of 8-10% copper.

Finally, who is the Campbell shaft named after?  A little research revealed an amazing coincidence.  The shaft was named after Gordon R. Campbell, who actually lived and went to school in Michigan!  He graduated from U of M in 1893 and was a mining executive and lawyer up in the Keweenaw Peninsula.  The Keweenaw Peninsula, jutting from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is one of the best known sources of copper world-wide.   Towns like Calumet, Houghton, and Copper Harbor were booming back in the mid-1800s because of copper.  Anyway, Gordon Campbell helped form the Calumet and Arizona Mining Company in 1901, serving as the company’s President from 1921-1931.   It was this company that operated the Bisbee Mine.  So Campbellite WAS named for a Campbell living in Michigan.  Who knows?  Maybe he’s a long, lost cousin?

The Campbell shaft, courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society

The Campbell shaft, courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s a Gemstone Roundtable? Would I want to go to one?

If you love gemstones, ask your jeweler if he/she hosts roundtable events.  These are usually evening events that last 2 – 3 hours, taking place after your jewelry store closes.  Food and drink are often served, and you are introduced to a gemstone expert.  This expert shares knowledge and stories about gemstones and the gemstone industry.  Sitting at a, usually rectangular, table, guests are given the chance to see, touch, and dib on approximately 100 different gemstones.  Dibbing simply means that you would like another look at that gemstone after it has gone around the table.  These gemstones are for sale, but there is never an obligation to buy.  The goal is to have fun learning about and playing with gemstones.

More people want to be involved in the making of their jewelry.  Mountings can mask flaws of gemstones, so it’s to the buyer’s advantage to see gemstones un-mounted.  And mountings can be unique if you work with a custom designer.  On-staff designers are generally at the roundtable event and they can help you with ideas for any gemstone you select for purchase.  The whole process of 1) picking out the gemstone; 2) deciding on a design; and 3) having the piece made by your local jeweler is a memorable one.

Dearborn Jewelers recently hosted a roundtable event with gemstone dealer, Judith Whitehead.  Our next event will be in September.  If you are interested in attending, give us a call and we can put you on the list.  It promises to be a great time.

roundtable1roundtable2

 

How do Jewelry Artists get their Inspiration?

scroll design3Haven’t you ever wondered, when you look at beautiful art, what inspires the artist?  How does he or she find that initial spark that leads to a fabulous painting, sculpture, poem, or piece of jewelry?

Inspiration often comes from nature.  Heather Gardner, a jewelry designer from California, said, “As I travel, I am constantly observing the environment that surrounds me, taking in the beauty of each unique place, from color palates to habitats.  I absorb it all and it seeps into my skin, creating a longing inside to express the emotion I feel from the beauty I’ve experienced.”

Manmade objects can also be inspiring.  Anne Bower, a jewelry designer based in London, said, “I’m inspired by the beautiful and interesting objects that I find on my travels around vintage fairs, Parisian markets, antique and curiosity shops and on the internet.”

In a similar way, New York artist, Jill Platner,  commented that her jewelry is inspired by organic and urban found objects.  “They all spin.  They move with the wind.  I am fascinated by movement, mechanics, and the way things go together.”

Sometimes artists struggle to be inspired, which, I’m sure, isn’t an easy thing to admit.  They must always be ready in case inspiration decides to strike.  Jennifer Welker of Houston, Texas revealed, ” I always keep a sketchpad with me.  Sometimes in the middle of the night I have an idea and I’ll start drawing things. . . I draw inspiration from our daily life, from our travels, and from architectural pieces.”

Jewelry design is a melding of engineering, the principles of design, and inspiration.  When you look next at a piece of jewelry, marvel a little at its design and remember that it started with a sketchpad and a bright idea.

colored pencils

Personalities at the Tucson Gem Show–Part 1: The A.G.T.A.

Tucson Gem Show 2015 at the A.G.T.A.

Tucson Gem Show 2015 at the A.G.T.A.

The Tucson Gem Show attracts interesting people.  People come from all over the world, and they have stories to tell.  But the individual shows also have personality.  This series will concentrate on three different shows–the A.G.T.A. (American Gem Trade Association); the G.J.X. (Gem and Jewelry Exchange); and the Pueblo Gem Show–and the stories I heard at each show.

The A.G.T.A. gets top billing at the Tucson Gem Show.  It takes up the Convention Center, the fanciest venue, during the peak days of the two-week show.  Its exhibitors must be members of the association, which has the highest ethical standards for full disclosure of any gem enhancement or origin.

It always feels calm and safe at the A.G.T.A.  Everyone’s there to make a living, but there’s enough mutual respect and integrity to keep an honest exchange.  It’s also very comfortable at the A.G.T.A.  Booths have more elbow room, the environment is cool and carpeted, and the restrooms are of the permanent variety.  At lunchtime, open doors lead outside to tables and chairs surrounded by food trucks offering wide variety.

The other shows know that you have to pre-register and meet the standards of A.G.T.A. before they’ll let you in the door.  So, if you have your A.G.T.A. badge, you’re usually guaranteed entry to any other show.  The A.G.T.A. deals only in wholesale, so the general public is not allowed.

Loose, cut gemstones are the specialty of the A.G.T.A.  Only a few, high-end jewelers show finished pieces.  The show also has booths set up for the top gemological schools and laboratories. There are educational seminars bringing in well-known speakers of the gem and jewelry industry.  The Smithsonian Institution shows off its new gemstones and jewelry.

So, what is the “personality” of the A.G.T.A. Tucson Gem Show?  It’s cool, cultured and full of integrity.  It might also be just a little bit snooty.  Everyone is well dressed at the A.G.T.A.  People drink lattes for breakfast and have salad for lunch.  There’s no one noisy or hot or grumpy at the A.G.T.A.

Maybe it’s this abundance of high class culture that draws me to the more down-to-earth vendors at the show.  One such woman who, along with her husband, owns turquoise mines in Nevada, told a great story about a piece of turquoise I bought for my mother.  It came from an area near the Ajax Mine, found in the Candelaria Mountains.  She told me that one day she and her husband were walking their property and stumbled upon some pieces of turquoise just lying like gravel.  They looked around and found a pick ax handle pounded into the ground nearby.  It looked old, and they determined that it was probably left by a miner back in the 1930s.  They think the miner saw what they saw and marked the place with the intention of returning.  But, for some unknown reason, he never did.

When they started mining, they found a vein of turquoise.  It’s called the Candelaria Pick Handle Mine.  I can’t wait to tell my mom this story.  And I’m so glad the owner took the time to tell me.  Jewelry is best when it comes with a story.  This one was like a good Western–rough and tough, with a little bit of mystery.  And what a far cry from the classy, sophisticated story of the A.G.T.A.  It was wonderful to experience both.

Next week’s story focuses on the G.J.X. show and a young stonecutter from Germany.

 

 

“L O V E” your jewelry

IMG_8149

       Ruby= R; Emerald = E; Garnet = G; Amethyst = A; Ruby = R; Diamond = D

                                             What does it all spell?  REGARD!

When it comes to creating jewelry that holds deep meaning and sentiment, the makers of the Victorian age were experts.  They had to be, because the rules of behavior dictated discretion.  Jewelry was a way to communicate love.  Pendants containing locks of loved-ones’ hair were popular.  Queen Victoria wore mourning jewelry for her late husband, Prince Albert, for over 30 years.

While I’m not advocating a revival of either of these sentimental declarations, I really like the idea of acrostic jewelry that was conceived in the early 1800s.  Acrostic jewelry works a little bit like the game, Scrabble.  The first letter of each gemstone can be used to form a word or name, and those gemstones can be placed in jewelry either in or out of order.  For example, you could take the word “A D O R E” and make a beautiful pendant with an Amethyst, Diamond, Opal, Ruby, and Emerald.  The word “B E L O V E D” looks wonderful  as a ring!

beloved

Sometimes the gemstones look better out of order because of their color.  Personally, I like the letters out of order.  It’s a little romantic secret between the giver and the receiver!

Giving an acrostic piece of jewelry takes some time and planning, which can be part of the fun and is definitely part of the meaning.  You wouldn’t go to the trouble for someone you just sort of like.  But the piece wouldn’t have to be extremely expensive.  Some letters have many alternatives, so if “Ruby” doesn’t fit the budget, perhaps “Rose quartz” or “Rhodolite garnet” would.  If you like opaque as well as transparent gems, you could even go with “Rhodocrosite.”

Once you start playing around with words, gemstones, and jewelry designs, it’s difficult to know when to stop.  One of my favorites was “C H E R I S H” with Chalcedony, Heliodor, Emerald, Ruby, Indicolite, Spinel, and Hessonite garnet. It would make a pretty and affordable ring.

Some words are more difficult.  If you really want to write “L O V E”, there is a way to get around the fact that no pretty gemstones start with “V.”  Although it has a different meaning today, the word Vermeil, signified a hessonite garnet to the Victorians.

Spend the time when buying fine jewelry.  These pieces should have a good story to journey with them.  Take a trip out to Dearborn Jewelers and let our designers help you create a special piece for your loved one.  Maybe the Victorians had it right with their sentimental, old-fashioned gooeyness. Old-fashioned doesn’t have to be out-of-fashion.