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:
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.
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!
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!!
A large polished piece of Greenstone
In late September I was in Swede’s, the famous light blue jewelry and rock store in the middle of Copper Harbor, Michigan. The feisty woman in charge, 83-year-old Mary Billings, asked me as I walked in–“What is the gemstone of Michigan?”
When I answered, “Isle Royale Greenstone,” she looked at me with new respect.
“You’re only the thirteenth customer this season who has answered that question correctly. And we’ve had a lot of people who’ve walked through that door.” She shook her head, a little disgusted that Michiganders weren’t commonly aware of their state gemstone.
Most people, if they have any idea at all, would probably say Petoskey is the state’s gem. And it IS the state rock. But Isle Royale Greenstone, or just Greenstone, has been Michigan’s official gem since 1973. Found mainly on Isle Royale or the Keweenaw Peninsula, Greenstone has the fancy, scientific name of Chlorastrolite, which is a variety of the mineral Pumpellyite. It’s often found in and around copper mines, which are abundant in the Keweenaw. The mineral makes its home in amygdaloidal basalt. If you’re like me, that phrase holds no meaning. I had to look it up, so I’m happy to share its meaning. Basically it’s a pit or cavity in the stone. So amygdaloidal basalt is cooled and hardened lava with lots of cavities in it that have been filled in with minerals.
Once the Greenstone is removed from its host rock, it can be cut and polished. But it’s a tricky stone to work with because it’s not really hard–only a 5-6 on the Mohs’ Scale– and it can have its own cavities and hollow spots within it. Cutters want to expose the best “turtle-back” pattern that they can and eliminate any bad spots. But removing a top layer of the stone is likely to reveal a different, and not necessarily better pattern. The goal is a clear pattern showing some chatoyancy. The best stones will demonstrate that change in luster as they are tilted back and forth in the light.
Tumbled Greenstone with pink Thomsonite
Greenstone is not a particularly expensive gemstone to buy. Even with the labor involved in finding, mining, and cutting it, there’s just not a huge market for the material. But it isn’t an easy gem to own. Since the year 2000, it’s been illegal to take Isle Royale Greenstone off the island. The island is, after all, a national park. And even Keweenaw Greenstone isn’t easy to get unless you have access to the copper mine areas. Most jewelry stores, even in Michigan, don’t carry Greenstone. So plan on spending some time searching for your perfect piece of Michigan’s gemstone. Whether you spend time looking along the shoreline for a rare small piece of it, or whether you search for jewelry stores that carry the gem, enjoy the journey.
My piece of Keweenaw Greenstone! I love it!!
Paraiba tourmalines photographed from the GIA Collection for the CIBJO project from the Dr. Eduard J. Gubelin Collection.
This blog is the first of a series on gemstone treatments. The truth is, all gemstones have been modified by man. We’d like to think that a gemstone’s beauty is completely natural, but the reality is man plays a part. Cutting and polishing bring out the sparkle and color. Shaping and setting is all done by man. So a gemstone’s beauty can be attributed to both man and nature. Each consumer must decide what level of man’s contribution is acceptable. Everyone sees that man must be involved to some degree, but opinions vary on enhancements such as irradiation, dyeing, or fracture-filling. Is there a point where man’s contribution to a gemstone’s beauty goes over the fine line, when the stone just doesn’t seem natural anymore?
Another fine line is the one jewelers walk everyday when conversing with customers about gemstones. There are laws and guidelines, set by the government and the AGTA (American Gem Trade Association), for disclosure of gemstone treatments. But jewelers adhering to those guidelines also have to make sales in order to stay in business. Some customers are truly interested in learning about how gemstones arrive at their beautiful state. But many would be bored by a lesson in gemstone treatments and might walk away from a sales representative who insisted on giving all the details. Certainly anyone who sells jewelry should honestly answer customer questions about gemstone enhancements or treatments. We want our customers to understand as much as they’d like to understand about gemstone treatments. We want them to understand that, if treatments didn’t exist, most of us would be unable to afford pretty gemstones.
So that’s what the series will be about. It will give you an overview of some of the main treatments on some of the most common gemstones in the market. The series will also discuss some gemstones that are not treated–ONLY cut, polished, and set. If you find this fascinating, I will include some sources for learning more. And remember, if you want to know more about the gemstone you’re buying, just ask.