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!