A Tribute to Bench Jewelers


Dear Reader,

I have spent a lot of time in the back rooms of jewelry stores and watched several bench jewelers at their trade. While I am a pretty good goldsmith, their skill level boggles my mind. I remember visiting my friend Dave. We spent a half hour telling stories and joking, all the while he was pave setting a diamond ring. After a particularly hearty laugh, he showed me the ring. The diamonds were set with such perfection, that light reflected evenly off every table in a row. To him, this was a casual activity that didn’t require special attention.

Bench jewelers mend the finest of chains, carve and cast original pieces and do it with great ease. However, their life is not all fun and games. I have heard horror stories about jewelry bought on TV. While rings test as solid gold, the shanks are sometimes hollow and melt through during otherwise routine prong replacements. I once saw an antique garnet ring brought in for a stone replacement. It tested as 14k, but one piece was plated. During polishing, the plating was removed and the jeweler had to remake the entire ring.

A friend once grieved over breaking a customer’s diamond. The stone had a knife edge and it chipped while setting. He knew the risk so I asked him why he did it. His reply was simple, “That’s my job.”

I have gained an immense respect for bench jewelers. They sit in the back rooms of jewelry stores creating and repairing our most treasured possessions and receive little credit for their efforts. This page is a tribute to these artisans.

If you have any comments or stories about bench jewelers, please send them to [email protected]. I will be glad to expand this page.

Sincerely, Donald Clark CSM IMG President International Gem Society

From Outsiders

Don:

I have just begun to learn metalsmithing/jewelry making and I must say that I had no idea how difficult this type of work can be. Not only is it eye straining, but it can be back breaking as well, from sitting hunched over the bench working on the fine details. BUT, when I finish a piece, the feeling is like no other. Just knowing that I have created something unique and beautiful that others will enjoy and treasure makes it worth all the effort. I think this is why the bench jewelers, (and stone cutters,) keep doing it.

Carol

Don,

I had a jeweler who was wonderful. She passed on suddenly a few years ago and I have not found anyone as accommodating as she was. I bought a coral bracelet in Hawaii that was set very flimsily but had wonderful stones. No one else would touch it for me, but she gave me several choices, set a beautiful new bracelet and made earrings to match out of two of the leftover stones.

Carol

Bench Jewelers and Opal Cutters

I agree with Don. Bench jewelers are a special breed of people. The type of people who are attracted to this tedious, eye straining job are often patient, good humored, creative folks who seem to be able to sit there in isolation sawing and filing away at a piece of work, often done for someone who is selling it to someone else.

If the end user likes the work, the accolades and expressions of amazement at its beauty and intricacy are often passed on the retail jeweler or the shop assistant. If that retailer does not express appreciation to the man or woman on the bench, there is little feedback at all. And things don’t go right all the time either. Even after slaving away at a job for a few hours, some unappreciative customer will complain about a detail that really means nothing.

Taking the above into consideration, I would like to include the gem cutters in with the jewelers. Maybe because I am an opal cutter and we often work in tandem with the manufacturers. It’s often a thankless job. Take the following as an example: John and Anita, (my manufacturers,) rang me up one day with an urgent request. A customer of a local retailer had broken an opal in an engagement ring. It was one of those free form stones which are difficult to replace and, because opals are all different anyway, this made it a really big problem. It was one of those jobs you try to avoid. However, in an effort to make the customer and the retailer happy, I went out of my way to search for a similar stone. Found it, recut if for them to the shape of the free form finding. John reset it, and everyone was happy.

The problem started when I found that the broken off cut, which was all but worthless, was missing from the bench. The customer, (understandably,) then asked for the original pieces back. We almost stripped the workshop but could not find them.

The jeweler then received a summons for nearly $1000 to replace the loss. We could have taken it to court and proved that it was worth about $10, but everyone knows that you don’t waste time in courts because the only ones who win are the solicitors. The jeweler looked at me, and said because I was the one who lost it, I would have to pay. Quite true. So I did.

Now the latest is that the lady has been wearing the ring in the garden, giving it a real bashing, has ruined the setting and is now asking for another replacement. And you know what we will do? Like the idiots we are, we will help her again.

Anita is such a lovely person. Easy to get along with, and very creative.
John is just the same. A brilliant jeweler. Spent time in the UK working for a firm who did work for the Queen of England. The following is one of his creations.

Peter @ Opalmine

Tales from the bench

Hi Don,

Thank you for acknowledging the discipline and artistry of the bench jeweler. Most of us work in anonymity. In this trade, you know you have done a good job when you don’t hear complaints. Rarely do you hear acknowledgment or compliments.

Like all of us, I repair a lot of jewelry in the course of a year. Some of it is high quality, much of it is low. But all of it has special value to the wearer. So you do your best in each case to restore a treasured item. A special treat for me is when a really high end piece comes in from antique dealer or museum. It is often a learning experience to see how a master craftsman has constructed the piece, and a challenge to make your repairs up to the same level of original manufacture.

More often I am brought a brooch or necklace that has been in the family for some time and is in need of repair. The proud owner often has no idea of what the piece is and hopelessly overvalues what they think are diamonds, emeralds or rubies. In most cases you quietly repair the piece and make the customer happy.

I particularly enjoyed Peter’s tale of opal repair, because I have been in exactly that same position myself. In the spirit of “can you top this”, I once did a custom ring for a gentleman who had brought back a free form black opal from Australia. He wanted to give the ring to his mother for Christmas. The ring was completed and delivered as promised and everyone seemed happy – until two days after Christmas.

I got a call from the customer, asking that I “repair” the ring. Had the setting come loose? Did something break? No. As the customer told it, he had presented the gift-wrapped ring to his mother Christmas morning. As she was opening the box, the ring fell into the garbage disposal of the kitchen sink which was running at the time. He was now in possession of a mangled chunk of gold, no opal, and no gift for Mom.

As much as I commiserated with the customer, there wasn’t anything to repair. All I could do was offer to create another ring with opal from my stock. The customer declined because of the irreplaceable emotional value of the opal he personally brought back from Australia.

I still wonder about who unwraps jewelry over the kitchen sink with the garbage disposal running.

Thanks John

Dear John,

Thank you for your email – I got a big laugh out of it.

You never know what you encounter when you deal with the public. I once had a lady come in my store with a 5 carat, heart shaped diamond that was heavily included. She wouldn’t let me take it in the back because she was afraid I would swap it with a lower quality stone. (How many 5 carat, heart shaped diamonds do you think I kept in stock?)

Sincerely, Don Clark

Don

My father was a partner in a manufacturing jewelry store that marketed a line of wedding bands nation wide back in the 60’s. He told us stories around the dinner table all the time about thieves, both on the customer side and the staff side. He also told stories of unusual pieces that came into the shop to get repaired and here in Newport Beach there are a lot of rather well off folks. But in the end, the only story that stands out in my personal experience is the following one.

A jeweler friend of ours in Blue Jay, California had a customer bring in a ring set with a faceted jelly opal. Obviously, the opal was badly abraded and needed to be replaced. The catch was that the jeweler couldn’t find a suitable replacement stone. As the original stone had a very high crown recutting was possible. We were up for the weekend at a friends cabin and stopped in to see our friend the jeweler. He asked if we’d recut the stone and Dad thought it would be a good job for me to do as I’d become good at cutting. Dad figured it would be good experience as opal is very soft and polishing it can be tricky. So, for the then princely sum of $20 I was going to recut the crown and reset the stone.

The ring was 14K yellow gold with a simple 6 prong head and a couple of gold leaves on each side coming from the band up and fanning out on either side of the head. The unmounting went fine, didn’t even need to retip any of the prongs. Cutting the opal went very smoothly and the stone looked good when done.

Now a bit of background. My Dad was originally a tool and die maker from Cincinnati. He made his own jewelry bench and his own faceting machine incorporated into that bench. We use the larger 8″ diameter laps and have the capacity to cut large stones. Now back to the story.Work Bench

When polishing a stone you have to wipe the facet clean to see how it’s progressing. We cut a toilet paper roll in half and use pieces to wipe the facet clean. Then we toss them over on the side and continue on polishing. When we’re done we gather up the small pile of toilet paper bits and throw them in the trash, clean up the lap catch tray and put the faceting post and head away and get back to jewelry making. I’d finished recutting the stone late in the evening, cleaned up the toilet paper and put everything away.

A few days later, on the weekend, I grabbed a cup of coffee and went in to polish the ring and reset the stone. One problem, the ring was nowhere to be found! We looked for the ring everywhere for about 2 days without finding it. We can only guess what happened. The ring was laying on the bench near where the expended toilet tissue pile was a few days earlier and a prong must have caught on some tissue. When I cleaned up late at night it must have gone in the trash with the used tissue. Of course we dump the trash and the trash had been collected between the time I recut the stone and found the ring missing.

So, what to do? We called our jeweler friend and after some discussion decided the best course of action was to remake the ring as close as we could remember. If the customer was happy, nothing would be said. If they noticed a difference we’d fess up and do whatever it took. So, a new shank and crown were easily obtainable. We didn’t know what size the ring had been and called the jeweler to see if he’d recorded it on the take-in envelope. He hadn’t so we decided to leave it just as it had come from the finding supplier, size 7. Now on to those four leaves. We looked everywhere, but nothing in the right size and design. In the end we had to make four of them by hand, sawing them out of sheet stock, chasing the design in and finally soldering the leaf to a wire “stem” and then onto the ring shank. This took a couple of weeks. The ring was beautiful when done, but would it pass the test?

By the time we mailed it back to the jewelry store and the Customer came in to pick it up, a month and a half had gone by. The jeweler showed the ring to the customer and held his breath. The customer took one look at it and exclaimed “IT LOOKS BRAND NEW”! She slipped it on her finger and admired it for some time; oohs and aahs and all that stuff that normal folks do when they see a ring all polished up after several years of wear. Then she said, “I guess the new diet I’m on is working because this ring used to be really tight before, now it feels just right”!

The customer paid for her ring and left totally satisfied. I learned a few valuable lessons. First, never leave bits and pieces laying around on the bench. It’s a bit of a hassle getting them in and out of envelopes and ziplock bags, but you don’t throw things like that way. Second, I’m lucky to have someone as talented as Dad there backing me up. Third, when you have someone elses goods in your possession, your totally responsible for them. That $ 20 recutting fee went up in smoke and it ended up costing me about $25 additional to pay for the findings, to say nothing of the hours spent in remaking the leaves and ring. Fourth, repair work is a minefield, which is why I politely refuse most requests by saying “I only repair my own creations,” and then refer them to a local jeweler.

Kindest Regards, Howard

Hi Don,

I currently work for a large jewelry chain as a repair jeweler. I’ve been on the bench for over 30 years working for an independent jeweler, (14 years,) running my own independent repair shop, (10 years,) and working for the large corporation, (7 years.) Here are the basic differences from MY point of view:

Independent Jeweler: Upside – You have much less stress and more time for quality work. The independents I worked for stressed quality, which I liked. Downside – The pay and benefits were too low (or non-existent).

Running an Independent Repair Shop: Upside – You set your own hours. You are your own boss. Downside – Your boss is a slave-driver! You always have to troll for new accounts (especially when one of your accounts leaves). Taxes and hospitalization insurance are onerous. Very irregular payments. Some clients were up to three months behind in there invoice payments.

Working for a Large Corporation: Upside – Regular paychecks. Benefits are very good, (including the occasional bonus trip to Hawaii or a week long Carribean cruise). Downside – The corporation stresses quality and on-time delivery but the workload is so heavy that quality is difficult to maintain. They also stress profits to the max. If I ran the show I would hire more repair people and stress quality first. Repair profits would be secondary. My thinking being that if every job is done well you’ll have many happier return customers. Long hours. The quality of some of the lower-end jewelry is abysmal. Unfortunately, even some of the more expensive stuff is as well, such as a $2000 Gents 3 stone ring that is hollow almost to the bottom of the shank! There are many rings we won’t even put into the ultrasonic cleaner because, even after we’ve checked and double-checked the stones for tightness, they still come out.

I could probably write a book about this but you get the broad picture.

Bill

Dear Don,

I would also like to thank you very much for the Internet tribute to bench jewelers. It is truly nice to be acknowledged as a brotherhood of hard working people who do what we do in spite of the endless hours of seemingly at times unappreciated effort, because we were probably born to do it and for whatever other reasons, love doing it.

After 28 years at the bench I could tell a million stories of unexpected nightmare situations, frantic “all nighters” and last minute miracles to meet deadlines for employers, risk taking successes and failures, going out of your way favors that backfired, hilarious practical jokes, and how to maintain a good sense of humor through all of the gut wrenching stress and pressure.

Dealing with the public can be very frustrating at times as well as comical. As John remarked in another response, usually you know you’ve done a good job when you don’t hear any complaints. Ironically however, very early in my career, I once did a routine head change out, repositioning and resetting of a major diamond job for a lady who had been “nit-picking” things on her ring, and then accused first by her and then by my employer of not acually doing the work because no one could see any tell-tale signs of bad workmanship. Being the natural born perfectionist that I am, I could only chuckle to myself at the time and decided to make the situation a confidence boosting compliment instead of an insulting insinuation.

As we strive to become good at our trade we learn our lessons, usually the hard way, and if we make it through the war as accomplished veterans, we are simply rewarded by knowing that we at least found success in life doing something that we naturally enjoyed doing. For most, that is reward enough. Greeting the happy face of the person pleased with your work is normally not part of the job, but if you are really lucky as I have been, the accolades for your talent don’t always go to someone else.

Although I have been publicly honored for award winning pieces done for customers, my most gratifying moment came quietly a few years ago in a beautiful card sent to my home by a woman whom I had unknowingly done some work for where I had been employed at the time. She went out of her way to personally thank me. In the card was a famous quote by award winning ecologist, scientist, and writer Rachel Carsen. “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts”. And in one small sentence of gratitude she helped to define for me a purpose for all those years of hard work.

She wrote, “Dear Mr Davis, Thank you for doing such a beautiful job helping me in preserving my memories. Sincerely yours, Dari Burr.” Moral of the story? Even if you are never as lucky as to be humbled with awards, or personally thanked, or see a grateful happy face in your bench jeweler career and think that you are unappreciated, don’t be so sure. Your life’s work is probably more meaningful then you will ever know.

Stanley Davis

Many years ago, as an apprentice, I remember a customer that we made a special ring. It was an unusual ring, dome style with 18 bezel set baguettes and 3 carat center diamond. The thing that was different was that the dome part of the ring was made in steel from a crank shaft nut that was found at a auto wrecking yard. The nut was filed into the shape of a dome ring and then blued at a gun shop. We went to a lot of extra time and trouble to bring every thing together on this one. The job was done to the highest level of perfection. When shown to the customer, for some reason she seemed to think that the center stone was crooked. The stone was straight. We could not convince her. So the master said to me, “Never do what I am about to do.”

He then proceeded to take a large pair of pliers and gripped the bezel set center stone and gave it a twist. Then he retightened all the stones and gave it to the customer in less than a half hour. Amazingly no stones broke. It was a 50/50 shot, but it worked and the customer was happy.

Jewelers are so dedicated to their work. Just recently a excellent one passed away. She was the very rare kind who had the right combination of being blessed with artistic design sense and a good sense of business. She was lucky to be trained by a master with exceptional skill. She won design awards and worked for top firms before opening a store of her own. She was able to purchase the building and the real estate sky rocketed in value. She surrounded herself with good people and was making all hand made pieces for the elite.

Unfortunately she became ill with cancer. She worked at the bench until she physically and mentally could not anymore. One of the last things we did was to take her to a exhibit on French jewelry. A short time later she passed away.

There is so much that needs to be said about bench jewelers because they do work in secret . Like you said they rarely get any credit, even from their own kind who are often their competition; or their retail account who views them as lower class; or a designer who views the craftsman as an extension of himself, a pair of hands to make his ideas. Some work is so skilled that you have to put more time in than if you were studying to be a doctor, but do we get paid like a doctor? If anything we are having to compete with cheap labor over seas, or cad cam castings. Can you tell me where you can find a store where all of the stock was made by the owner or by craftsman working for him?

Eric Larson