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How Laser Welders Are Impacting Jewelry Manufacture And Repair in The 21st Century

Light Years

by Suzanne Wade - © MJSA Journal
Zap!
With a flash of light, Mike Calcote of Hallmark Jewelers in Lafayette, Louisiana, repairs tennis bracelet links without removing the stones or running the risk of solder flowing into the hinge and destroying its mobility.

Hagop Matossian, owner of Bostonian Jewelers and Manufacturers Inc., formerly Hagop Settings, in Boston, repairs an antique enameled pin without damaging the enamel or leaving visible signs of the restoration work.

And Robert Aletto, owner of jewelry manufacturer Aletto & Co. in Boca Raton, Florida, attaches earring clips in one step instead of the two necessary when soldering, making his line of 14k and 18k gold jewelry more profitable.

The one tool that allows each of these jewelers to do their jobs better is a laser welder, a technological advancement that is becoming increasingly common in trade shops and manufacturing facilities. By using a sharply focused beam of light to produce very high heat in a small area, lasers are allowing jewelers to routinely accomplish tasks that would once have been either impossible or too time consuming to be worthwhile.

"It's like performing microscopic surgery on jewelry," says Matossian. "We can work very close to heat-sensitive stones without damaging them. Because you're working under a microscope and because you're able to adjust the laser beam from two-tenths of a millimeter up to two millimeters in diameter, you can keep complete control of where you're firing the laser. We can work as close as half a millimeter away from heat-sensitive stones."

With this ability, repairs that once required multiple steps-disassembling a piece, unsetting the stones, completing the repair, then re-setting the stones-can now be completed in a single step. For example, says Calcote, emerald cluster rings can be repaired in about five minutes, as opposed to the hours it can take to remove and re-set the stones.

That time savings translates into higher productivity and a more profitable workshop. "It saves money when I don't have to pull stones. I don't have to worry about breaking stones, and I don't risk frying stones," says Richard Thurber, president of Artisans Designs in Portland, Oregon. "[Torch repairs] have a lot of steps to them, but with the laser you can just weld it all, and it goes a lot quicker."

The laser's concentrated heat also facilitates delicate repairs without risking further damage to fragile antique jewelry. "You can repair missing bridgework in antique filigree pieces without solder," says Calcote. "With a torch, you just can't do a nice job [with this type of repair]."

For valuable antique jewelry, that ability can make a tremendous difference in the piece's value. "Once you remove the stones from a piece of jewelry, you're totally ruining the integrity of that piece," says Matossian. "No matter how good you are, you're never going to get it back together as it was before you started. With the laser welder, you're keeping the integrity of the piece by not removing heat-sensitive stones, and you're able to keep the patina, the look that an old piece of jewelry has. That patina tells a story, and when you're trying to repair or restore that piece with a conventional torch, you lose it. The piece of jewelry gets oxidized, the colors change, [and] you need to polish the piece. So now a piece that's 200 years old looks like a new piece."

Not only can lasers help maintain the look of antique jewelry in need of repair, but also that of newer designs. Chuck Leigh owner of Leigh's Jewelry in Montgomery, Alabama, finds that the laser is ideal for repairing mesh bracelets. "You'll have wire poking up, and with the laser you just poke it back and zap it quickly," he says. "You don't lose the intricacy of the design, which you would if you had solder flowing through [the mesh]." But it's not just in jewelry repair that lasers are proving invaluable. Jewelers are discovering that laser welders can save time and money in jewelry manufacture.

"With the accuracy of the laser, we can do very complicated pieces and diamond intensive pieces, and be able to assemble them after the diamonds are set," says Jonathan Suna of Suna Brothers in New York City. "You're also able to polish the pieces properly [as individual components] before assembly, which creates a better finished item. You can [assemble] with a torch, but we find it's very quick and very easy [with the laser]."

In addition to aiding in assembly, laser welders can also repair defects. Aletto has found that one of the best advantages of the laser welder is its ability to remove all traces of porosity. "I've got some of the best equipment you can get, and I follow proper [casting] procedures, but no matter how hard you try, sometimes you get some sort of porosity," he says. "If the porosity holes come out later [in the fabrication process], and you need to repair a piece with stones like ametrine or citrine, you're going to have to cover the stone or take it out of the setting, subjecting it to the possibility of breaking. With the laser, in milliseconds you can fuse the hole and you're done."

For jewelry designer Steven Kretchmer of Palenville, New York, the laser welder helps to quickly and easily repair minor defects in his patented tension-set rings. "If I have to weld with a plasma arc welder to repair a defect in a heat-treated ring, I have to completely re-heat-treat the ring through multiple heat treatments, re-finish it, re-set the stone, and then who knows-maybe I'd come across another defect," says Kretchmer. Because the laser welder heats only the target area, it can make the same repair without undoing the effects of the heat treatment the ring has already undergone.

In addition, using the laser welder saves Kretchmer time. "With the laser welder, that ring will go out the same day instead of two days later," he says.

 

Laser owners are continuously discovering new uses for their welders that save them time, money, and toil. Here are just some of the specific ways jewelers have put their laser welders to use:

Re-tipping. Jewelers have long re-tipped gold prongs near diamonds without removing the diamonds from their settings. This technique can be chancy with platinum prongs and impossible with heat sensitive stones such as emerald and opal. The laser's concentrated heat, however, makes it possible to use this technique with almost any setting.

"There's a fine line between where platinum melts and the maximum temperature a diamond can take," says Matossian. "With a torch, you can easily go over that line just enough to frost up that diamond. [With a torch], the only way to build up was to melt solder to build up the prong, or to add a piece of platinum using lower temperature solder to bond the joints. With the laser welder, I can actually melt [platinum] right onto that prong and create prongs that look just like the day the ring was made, even though it might be 80 or 100 years old."

Repairing costume jewelry. Leigh notes that with his laser, he can repair CZ-mounted vermeil bracelets-a task he would never have undertaken before because of the amount of time involved. "With a torch repair, you'd have to re-set the stones," he says. "But with the laser, you can do it with the stones in place because it doesn't transfer enough heat to the metal to damage the stones."

"I used to discourage people with sterling silver and CZ pieces that broke from doing [repair] work. By the time you unset the stones, re-polished, [and] re-plated, it got to be expensive. With the laser, you can easily do the repair, you don't end up having to re-plate the piece, and you don't have to unset and re-set the stones-and it gives you a neat and clean repair."

Calcote, too, has found the laser to be an indispensable repair tool, adding that he hasn't come across a piece of jewelry that he can't repair with a laser welder. He's even used the laser to flow lead solder into a costume jewelry piece by turning the power of the beam down and using the widest beam available. That ability has enabled him to repair costume pieces with glass stones that a torch would overheat and destroy.

Repairing stainless steel. "One thing we just couldn't do well before [laser welders] is [repair] watches with deployment buckles, where the rivet holding the strap piece on has come off. Most are stainless steel, and stainless steel is difficult at best to solder," says Leigh. "Now we can put the rivet back in and just use the laser to tack rivet on both sides."

Matossian has found that he can repair stainless steel watch bands that once would have needed to be replaced. "In the past, when we had links that separated, we had to call the manufacturer and order a whole new bracelet," says Matossian. "Now we're able to weld components like that back together."

Creating made-to-order pieces. For Kretchmer, the laser is the key tool that permits him to cost-effectively make pieces to order. "I make pieces that could be either a pendant or a brooch, and I show them at shows without the findings on them," he says. "Then I ask [the customer], 'Do you want a pendant or a brooch?' And I can go home and weld on the findings without affecting the finish, leaving the stones in place."

Tacking components before assembly. Even when traditional soldering is the best way to join two pieces-when you have a complex piece that requires deep welds, for instance-laser welders can make the task significantly easier. "We've all dreamed of being able to hold something in your hand while you solder it instead of having to use binding wire or jigs or tweezers," says Kretchmer. "The laser allows you to tack things in place before you bring [the piece] back to the charcoal block and flow solder, so it reduces the need for binding wire and jigs."

For example, says Leigh, the laser makes it much easier to assemble rings with multiple heads. "These are hard to assemble because there are a number of closely associated solder joints, and if you solder the piece, sometimes the solder slips," says Leigh. "The laser is nice because you can hold the pieces [in your hand], line up [the heads], and then tack them."

Fixing mistakes. "If a prong breaks when you're setting a stone, it's not a problem-you can just zap it with the laser," says Calcote. He also relies on the laser to rebuild castings that have not completely filled, using it to add metal wherever the fill was incomplete. "Before you'd have to just start over, right down to carving the wax," Calcote observes. "This allows us to save pieces that just weren't feasible to save before."

Rebuilding parts. "It's almost like using a wax pen," says Calcote. "You can melt the metal and move it around, building up just like you would with a wax pen." One piece that Calcote has used this method on is a cluster ring on which half of one of the heads was missing. "With the torch it would have been almost impossible because the spaces would have been filled with solder," he says. With the laser, however, he was able to rebuild the head-without unsetting the stones-out of matching metal.

Removing broken drill bits. "Sometimes you'll break the drill off in the piece, and it's hard to get the drill out without a major problem," says Leigh. He simply turns the beam width of his laser down, turns the power up, and vaporizes any remaining pieces of carbide drill bit in the piece.

Breaking out small diamonds. "Contrary to popular belief, lasers will damage diamonds," observes Kretchmer, who takes advantage of the laser's ability to shatter diamond to remove tiny stones from deep flush settings. "We just blow them up with the laser beam. I hate destroying little diamonds, but it saves the metal work, and then I can do what I have to do and put in a new little diamond."

With so many different uses, it's not surprising that laser welders have become treasured tools in jewelry workshops. "We questioned whether we would need [a laser welder], but it has far surpassed our expectations," says Calcote. "I'd have to say we wouldn't' want to have to be without it [now]." Leigh agrees, noting that he hesitated initially about making the investment. "When we started looking [at lasers], they sounded kind of nifty…but I was apprehensive because of the cost. But once we had it installed, we found it does great things."

With prices starting around $25,000, lasers are still a major investment for most shops. But those who have taken the plunge usually say it's been worth every penny.

"It's right up there with canned beer and sliced bread," says Leigh. "I absolutely would not want to be without it."


MJSA Journal Originaly published at MJSA's award-winning flagship publication, MJSA Journal.

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