I remember when I started learning about jewelry making and jewelry repair, how I thought…”Can I make a career out of this?”. The quick and simple answer is yes. However, there are things you should know, because a trade like this requires knowledge, training and patience.
These days, not many younger people want to learn skilled trades. Trades like watchmaking and jewelry making are losing many of the people who worked in these industries at a rate faster then is being introduced back into the labor pool. This means that for those of you younger people looking for a skilled trade, these would be good options, because they will command more income in the future.
Lets spend a bit of time explaining what a bench jeweler does, and the skills he or she must acquire.
First, you must master a torch. Yes, that flame that comes out of the end must be a skill you can use on a daily basis, and with expertise. For me, this was my biggest hurdle, mostly because as a child, I was afraid of fire, having our home burn down, and once burning myself pretty badly.
In my course work, we will cover using a torch. However, it is important that you practice your skills with this tool as you need it for so many jewelry repairs and manufacturing of pieces for customers.
You’ll need to learn the temperatures at which gold, silver and platinum melt, and learn not to get the metals to those temperatures, heating them as close as possible but never exceeding them. You also have to know how to use the gold, silver and platinum solder. Solders melt at a lower degree then their matched metals, and the sweet spot for melting the solder and not the metal is of course in the middle.
The next most important thing you’ll have to learn is how to work with the metals themselves. Bending, shaping, and forming them into items of beauty. This isn’t difficult, and I find it rather easy, especially because it is one of the things I do on a daily basis. Working with the metals will be part of almost all the other processes and skills you’ll learn.
Aquiring and learning to use a large variety of tools, from pliers, hammers, mandrels, and specialty tools. Each of these has its particular purpose in the jewelry repair and making world. At some point, after you have worked in this trade, like others, you will begin to make your own tools like I have, and so many others. Making tools to do specific tasks faster and easily is a skill we all aquire as we progress.
One of the tools you will use on a daily basis is called a Flex-shaft machine. It is like a drill, with a long hose, and a foot switch. You learn how to use it, along with the bits and burs used to cut, drill, poke and polish jewelry. This is an easy tool to master, and very easy to maintain.
As per your tools, I suggest that if you are serious about this trade, that you invest in very good tools. The reason being is that the best tools I’ve purchased over the years have lasted longer and work the best for me. I sometimes get a new tool, and it turns out to be cheaply made, and doesn’t last long. Tools are money, more spent up front, means more saved in the long run. Trust me on this, I have the experience.
Once you master your tools, you’ll have to move into gemstones and diamond setting. This is a big one. The skill needed to set stones comes from ‘practice’, and lots of it.
I’ve designed my course to spend a good amount of time here with stone setting. The reason being is that you’ll learn about the shapes, sizes and hardness of these stones, and how to set them without doing damage. Every bench jeweler I’ve ever met has a horror story about trying to set a stone, and cracking it, then having to replace it.
Stone setting is difficult. The stones have to be set in rows, straight, and tightly in place. It will take a lot of time at first to learn this skill, and once you have, you’ll move rather quickly for the most part. Be patient and work through every piece slowly and methodically.
There ar dozens of setting types, and each of them has their own requirements.
Repairs are a fundimental part of the jewelry industry. Just like anything, nothing stays perfect for ever, and things have to be fixed.
On a daily basis, I find that people bring in broken chains, diamond rings with missing stones, rings that need to be sized, earrings that have broken or become damaged, prong tips that have warn out, etc.
These repairs are the bread and butter of my income. They keep the lights on, and make it possible for me to work on things like custom work. Something we’ll cover later.
To give you an example of a common repair, lets say a customer comes in with a broken clasp on a chain. I’ll sit with the customer, find a replacement clasp, and review pricing. Once we’re ready to do the repair, I have to clean the chain, prep the clasp and get the torch ready. On the end of the clasp is a small ring, this is called a Jump Ring. It has a cut on it, so that it can be attached to a chain. that cut has to be soldered closed.
Once I’ve attached the jump ring to the clasp and the chain, I clean it again, and use a bit of acid, or jewelers flux to allow a small amount of solder to flow into the crack of the jump ring. Using the torch, I will heat up just the jump ring, and allow the solder to flow into the crack, quickly removing the heat from the piece and allowing it to cool down. The entire chain is dipped into a jewelers pickle solution (acid) to remove the blackening or fire scale from the peice, then it has to be polished and cleaned.
Sounds like a lot of work, and it is at first, but once you do this every day, it becomes second nature.
There are many more skills you need to know, and most o these you’ll learn through doing. It is the best way, and allows you to build the best in confidence in your abilities.
Now, you’ve learned about jewelry making, jewelry repair, and even maybe some custom work… Can you make a career out of these skills? Yes, and you will always have these skills.
I spent a year learning. Once I was done with the common and intermediate skills, performing them daily and building up my own confidence, I moved out on my own.
You don’t have to do that. Working for a jewelry store as a bench jeweler can earn a good amount of money. A skilled and productive bench jeweler can earn up to $70k per year working for someone and dedicating their skills to excellence.
If you’re like me, I decided to take it a step further by opening up my own shop. Giving me the means to work with my own customers, and make even more money. There are trade offs to both options, but I myself working alone could bring in as much as 250k per year. As a business owner, however, there are many expenses deducted from that figure, but for me, the freedom was worth it.
If you are here in the US, then you should know that each part of the country has different needs for the jewelry industry. There are parts of the country where jewelry is purchased and enjoyed all the time. In other parts of the country, especially with specific demographics, jewelry is not as prevalent and therefor the needs of bench jewelers are not in demand and command less in income. these things are important to consider as with any skilled trade someone wishes to learn.
With all this said, (or written), I must confess that I enjoy my skills and my ability to share what I’ve learned over time. I enjoy working with my customers to build a personal relationship with them for the items they cherish, and my customer’s respect me as much as I respect them.
Having the ability to take a $30,000 diamond ring, and repair the ring making it look new again is very rewarding. Scary at first, but rewarding non the less.
Is this for everyone? No, however if you feel as though it is something you are passionate about, then give it a try. Creating, repairing jewelry has introduced me to some of the best people in the world, and I’ve made life long friends by having a skill that lasts a lifetime.
A Career in the jewelry industry is fun, exciting and always changing. Styles, fashions, people never stop impressing me with their desires and skills.
A rewarding career in this field is uplifting and you’ll also never stop learning, and we in the industry continue to innovate every day!