by: James Wilkey, sourced from AWS Learning
When you’re shopping for an anniversary bracelet, or a broach for a special occasion, the last thing you probably think of is welding (unless you’re thinking of how much welding you’ll have to do to pay for each stunning piece!). Yet, jewelers and welders have more in common than you might realize. After all, both professions use heat to bend and join metals. This similarity hasn’t gone unnoticed for many jewelers. In fact, laser welding is quickly becoming a staple for jewelry repair and design due to its precise heat transfer. This trend is reflected in today’s classrooms, where teachers are turning to laser welding techniques and equipment to better prepare the next generation of jewelry craftsmen.
As an instructor of Manufacturing Arts at the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) in California, John Fisher emphasizes the importance of welding. Fisher is a fifteen-year jewelry veteran with a considerable background in laser technology. In fact, he witnessed laser’s inception, popularity, and universal acceptance within the jewelry industry. Fisher now insists that laser welding is an essential skill that new jewelers and gemologists must master to succeed. Fisher’s curriculum reflects this ideology. Over the past two years, Fisher says he has reworked his curriculum to make welding the very center of his training class. His curriculum now includes laser welding and gas metal arc welding (GMAW) to help his students improve their jewelry repair and design skills.
Fisher uses GMAW techniques to teach his students how to work with lasers. For example, Fisher requires for his students to produce the “stack of dimes” effect on their jewelry welds. Fisher also uses the GMAW process to teach his students how to work with the argon shielding gas that is typically used for laser welding jewelry. Fisher admits that his students find the process of using lasers difficult at first. After all, they’re using microscopes to create incredibly tiny welds. However, Fisher states that his students catch on quickly because he makes videos of repairs and demonstrations, which he then allows his students to watch as often as they need.
Teaching future jewelers the art of welding is crucial for their success in the industry. “What used to be a novelty has now become a necessity to jewelry retailers and manufacturers that want to stay profitable and do their own repairs and fabrications in house,” said Gail Farias, Communications Director for LaserStar Technologies Corp. Like Fisher, Farias has noticed a major growth in jewelers’ interest in laser welding machines within the last few years. “The technology has gotten better and the size has gotten smaller. Also, the price has dropped drastically. Ten to twelve years ago, laser welding systems started at $40,000. Now, the same model with more power starts at $16,000.” The reduced price of welding machines has made them a more attractive option for jewelry makers than traditional jewelry torches.
And the price isn’t the only thing that’s encouraging jewelers to make the switch to laser welding. Many jewelers prefer laser welding equipment because it provides a precise, localized pinpoint of heat that greatly reduces the risk of damage to the jewelry. This localized heat is very important because stones are incredibly sensitive to heat. Even performing minor repairs to the metal surrounding the stone can cause it to lose its beauty due to over exposure to high temperatures. The precise heat offered by laser welding machines make it much easier to complete thorough repairs to jewelry without removing detailed pieces that decorate an item’s basic structure. Because a large portion of a jeweler’s day is spent repairing jewelry, Fisher describes this feature as “hands down the best part of the technology.” While laser welding isn’t a replacement for more traditional jeweler methods like soldering and fusing with a torch, modern jewelers are using it for repair applications to save time and cost.
The freedom and precision that lasers give jewelers has also led to a generation of jewelry designers capable of working without many of the constraints faced by their predecessors. As a result, lasers aren’t just a practical tool; they’re also helping shape new and more breathtaking jewelry designs. To learn more about laser welding in the jewelry industry, check out “Shining Laser Light on Jewelry Design” by Annik Babinski in the March 2016 issue of the Welding Journal, free with your AWS membership.