Gemma Church finds jewellers are turning to lasers for repairing and engraving precious metals
Jewellers will always rely on traditional techniques for working with precious metals, but with lower system costs and numerous other advantages the laser is becoming a popular tool to weld and engrave jewellery. What’s more, lasers are now installed in various university art schools for silversmith and other jewellery design courses.
House of Hatton, a London-based walk-in jewellery repair centre, uses a range of Coherent-Rofin laser welding and engraving tools in its work. The ability to repair an item of jewellery quickly, in house, and with minimal cost is particularly important for such repair work, according to Tony Dellow, a jewellery repair specialist at House of Hatton.
Dellow said that there would be many steps to repairing an earring with a broken stem, for instance, using conventional methods, some of which could damage the item. ‘Traditional soldering requires heat, which can cause discolouration or damage the stones in the earring,’ he said. ‘But using a laser for such simple repairs means you can fix the joint quickly and in one step – saving time, money and reducing the risk of further damage to the piece.’
Furthermore, antique items can be difficult to solder traditionally, but a laser gives higher magnification, allowing the jeweller to fix pieces that may otherwise be put away for good, Dellow said. ‘Lasers keep these pieces in circulation.’
Chris Ogden, business development manager of the industrial lasers group at Laser Lines, explained the advantages of using a laser: ‘Laser welding delivers high amounts of energy in very short pulses, so thermal input is reduced, which minimises discolouration and distortion.
‘The small spot sizes that can now be achieved allow very fine, almost invisible, welding to be produced and, with our systems, the powered movement options enable you to produce perfect spacing between pulses and perfect straight line welding where small seams are required,’ he added. ‘Being able to produce such neat work means limited finishing is required on even the most intricate designs.’
Pomellato is a high-end jewellery company that predominantly uses gold as the raw material for its work. It uses a range of Sisma laser machines in the UV range for welding and engraving, head of production and planning at Pomellato, noted that the laser is able to engrave details on parts that are mechanically fragile, for instance, which other casting or mechanical printing techniques wouldn’t be able to do.
Dellow added: ‘You can even produce micro-sized engravings that are invisible to the naked eye using lasers.’
An 18ct yellow, red and white, green gold, platinum, palladium, 24ct gold and silver lenticular brooch by Andrew Lamb (Credit: Graham Clark)
Laser cutting, engraving and welding services firm Lovato Laser has four fibre laser machines of different powers for cutting and engraving, two laser cutting machines and one laser welding machine, all supplied by Sisma. Alessandro Lovato, owner at Lovato Laser, said: ‘With laser machines we engrave logos, trademarks and titles. The laser cutting replaces the work previously done with the trances, saving on mould costs and minimising production time. Starting from the technical drawing, in less than an hour you can get the model, with a possibility to modify the drawings quickly and without additional costs.’
Laser tools give greater precision and speed, but these do not negate the skills of the jeweller, but can free them. Lovato added: ‘From the point of view of my father, a co-owner at Lovato Laser and an ex-goldsmith with 30 years of experience, these laser-based tools could appear as something that takes away the importance of artisan manual working. Instead, with the technology you can get the same workings faster and more precisely, reducing time and effort, giving space to creativity and imagination.’
Platinum is a natural fit for laser welding techniques too, because of its low heat conductivity compared to other precious metals such as gold and silver. A novel laser welding technique using thin platinum wire has produced some breath-taking pieces.
An 18ct yellow gold brooch designed and made by former GSA student Emma Gregory (Credit: Thomas Dobbie)
High-end and platinum specialist jeweller Tom Rucker uses a mobile laser welding unit in his work. The Alpha Laser system was originally designed for the factory floor to aid equipment repairs and maintenance, but it allows Rucker to create large-scale jewellery designs, including a life-size bust of Nelson Mandela’s head. Rucker said: ‘That would not fit in a regular welding chamber, but working in an open system you do not have that restriction. In theory, you could weld an object as big as a car, as there are no such size restrictions.’
The working position of Rucker’s laser system has also enabled him to work longer hours. He added: ‘It does not restrict me in size or working position. I can work on a beanbag with a specially designed fireproof cushion on my lap. I can work from a relaxed position for six to eight hours, five days a week.’
While laser welding usually complements other methods, such as traditional soldering and welding techniques, Rucker recently created a brooch, which is a purely laser welded piece and incorporates a world first, colour platinum.
Rucker explained: ‘When I designed the brooch, there were various techniques to consider and each one had to be thought through carefully. The pre-polished to perfection blue platinum may have suffered applying traditional welding and soldering techniques; therefore the laser was my first and only choice.’
Rucker is also combining his coloured platinum with a ‘space material’ for a series of cufflinks, while his next large-scale project will be a decanter – ‘but this will still take years to design and develop’, he added.
GEO.INFINITY Necklace, Platinum 950, laser welded structure GEO.2 177 natural fancy yellow diamonds 4.28 carats awarded with a Lonmin Design Innovation Award
Frank Cooper, senior lecturer and centre manager for the Centre for Digital Design and Manufacturing at the Birmingham City University School of Jewellery, commented: ‘Jewellery design and manufacture can cover many different manifestations; there is a place for the fully artisan, hand designed and hand crafted fine jewellery pieces, just as much as there is a place for the use of advanced digital technologies to design and 3D print jewellery. We have students who excel in one or the other of these skill sets, and equally as many who are similarly comfortable sitting in both camps.
‘Jewellery design, which is at the heart of all that we teach here at the school, is after all a craft-based creative and artistic skill, which manifests in a myriad of ways and our students are free to exploit both the technological and non-technological approach,’ Cooper added.
Laser-based techniques are taught as part of a wider jewellery crafting curriculum. The silversmithing and jewellery department at the Glasgow School of Art (GSA) has one laser welder, used in its precious and non-precious metal work as part of its BA honours course. It’s a popular tool with the students, as Andrew Lamb, a designer-maker and lecturer at the GSA, explained: ‘Like any tool, technique or process some students really get excited by the possibilities beyond the technical process and it is wonderful to see new and innovative approaches. Emma Gregory, who graduated in 2013, is one example of someone successfully using the technology.’
Images showing the lifecycle of a damaged ring fixed at the House of Hatton. The ring was knocked, causing damage to the central stone and the patterning around the stone. A laser engraver was used to replicate the pattern and a laser welder to join the piece together (Credit: 3D-Micromac)
Cost and availability can hamper artists’ ambitions to use such laser-based tools though, as Lamb explained: ‘One challenge is that upon graduating, a reliance on this piece of technology may mean it can be tricky to carry on developing the work without the facilities to hand. At GSA in the silversmithing and jewellery department we run an artist-in-residence programme, so there is an opportunity for graduates to work for a year within the department assisting with teaching, as well as being able to use the facilities such as the laser welder. If such pieces of equipment were not so expensive, we would certainly find having another laser welder beneficial, so that more than one student could be working on the machine at any one time.’
Cooper at Birmingham City University added: ‘Purchase costs and maintenance contracts are particularly challenging, and companies prepared to negotiate an educational discount are always welcome. Students generally pay for the materials used in anything produced for them, but running costs and maintenance have to be absorbed into departmental budgets, which is why we are always keen and happy to discuss with companies commercial or funded research projects that require access to these technologies.’
The Birmingham City University School of Jewellery offers its students access to a number of different laser-based technologies. Students can learn about laser scanning using the centre’s ScanWorks Perceptron laser scanner to aid them in the capture of digital data from 3D objects. Raw point cloud data is also used alongside a range of CAD software to allow students to convert this data into jewellery pieces for 3D printing and manufacturing.
Direct metal laser melting (DMLM) technology is also available to its students and the school’s DMLM M080 system is capable of 3D printing directly into precious metals, including gold, silver and platinum. Cooper said: ‘Our students are encouraged to design geometrically complex jewellery which can only be made using this particular technology.’
DMLM and other additive techniques have started to see adoption in the jewellery industry in the past six months, according to David Fletcher, special products manager at jewellery supplies company Cooksongold.
He said: ‘The technology is being used for the creation of unique jewellery designs which can only be produced using this method. As design and designers become more aware of the technology, we expect them to really push the boundaries of the technology, creating amazing new jewellery and watches. Companies are now beginning to understand where the technology can fit into the product and production requirements. Some of the best products I have seen combine components, some of which have been cast, produced by hand and 3D printed.’
This technology is currently mainly used for low-volume production, bespoke pieces, easily customisable designs and fast prototyping, with parts able to be produced in hours from the CAD design. It also brings further benefits to the manufacture of jewellery as prototypes can be created quickly, in a matter of hours, without the need for moulds or tools.
Challenges remain for the additive manufacture of jewellery, as Fletcher explained: ‘Increased awareness of the technology, coupled with designing specifically for it, will push the process forward. To help with this we are generating a new set of design guidelines.’
Jeweller Nuovi Gioielli is an early adopter of Sisma’s 3D printing technologies, introducing its Mysint 100 system four years ago. There is still a great deal of work in the research and development of this technology and an exchange of information and techniques between jewellers would help, according to Ivano Torresan, owner of Nuovi Gioielli. He added: ‘We hope in the future, with the diffusion of this technology, we can build a network of operators with whom we can compare and exchange experiences.’
The incorporation of DMLM with platinum could also open up further opportunities, as Fletcher added: ‘Platinum is the quickest material to print; it provides by far the best surface quality and density and does not suffer from shrinkage issues. So, it’s possible that 3D-printed platinum will open a new field of products not possible before as they were too expensive as a solid product.’
Torresan said: ‘With Sisma’s 3D laser metal fusion technology, we can build platinum jewellery like any other material, creating complex geometries, and imagination is the only limit. This new technology is not supposed to replace other existing techniques such as casting, but should be considered as a completely new tool to conceive pieces of jewellery and be completely innovative.’
While laser systems might still be considered an expensive piece of equipment for universities, costs are falling. Stefan Wagner, head of jewellery, watches and dental (EMEA) at Coherent-Rofin, said: ‘The laser is a relatively high investment for goldsmiths, but the return on investment is usually below one year and new users are normally not fully aware of the application potential.’
The smaller footprint of laser systems in the jewellery sector is also important for increased adoption. LaserStar Technologies recently unveiled its FiberCube compact laser engraving system, which has a small footprint but can match the functionality of larger engraving systems. Gail Farias, communications director at LaserStar Technologies, said: ‘This enables even the smallest jewellery stores to have the technology that some of the bigger players have.’
The increasing versatility and availability of laser-based systems, alongside the potential of new 3D printing techniques, means laser-based tools have a safe future in the jewellery sector. Cooper at Birmingham City University said: ‘As computing power continues to grow exponentially, the use and applications of these technologies are certain to grow with it.’
Lamb at Glasgow School of Art added: ‘As part of my own research, I constantly try to find new ways of utilising [laser-based] technology and balance this with traditional craft techniques. The possibilities are endless.’