Competent, timely, and economical jewelry repair was crucial to the operation of my brick and mortar estate jewelry. I learned many repair procedures from expert bench jewelers using modern techniques and equipment in a two-year goldsmithing class through a local community.
Of equal importance was working one on one with two different bench jewelers who did repairs for me for a number of years. Both of these fine craftsmen learned how to make and repair jewelry in Southeast Asia WITHOUT access to supply houses that carry readymade sizing stock, ring heads, etc. By watching them, I learned what can be done by people who really understand how to work with metal and stones at a very basic level.
What kinds of repairs are required for antique jewelry?
The most common fine jewelry repair for old or new jewelry is ring sizing, which involves sawing through the ring shank (almost always at the center bottom) and opening the shank. To size up, a piece of metal is added. To size down, a piece of metal is removed. Then the shank is reshaped and soldered back together. When done properly, the new joint is as strong as a solid piece of metal.
Other common repairs include:
- Stone setting
- Retipping or rebuilding prongs
- Reshaping a bent ring (usually called rounding up)
- Bracelet/necklace/pin clasp replacement or repair
- Repair of metal parts (like bends, breaks, or holes) due to wear or damage
Estate jewelry examples
Can every broken piece of jewelry be repaired?
No. Even an expert occasionally encounters repair projects that just can't be done or that are too time-consuming to be feasible. A common example is repairing damage to old (often Victorian) pieces that have previously been repaired using lead solder (used because it melts at a low temperature), which can eat into the metal below it. Sometimes a piece of jewelry can be "fixed" by applying an appliqué, something like applying a patch to a hole in the knee of a pair of jeans. While this kind of repair can sometimes work structurally, it will usually not look very good. Sometimes what looks like a simple repair (for instance, soldering a loop pendant hanger onto a pendant or soldering an earwire or post onto an earring) may not be possible because of the karat or thickness of the piece of metal being soldered.
One reason repairs on old pieces can be so tricky is that the metal is often very thin. High heat is required to make the solder flow so that it can bond two pieces together. There is always a danger that the thin gold won't reach soldering temperature before it starts to melt.
In other cases, commonly used stones like seed pearls will burn up if the metal becomes too hot. In some designs removing the pearls, coral, or other stones that can't withstand high heat just isn't possible.
This is an excellent reason to be sure your repair person is accustomed to working on old pieces. The methods used on current pieces (which tend to be much thicker) can't necessarily be used on a delicate old piece. (There's more on finding a repair person below.)
Who does jewelry repair?
In most, if not all, states, there's no licensing requirement for bench jewelers. Anyone with a bench and a torch can repair jewelry. The common places to find repair people are:
- Store with a bench jeweler on the premises - This is rare in most areas, because few stores have enough repairs coming in to keep a bench jeweler busy. Jewelry repair is really not something that people can do as a sideline while they sell and do administrative tasks as their primary job. Proficiency as a bench jeweler requires an incredible amount of practice. It's safe to say that the first ring a person sizes will take a significant amount of time and that the results are likely not to be as good as the 1000th ring he or she sizes. Practice definitely brings a tremendous increase in speed (and productivity) and improved results. If you find a store with an experienced in-store bench jeweler, this MAY be a source of fairly inexpensive repairs. Some stores make a large amount of profit on their repair work; others offer repairs as a service that helps bring new customers to their store.
- Store that sends its repairs out - In most areas at least 90% of all jewelry stores send their repairs out. In Seattle, for existence, almost all stores send their repairs out to one of two repair companies that each employ 10 - 15 bench jewelers. A beginning bench jeweler at one of these companies often starts his career by sizing rings all day for months or years before moving on to more complex repairs. Advantages are obvious - The work done by high-volume shops tends to be expert. The downside is cost. Bench jewelers in Seattle typically earn $12 - $18 an hour and those who size rings usually can do at least 6 - 8 sizings an hour. Obviously, the labor cost is minimal per ring ($2 - $3); the cost of materials (gas for the torch, flux, solder, and, for sizing up, the cost of extra gold) is very small (well under $1 per ring). In the Seattle area these shops typically charge the jewelry store in the neighborhood of $8 - $10 for a ring sizing (depending on volume, who provides delivery, etc.). The store is likely to charge the customer no less than $25 for a simple sizing - and often much more than that. Even though the cost to size up isn't a great deal more than sizing down, stores often charge a great deal more to size up.
- Independent bench jewelers - In small towns, it may be impossible to find an independent bench jeweler, but in cities, they can be found if you know where to look. They probably don't advertise in the yellow pages (due to cost) and often don't advertise anywhere. There are a couple of ways to find your own bench jeweler, however. Here are some that have worked for me:
-------Another way to find an independent bench jeweler is to ask someone who has worked in a jewelry or pawn shop for a long time if they know of a good repair person. Of course, many stores won't share this information, but occasionally they will.
-------Another source is a college that teaches goldsmithing, if you happen to live near one. They are often very happy to recommend their star pupils.
-------Another more difficult way to locate a bench jeweler is to find an area in your city where there is a cluster of retail jewelry stores. In Seattle, for example, there are a number of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian jewelry stores in a 2-block area in the International District. The difficulties here are obvious, starting with a language barrier. These shops nearly always send their repairs out to someone close by who does work for a large number of individual stores. It is hard for "outsiders" to reach a level of trust with a jewelry shop owner to get a good referral, but if you need a large number of repairs on a regular basis, it may be well worth the effort.
I worked with a Vietnamese bench jeweler I met through a jewelry store owner for a number of years. Although communication was difficult and he had never done repairs to antique jewelry before, he was a wonderful craftsman who could do things that people trained in modern techniques would swear weren't possible - and for excellent prices. It was definitely worth the effort it took to find him.
If you're having just one or two things repaired, your best bet is probably to ask for a price quote from at least 3 jewelry stores. Don't be shy about asking for an exact quote and also asking if they send their repairs out or do them in-house. If the repair is more than a simple sizing or stone setting or retipping and the store sends its work out, ask if they're sure that the person who will do the work is experienced in working on antique jewelry. If they don't know, they should be willing to call the repair shop and ask.
If you have a store or sell a lot of jewelry at shows or on the internet, it is probably worth the time and effort to pursue the other repair possibilities shown above. If you're friendly with other store owners or show dealers, you might divide the work of finding an independent bench jeweler among you and share the results.
Beware of unnecessary repairs:
Many jewelry stores make a big profit on repairs. Either through ignorance or intent, they frequently push unnecessary repairs like:
- Retipping prongs - If you look through a loupe or magnifying glass and see that the prongs extend over the girdle of the stone (the widest part of the stone) and up onto the table (the flat top surface), retipping is NOT necessary. Even if a prong or two are thin, it's unlikely that you would lose a stone if there are several prongs extending over the table. If you're told that retipping is needed, ask for specific information about why. The first answer is usually something like " Well, do you want to lose this stone?", but further probing will often make it clear that the store adds retipping to most of its repair jobs. Retipping won't hurt your piece, but it will be painful to your pocketbook.
- Reshanking - Stores, especially those that aren't familiar with old jewelry, will often tell customers that their rings need to be reshanked. In fact, ring shanks of women's rings made before the 1940s were thinner than modern shanks. A great many of these have been worn for 60 years or more without needing reshanking and have many years of daily wear left in them. Unless a shank is so thin that it looks to your eye like it's about to break, reshanking is probably not needed. Even if the shank breaks, the ring will not separate enough to lose the ring, and you can have it repaired at that time. Another reason to avoid reshanking is that a thick modern shank won't look right on an old ring. Before having a ring reshanked, be sure to make sure the store understands that you want it to look like it did originally - not like a modern ring.
A couple of final thoughts:
When heat is applied to any metal (silver, gold, platinum), the metal develops fire scale, which is ugly, uneven discoloration. Removing fire scale is done by using a power polishing wheel dressed with polishing compound. Polishing away the fire scale will also remove some or all of the age patina on an old piece. There's no way around this, although if you make it plain that you don't want the piece to come back bright and shiny, it is usually possible to polish 'lightly" - removing the fire scale but not applying a high polish. An old piece polished heavily will look 'new' and take several years to develop patina again.
This guide deals with repair of fine (10K gold or higher or platinum) and 'bridge' (low karat gold or silver) jewelry. Costume jewelry by definition is made of other metals which cannot withstand high heat soldering procedures. The repair procedures addressed above do NOT apply to costume jewelry.