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Commentary: The Business

Buy That Laser Welder. (You Will Definitely Not Regret It.)

Many ‘hot new things’ don’t live up to the hype. But Chris Snowden’s new laser-welder wasn’t one of them.

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AS I LOOK AROUND my shop, I see tools that range from invaluable to never used.  

I can remember when I bought most of them. Each was lauded as the next tool that would change the jewelry repair business. I can remember hearing time and time again: “In the future, every repair shop will have this tool,” or “This tool will make the repair easier, faster and better quality”, or my favorite, “This tool will increase your production so much that it will be like hiring another jeweler … without the payroll taxes”.  

Fact is, most of these descriptions were exaggerations … at best. But that’s a salesperson’s job, to romance a tool so much a jeweler thinks he can’t live without it. Well, a few years ago a salesman told me about a new tool that I just had to have. He wasn’t trying to sell it to me … in fact, he wasn’t even a representative for the company. He just thought so much about this new tool that he thought it was in my best interest to have one. He said it would increase my productivity, expand the work I could do in the shop, give me a better end-result and take the place of hiring another jeweler (which I was actually then in the process of trying to do).  

This new item was a jewelry repair laser. Of course, the prospect of working with lasers was exciting to me. (After all, I am one of the world’s biggest sci-fi fans.) What could be cooler than having my very own laser?

I was getting very excited until he told me the price. What? You have got to be joking! That is as much as I pay a jeweler in a year! Then, gradually recovering from the sticker shock, I started thinking about all the tools sitting in my shop with dust on them. I mean come on, how often did I really use that hydrotorch? The Gravemeister? The Benchmate? Yeah, I used those tools sometimes – but not enough to really justify spending the money I did on them.

I sat on the idea for about two years. I kept looking at the laser at trade shows and in magazines. I had a friend who has one, who was always raving that he could not live without his laser. So after much soul-searching, and after seeing the price of laser technology coming down a bit, I swallowed hard – gulp! – and bought myself a shiny new jewelry repair laser. This was not a decision that I came to easily. You know how us jewelers are. When you’re in the habit of shaking out the shop mat for .0010 DWT of gold for the refiner, it is kind of hard to part with $30,000 for a new tool.

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The first thing that weighed in favor of the purchase was the testimonial that my buddy kept giving me. He had nothing to gain from his advice and I did see, over the period of a couple of years, that he used his laser all of the time. He almost never lit his torch anymore.

Then the point was brought up about hiring a new jeweler. This thing would make me about twice as fast, I would not have to share my already small shop with another person, and I would not have to pay more to the government in payroll taxes. Even better, this tool would not start to build a reputation in my area, meet my customers, and then go down the street and compete with me in a year or two. 

And the last point that I considered was that no one else in my area has one. My buddy is over four hours away and no one in my town had taken the leap yet. I figured it would work one of two ways. I could be the first in my town with a laser. I could advertise the fact that I was the first jeweler in town with such modern – even space-age – technology. Establish myself as the laser-jewelry repair center for my town. Or I could play catch up after someone else bought one. My choice was simple: I could play the “me too” game or I could be the first.

Convinced, I called the laser manufacturer and got started. We decided what model I needed, scheduled my training at their facility and set up the financing.

I have had my machine for about three years now. I work on it every day. Actually, it is the main tool that I use now. Sure, I still light my torch and use it. I am not about to lose my skills on other tools. I can still remember when my dad thought I was old enough to allow me to play with fire (at the bench). That was as good as letting me cut the grass or vacuum the floor at the store. But, I have fairly quickly gotten as good on the laser as I have ever been on the torch. I can make that thing stand up and dance. I am amazed everyday at the things I can do on the laser that I would never have been able to do with my torch. It is not that I was not good with fire, it just has certain limitations.  

Retipping prongs on an emerald ring with the emerald still in place? Are you kidding? Welding a pewter jewelry box lid, costume-jewelry repairs, eyeglasses, or working titanium? Wouldn’t think of it without my laser. I have enough stories about unusual things that I have repaired with the laser that I could probably write a separate story just listing them.

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One drawback: after I received the laser and advertised it, I got so busy I ended up having to hire that new guy, anyway. My repair business tripled in volume. I ended up hiring a college student who had no repair experience. It took me only two hours to teach him how to weld jump rings on charms and clasps, weld chains and size rings down. And, over the past year, he has learned to do almost everything on the laser that I can do. One more semester and he’ll be off to serve as an officer in the Marine Corps. Then I will have to train another college student, but it’s no problem. After all, these guys aren’t going to go into competition with me.  

Bottom line, I bought a new tool that was billed as the biggest innovation in jewelry repair and – for once – it has lived up to they hype. If you don’t have one, you should consider getting one. Especially if no one else in your town has one – then it is really a no-brainer. I was the first in my area to have a laser. I advertise that fact, and no matter who follows me, I will always be the first laser-equipped jeweler in my area.

One favor: years from now, when you can’t even recall how life was without your laser, remember who it was who told you how great it would be. I really could not live without it … or maybe it’s that I just wouldn’t want to.

Chris Snowden is the owner of Snowden's Jewelers in Wilmington, NC.

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