Hitting the mark with technology

I learned something this week: Jewelry manufacture requires a sharp eye and a steady hand, and I have neither.

I learned something this week: Jewelry manufacture requires a sharp eye and a steady hand, and I have neither.

I came across these facts in the goldsmith’s shop near the end of Main Street, where I, in my capacity as co-ordinator of the Yukon Technology Innovation Centre, was closing out a research and development project we have been assisting over the past year.

The two tasks I was given to perform for demonstration purposes were, first, to strike an black-inked dot on a piece of metal with a laser beam, and, second, to “pin” two pieces of metal together with a strike of a laser beam.

I more or less hit the dot (though not square in the middle), and failed miserably at “pinning” the metal together.

My hands waved around to much, and I kept losing focus and my ability to see the cross hairs.

Overall, though, despite my own ineptitude, both the meeting and the project itself looked to me like a success story.

Just under a year ago, David Ashley and Cheryl Rivest of the Goldsmiths Design Studio approached the innovation centre with a vision of using laser technology to put themselves in the forefront of jewelry production and design, and establish the Yukon in the vanguard of the industry.

The capital costs involved in taking that step, though, were more than they could undertake on their own; while they were ready to ante up for the training fees involved, and the shop renovation costs involved with installing a laser machine on the premises, they needed help in purchasing the laser equipment itself.

This proposition led to some interesting discussion between me and the members of my advisory board.

First, to what extent is the use of laser technology in jewelry production an innovation in itself, either locally or globally?

Second, is the creation of jewelry a technology, an art, or a craft?

In answer to the first question, we established that, though lasers have become increasingly common in the jewelry industry as devices to repair damaged pieces, they do not appear to be in common use for creating pieces of jewelry featuring innovative designs or innovative combinations of materials.

The innovation in question, in this case, lay not in the deployment of laser technology itself, but in the innovative jewelry designs it would make possible – designs which would be feasible only with the use of lasers.

On the second question, we reached agreement that, though jewelry creation certainly is an art, in so far as its reason for being is the creation of objects of beauty, it is also very much a technological business.

It involves the employment of some very specialized knowledge of metallurgy, gemology, and manufacturing techniques to create a product which has not only esthetic appeal, but financial value.

From an economic view point, in fact, promoting development in industries like jewelry creation in the Yukon makes a lot of sense.

We can use local resources (local gold, local expertise) in a small-shop environment to create products that are highly value-added, easy and cheap to export, and have a global market.

The pieces I was looking at in the shop that day as prototype proof-of-concept works were in fact already fully realized and accomplished creations.

One piece was a gold ring with precious stones in-set, featuring tiny, highly detailed decorative elements which could be “pinned” to the creation with a precision that would have been either physically impossible, or far too time consuming to be profitable, to accomplish using conventional soldering techniques.

The other piece – which was actually already sold, and had to be brought back to the shop for me to look at – was a striking gold arm bracelet, composed of six previously existing gold bracelets of various karat values, cut in half and re-arranged into a larger, single arm piece, with an elegantly designed, gold back-brace, consisting of around a dozen different design elements.

Again, the seamless combination of the gold bracelets would have been either physically impossible, or prohibitively labour-intensive, using conventional techniques; and some elements of the backing arm brace would simply not have worked at all without the laser.

As I learned from direct (and inept) personal experience, though, the laser machinery does not mean you can churn out fine, custom-designed jewelry like t-shirts from a Chinese sweatshop.

Craftsmanship and taste – and, as I said before, a good eye and steady hand – are still the key elements in determining the value (both esthetic and financial) of any given jewelry piece.

Of course, this new laser machine will certainly help the Gold Smiths Design Studio to be more productive, and that itself represents a benefit both to their business and, ultimately, we hope, to the industry and territory as a whole.

But, for me at least, the key payback for the innovation centre’s investment is that it will also help them be more inventive and innovative in the works they produce – and thereby, one hopes, enhance their stature, and the stature of the Yukon jewelry industry, in the global market.

I confess that, despite my ineptitude with the laser this week, I left the building a little proud of myself.

I may not be much of a shot with a laser gun, but I think, in this case at least, I had a good eye for a value proposition for the territory.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.