Laser welding has come to jewelry repair, announces Robert Higginbotham of Payson Jewelers.
Virtually all jewelry repair has been done with a soldering iron and to a professional's eye, it still leaves flaws. Higginbotham wanted to improve upon those tiny details, and open his shop to more efficient and longer lasting repairs.
In solder, the precious metal plus an alloy are used to secure the break, Higginbotham said. With the narrow, red laser beam, jewelers can use 100-percent pure metals, a breakthrough that lights up the face of experienced repairman, Bill Witte.
"This (watch band repair) is normally a tough job to do," he said. Working with a tiny gold band, Witte had to reattach a new gold tube less than one-millimeter in diameter.
With the new laser, Witte tacked the miniature piece on with just four 'pops' from the laser.
He then finished the job with a minuscule amount of soldering for a much more secure and finished job.
"The stats are that laser is almost 200 times stronger than solder or welding. We can use the same material without an addition of a solder material," Higginbotham said.
Looking through the binocular-microscope, the jeweler can work in detail from .2 millimeters "which is really really small" to 2 millimeters in diameter, Higginbotham said.
For example: a tiny, gold wedding band is usually about 2 millimeters wide.
The noticeable improvement is in chain repair. To repair a chain, jewelers are soldering, actually welding the piece, Higginbotham said.
"When you are working on a chain, you get a small stiff spot," he said. "You get a lot smaller stiff spot with the laser."
Waiting for the price to be right, Higginbotham said originally laser welders like this one cost more than $50,000. This version of the technology, with all the bells and whistles, runs about $36,000.
Add maintenance and the local jeweler figures his cost at about $35 per day, but it should more than pay for itself in repairs, Higginbotham said.
"We go through at least 100 (repairs) a week I'll bet," he said. Gold repairs, a little bit of platinum and silver and an occasional oddball repair make up the bulk of the work.
While the new addition to his tool box will be used primarily for repair, Higginbotham intends to try some creative manufacturing as well.
"It does not eat up the piece," he said. "You can get near the fragile gemstones that you cannot do with a torch.."
Playing and experimenting are a requirement of the learning curve, he said.
To date Higginbotham and his staff have almost 1,000 hours logged on the laser and have blasted 71,000 times, including scripting a prom date invitation onto a quarter.
To learn about laser repairs, call Payson Jewelers at 474-9126.