How Technology Revolutionized the Jewelry Industry

Technological innovations over the past century have changed almost every product you sell. How these changes came about, and their impact on jewelers, is the subject of this, our third article in a special series looking back over the 20th century.

Continuing his father’s interests, Robert Shipley Jr. (opposite page) helped develop and design identification equipment for the gem trade. Here, in a photo from the late 1930s, he is seen using one of the first refractometers. At his right is one of his first dark-field illuminated microscopes.

In 1900, the typical jewelry store had no binocular microscopes or devices for grading diamonds. Synthetic gemstones and gem treatments were unheard of, and watch technology meant mechanical movements, which provided bread-and-butter repair work. It was a simple era, technologically speaking, but that was about to change. The synthetic ruby–the world’s first man-made gem–was just over the horizon.

The technique for synthesizing ruby was discovered in the latter part of the 1800s, but the first commercially useful large ruby crystals weren’t fashioned until 1902. The product of a French inventor named Auguste Victor Louis Verneuil, the synthetic ruby was considered a masterpiece of advancing technology. Verneuil introduced synthetic flame-fusion blue sapphires in 1909. He also produced synthetic spinel–accidentally in 1908, and commercially in 1925.

Synthetics were technological triumphs, and pricey ones at that. So it wasn’t uncommon during the art deco period of the 1920s to set matching synthetic rubies side by side with natural Burmese gems in platinum jewelry.

Another significant technical innovation, the cultured pearl, also made its appearance early in the century. Mikimoto introduced the first spherical cultured pearls in 1905 in Japan. The processing patent was granted in 1916, but cultured pearls weren’t truly accepted until the 1920s. Some say the cultured pearl destroyed the natural pearl market.

Diamond Cutting

The diamond industry was advancing, too. In 1919, Belgian-born Marcel Tolkowsky wrote his now-famous treatise on achieving the best diamond cut, “Diamond Design.” It established standards for the brilliant cut that have since become known as the American cut or Ideal cut. This cut combined mathematical science–calling for a 53% table, 34° crown angles, and a 43% pavilion depth–with the craftsmanship of the burgeoning Boston and New York diamond cutting trade.

Meanwhile, the introduction of gemological training in America in the 1930s by Robert M. Shipley spurred the development of gemological instruments, many of which were designed by Shipley’s ingenious and innovative son, Robert M. Shipley Jr. The two were creating a new science–the nondamaging identification of gemstones–and the equipment to support it, which included refractometers, dichroscopes, polariscopes, specialized microscopes, and the ProportionScope.

By the 1950s, gem instruments created by Shipley and others were becoming standard equipment in jewelry stores across the country. And the revolutionary diamond grading system developed by Shipley’s successor at the Gemological Institute of America, Richard T. Liddicoat Jr., has become the international language of diamond grading.

Postwar Progress

In 1946, Carroll Chatham created the first commercially viable flux-grown emerald, a technological leap that introduced a new era of more sophisticated synthetic gems. In 1954, General Electric produced the first synthetic diamond, but it wasn’t until 1970 that GE produced gem-quality crystals. In 1983, Japan’s Sumitomo Electric created synthetic, gem-quality yellow diamonds that were commercially affordable. Today, colorless and fancy-colored synthetic diamonds are close to commercial production.

This century also witnessed the invention of gem substitutes. Imitations such as YAG, GGG, strontium titanate, and synthetic rutile replaced natural colorless zircons and sapphires. Cubic zirconia came along in the 1970s and, with its more diamond-like appearance and low cost, soon dominated the market. The latest diamond substitute, synthetic moissanite, tops the list of lookalikes. Many jewelers now sell such imitations.

The past hundred years has also seen advances in gem treatments. The century was only four years old when British inventor Sir William Crookes turned certain diamonds green by dunking them in a radioactive salt. The method never caught on–after the treatment, there was still some residual radioactivity, and some worried that wearing the stones would cause them to turn green as well. In the 1940s, scientists discovered that particle accelerators also changed diamond color. In the 1950s, treaters began using nuclear reactors and irradiation, which has become the preferred method of today.

Enhancement of natural gemstones became even more prevalent in the second half of the 1900s. Centuries-old methods using oils, dyes, and waxes gave way to new techniques using epoxies, heat, and irradiation. Because color-enhanced irradiated gems were much less valuable than naturally colored gems, it was imperative that gemologists be able to identify them. G. Robert Crowningshield, GIA’s vice president in charge of gem identification, discovered a thin black line in the yellow end of the visible light spectrum–the 5920Å line–which appeared when irradiation was present. Now gemologists could not only identify gems using the hand-held spectroscope but also determine sophisticated treatments.

Laser-drilled diamonds arrived on the scene in the 1960s and caused a firestorm. GIA came up with identification criteria almost immediately, but in 1996 the Federal Trade Commission ruled against mandating disclosure. Later this year, at the behest of several jewelry-industry organizations, FTC is expected to reverse itself.

In the 1980s, Zvi Yehuda invented an even more controversial diamond treatment: fracture filling, which uses a “glass-like” resin to boost a stone’s apparent clarity grade. Unlike laser drilling, fracture filling is permanent only under certain conditions and can be reversed by high temperatures. Filled stones are easily distinguishable by the so-called flash effect, and GIA published identification criteria in 1989 and again in 1994 and 1995.

The century is ending as it began, with news of a new diamond treatment developed by General Electric and sold by a Lazare Kaplan International subsidiary. LKI steadfastly refuses to reveal what this new treatment is, but executives claim it enhances “color, brightness, and brilliance” and is “permanent, irreversible, and undetectable.”

Synthetic gems and gem treatments, which became serious ethical issues in the 1970s, are much more accepted today. Some even credit treatments with creating markets for previously unsaleable stones. Nevertheless, the issue of treatment disclosure has grown into a major industry-wide concern today.

Except for larger sizes and additional colors that resulted from Tahitian and South Seas pearl culturing, the cultured pearl didn’t change much during the half-century after its invention. But in the 1970s, after years of trial and error, John Latendresse took Japanese pearl-growing expertise and transplanted it to the freshwater lakes of Tennessee, creating the first commercially successful cultured freshwater American pearls. The Chinese took the freshwater process even further and now compete against Japanese and South Seas products.

Quartz Changes Watch Industry

Watch repair was a major activity in tens of thousands of jewelry stores across America for decades. But the introduction of the quartz module in the early 1970s dealt that tradition a serious blow. Suddenly, nearly anyone could sell cheap, efficient watches that could be thrown away rather than repaired. As a result, many jewelers got out of the watch business altogether in the late ’70s and ’80s.

When the Swiss watch industry—which had missed the quartz revolution—revived itself in the 1980s by concentrating on luxury mechanical products, jewelers began stocking watches again. This created a demand for skilled watchmakers, but supply—at least in the United States—has been falling far short.

The late ’80s and ’90s saw the addition of two revolutionary technologies that transformed jewelers’ operations. One was the computer. The efficiency and detail that it brought to inventory management, payroll, and customer tracking improved record keeping and streamlined procedures. By century’s end, the computer had become an indispensable tool.

The computer also transformed jewelry stores’ use of credit. Pioneered by Zale Corp.’s precursor, the Zale Jewelry Corp. of Wichita Falls, Texas, in the 1920s, the practice of extending credit led to a cultural rift among “credit” and “cash” jewelers as credit firms turned jewelry into a more middle-class purchase. But the introduction of computers in the 1950s and their widespread use in the final quarter of the century fostered greater acceptance of credit cards among jewelers. In the 1980s, advances in computer hardware and software made it possible for credit card issuers to implement fast, accurate billing and accounting, creating the information-management infrastructure needed to manage an income stream from finance charges.

As credit cards became a daily fact of life, jewelers derived perhaps their greatest benefit from the cards’ influence on impulse buying, as the financial impact of a major jewelry purchase could easily be deferred.

The other innovation was the Internet, which enabled even small jewelers to present information and sell merchandise not only in their own markets but also around the world. Two statistics illustrate the rapid growth of Internet use by jewelers and consumers: By 1999, the Internet hosted some 10,000 jewelry Web sites; experts predict that annual online jewelry sales will top $1 billion early in the new century.

Technology also has led to improvements in security, though it often seems as if the crooks are still a step ahead. The invention of such devices as bulletproof glass, video cameras, and better locks for safes and cases as well as refinements in alarm systems have improved store security and increased the safety of jewelers and their merchandise.

Some important repair instruments have debuted in recent decades. These include the steamer and ultrasonic cleaner, the laser welder (which lets repair technicians solder close to gems that would otherwise have to be removed), and the electric flex shaft, which plays a major role in all jewelry work, including repairs. Some new repair tools–such as modern setting pliers and bounceless mallets–are improvements on old tools.

Breakthroughs Improve Design Techniques

Technological developments this century have influenced jewelry design in a variety of ways. New techniques in gem cutting have allowed designers greater creative latitude, as have modern methods of setting gems into metal. New treatments can make metals harder, stronger, safer–even colorful. Automation, through such innovations as chain-making machines, has made a wide range of jewelry designs affordable.

Computers refined many automated processes, increasing speed, efficiency, and precision and narrowing or eliminating margins of error. Even in a shop where jewelers do most of the work by hand, computers can help make clasps and findings, giving the goldsmiths more time to be creative.

Finally, design often was inspired by technological advancement in the world at large. Airplanes, rockets, television, race cars, and atomic bombs influenced designs for appliances, automobiles, buildings, clothing—and jewelry.

Lightweight Jewelry

Electroforming, one of the century’s most important developments, enabled craftsmen to create light but strong metal designs. The technique produces a hollow skin of gold or silver, allowing production of large, lightweight pieces, and is most often used for earrings. Electroforming differs from electroplating (also developed this century), which applies a thin layer of gold over base metal.

The electroform process used in gold jewelry was developed in the 1960s. A wax mold, called a mandrel, is created to the exact specifications of the desired design, covered with a metallizing solution to make it electrically conductive, then immersed in a charged electrolyte bath in which particles of gold (or silver) are suspended. When electricity is applied, the metal particles electrostatically adhere to the mandrel. After a sufficient degree of thickness has been achieved, the piece is removed from the solution and the wax mold is melted out, leaving a hollow but surprisingly strong form.

Platinum electroforming has been done successfully in Japan and by a few American manufacturers but is still in the development stage. The stumbling block is cost. Unlike gold and silver electroforming, which can be done with various alloys in a cold electrolyte bath, platinum electroforming requires pure, unalloyed platinum and a heated bath. It also requires a metal mandrel–the heated bath would melt a wax one–which must be acid-etched out of the finished form instead of melted out.

Invisible Settings

Designers also sought new ways to anchor gemstones to metal. Two techniques, invisible setting and tension setting, are among the most advanced developments.

Van Cleef & Arpels created the first invisibly set jewelry in 1933. The technique, in which a large number of (usually) square gemstones are held in place by stringing a wire or hammering metal into a groove hidden underneath, allowed large areas to be covered with an unbroken surface of gemstones. The look is best suited to stones with straight edges, but today some firms are trying the technique with round stones.

In tension setting, a stone is suspended between the two ends of an open piece of metal. The finished product looks precarious but is actually quite strong. To achieve a tension setting, the metal is hardened so that it acts like a powerful spring–powerful enough, in fact, to crush any stone but diamond or corundum (ruby and sapphire). Stones that are successfully tension-set rarely fall out. Those that do are usually the victims of unusual circumstances or a botched repair by a benchworker unskilled in this specialized form of setting.

The original process is credited to a German professor named Friedrich Becker, who in the 1950s used pressure to hold semiprecious stones. It was mostly ignored until the 1970s and wasn’t heavily marketed until the 1980s, when Niessing, a German wedding ring company, launched a line of tension-set rings it had developed in cooperation with German goldsmith Walter Wittek. Niessing’s process requires pounding the metal to compress the grains and work-harden the shank.

A few years after Niessing’s rings hit the market, American designer and metallurgist Steven Kretchmer of Palenville, N.Y., took a different approach, developing a mix of alloys that, when heated, became strong enough to permanently hold a stone. Since then, other firms have launched tension-set rings, and each holds dear to its own process. Many more firms have developed similar looks–allowing light to pass fully through the stone–without actually using tension setting.

Color Treatment of Gold

Gold has been desired and fought over for thousands of years, but only in the 20th century has man thought to give the yellow god a radical color job. Ancient civilizations alloyed gold with other metals, but the ancients were seeking strength, not colors.

When platinum was declared a strategic metal during World War II, it gave the jewelry industry a tremendous impetus to perfect and market white gold as a substitute. To achieve a white look, gold must be alloyed with a white metal and then bleached. Silver, one of the more common alloys used with gold, imparts a greenish cast. Initially, nickel was the alloy of choice, but many consumers reported allergic reactions. Today, nickel-based white gold is nearly extinct (especially in Europe, where it’s on the verge of being banned) and has been replaced by hypoallergenic alloys such as palladium. Meanwhile, metallurgists have developed a variety of other hues, including blues, browns, greens, and even purple.

Technology is merely a means to an end. The driving force behind jewelry design innovation was, and always will be, imagination. Technology makes the process faster, easier, more cost-effective, or more precise, but it will never replace the creative spirit.

Turn-of-the-century jewelers could no more imagine laser-cutting than they could imagine a man walking on the moon. Can we fathom what might develop in the 21st century? Surely it will yield even more new ways to manipulate gemstone and metal; chances are it will yield new gemstone discoveries as well. For certain, design limits will continually be challenged, in part because it’s human nature, but especially because the generations that grew up in the 1960s or later have a different aesthetic from their parents’ or grandparents’. What innovations will the future bring? Only time will tell.