Jeweler M.C. Ginsberg Brings Biotechnology to the Bench

A jewelry retailer since 1985, Mark Ginsberg wanted to find a way to keep his Iowa City store buzzing at all times—no matter the ­economic climate. His investments in wax-cutting machines and CAD software for an in-house custom ­jewelry workshop were successful, but Ginsberg assumed there was money to be made in molding and casting for other industries. Then, 10 years ago, the first of many collaborative innovations came to life when his bench partnered with a medical research facility to engineer modifications on a hip joint model. M.C. Ginsberg’s business—jewelry and otherwise—has been booming ever since.

What was the initial reason for investing in state-of-the-art wax-cutting machines?
I could never stand sitting around waiting for the next customer to walk through the door. We realized we could use these new technologies we were investing in—from CAD software to mold making—to make other things besides jewelry. The store already had a fantastic bench team, led by my brother, master jeweler Doug Ginsberg, so the pieces were in place to integrate the intuitive training of a jewelry artisan with the new world of 3-D design.

What were your first forays outside of jewelry, and how did you happen upon biotech?
Our first projects included casting hardware for drawers and foot pedals, but a medical facility opened up across the street and they asked if we could make some modifications on a hip joint. We purchased a laser welder to mold beads to the joint, and from there our interest in how we could take jewelry tools and training and use them in innovative ways started to take hold.

It didn’t take long for your workshop to become an ­incubator for manufacturing innovations. How has the process evolved in the last decade?
We’ve added 30 3-D resin printers that allow us to build prototypes onsite. I’m looking at this as a brand-new field, so we’ve created our team appropriately. Besides traditional bench jewelers, I’ve hired fine artists, biomedical engineers, and CAD specialists so we have a vertical integration that you can’t find anywhere else. Interestingly, the skill set of a bench jeweler really lends itself to biotechnology. Scientific modeling is meticulous work and requires extremely precise results.

What are some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?
We created a pediatric trachea model at the request of a local surgeon. He needed an exact model to practice on before surgery. He had only one shot to get it right, and so our work became a lifesaving tool. We’ve taken the medical models and reinterpreted them as jewelry as well. We sold a custom $18,000 set of platinum shirt studs and cufflinks that were created from models of different bone parts. We cast a customer’s face to make bathroom fixtures that were identical replicas of his ears and nose. We’ve even made scale models for architects and mini-furniture for hobbyists. The opportunities are endless.

Is jewelry still the store’s main income generator?
Yes, it is, and it’s really allowed us to push the boundaries of our customers’ conception of art. It’s enhanced our custom business and it’s allowed M.C. Ginsberg to become the opposite of an antiseptic mall approach. We offer handmade pedestals for sale so the customer can display the pieces as well as wear them. Similarly, these beautiful natural forms we are casting, like polyurethane aorta valves or silicone bones, can act as sculpture, or be adapted into accessories or tabletop goods.

What are your goals for the store and for this ­ancillary business?
We want to stay on the front end of innovative ideas, whether through technology or new collaborations. The most gratifying thing is we’re now able to keep the shop busy nonstop; our team is learning and growing all the time. It’s taken a lot of research and development, but we like to say that we actively try to foster failure. Figuring it out, how to get it right, keeps it exciting.

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