Plateau Jewelers: High-Tech Custom Jewelry

This design article is sponsored by Gemvison Corp., Davenport, Iowa. For information related to Gemvision products and services, visit www.gemvision.com, call (800) 357-6272, or e-mail: info@gemvision. For information about Plateau Jewelers, visit www.plateaujewelers.com.

Eleven years ago Kelly and Sue Jensen made their way from Texas to the small, picturesque community of Sammamish, Wash. Realizing that their skill sets and enthusiasm for fine gems and jewelry could provide a means to stay and raise a family, they established Plateau Jewelers (after the Sammamish Plateau upon which the store is located). The couple partnered with friends and offered fine custom-designed jewelry in addition to quality designer lines and select showcase pieces. The Jensens soon discovered a penchant for jewelry design and became immersed in the process, working with customers and sharing their delight in the custom pieces they fashioned.

Now the sole owners of Plateau Jewelers, Kelly (president) and Sue (vice president) have established themselves in the community and brought their business to new prominence as a full-service jewelry store specializing in custom design. Most recently, they introduced CAD (computer-aided design) to expand their services and realize the full potential of custom jewelry.

Over the years, the Jensens have recruited and cultivated a top-notch sales and design team. Staff members are not only trained for in-store operations but also encouraged to enroll in industry certification programs for continuing education. Most importantly, they’re trained to work together.

The team approach to sales and design was instrumental in incorporating CAD technology. Two staff members design jewelry using Gemvision’s Matrix software, but the entire staff is involved in the process.

A believer in education, Kelly became a graduate gemologist through the Gemological Institute of America and a certified gemologist via the American Gem Society. A year ago, Kelly and bench jeweler/shop manager Bruce Henderson went to the Gemvision headquarters in Iowa to learn to use Matrix jewelry design software. While they regard themselves as CAD newbies, Plateau has produced over 100 custom orders using the software.

After discussions with the customer and subsequent creation of a sketch, a design is ready for Kelly or Henderson to lay out with CAD. Before they begin, they confer to determine the best way to build the model for manufacturing. Considerations include whether the model should be made in one piece or more than one, which may be necessary, for example, if different colored metals are used, or if one part of the piece should be designed with CAD and another part fabricated by hand. Plateau achieves production efficiency through a combination of techniques.

CAD designers need to know all the parameters of a submitted design, so sales staffers record the information on an in-store custom worksheet, which includes details such as metal type and color, ring size, and gemstone sizes. Since the form also is used to prepare cost quotes, there’s a place to record receipt of customer gemstones or trade-ins of jewelry as well as time estimates for design, model making, casting, setting, and other labor factors. On the back is an approval statement that the customer will sign upon viewing and accepting the wax model of their jewelry.

An appointment is set for the customer to come in and see computer-generated images of the design. Showing several views of the piece affords the opportunity to discuss any changes or adjustments. After the customer approves the design, the file is sent out to have a computer-generated wax model produced on a Revo 540 mill. The instructions for milling the model come from the original CAD file, so the details are exact. When the customer reviews the actual wax model and signs off on approval, the manufacturing process begins.

As a jeweler and Matrix user, Henderson sees the advantages of CAM models. “You are able to design the settings and bearings in the model, making bench work move much faster. The models turn out so clean for casting, and the tiniest detail is retained, plus there is less metal waste,” he says. Henderson, who visualized the production benefits of CAD/CAM, provided the final impetus for purchasing and learning the program.

Kelly and Henderson lay out most pieces based on customer requests, but as designers they constantly challenge themselves to create new twists on traditional items. One innovative idea was the Fingerprint Charm—a mother’s charm with a fingerprint of her child captured for a lifetime in precious metal and, on the flip side, the child’s birth date. This charm could only have been produced via CAD/CAM.

As time permits, they also design unique jewelry—found exclusively at Plateau—for the store’s inventory, which has created a special brand niche for their store. They often add to the virtual inventory in their portfolios—jewelry designed and rendered in Matrix, but not yet made.

Kelly nurtures the team culture by involving every employee in store successes as well as work, like treating his staff to a fine dinner together when monthly sales goals have been met or holding the now traditional in-store design contests. He initiated these to spur creativity, increase awareness of good design, and promote participation and involvement. He sets the design criteria, budget, and materials. Each employee submits a design for the contest and then votes for the best one according to established rules. During this process, the staff engages in lively discussion over the features and benefits of every design submitted. The winner is awarded $100, and the piece is manufactured for sale at the store, but not before everyone has given input on the final design.

The Jensens enjoy getting involved in their community, and their participation in charitable events brings attention to Plateau. Word-of-mouth advertising manifests not only the appeal of their designs but also the experience they provide their customers.

“I’ve always loved design, but there was always the difficulty of communicating your exact idea for production,” Kelly says. “With CAD/CAM, you always get your exact idea in the finished product. There is so much confidence and control with this program.”

Because custom design is unique by nature, he finds himself pressed to learn even more by experimenting with new techniques with each job. The CAD images have made closing sales and customer approval easier and virtually eliminated reworking pieces due to misinterpretation of the design. CAD/CAM has made the custom-order side of his business more efficient and has increased the production in his shop.