Platinum Manufacturing Goes High-Tech

Jewelry manufacturing has rarely been a hotbed of high technology. The industry generally has preferred traditional techniques to space-age production, but today’s platinum producers are increasingly turning to high-tech equipment. They’re discovering that the new devices not only offer greater efficiency but also provide higher-quality products and greater creative freedom.

“The popularity of platinum has led to development of state-of-the-art equipment,” says Jurgen Maerz, director of technical education at Platinum Guild International USA in Newport Beach, Calif. “For example, platinum cobalt alloys have improved platinum casting dramatically, and heat treatable platinum alloys make it possible to do things you couldn’t before. Platinum investments keep getting better and better, making reproduction of waxes crisp and wonderful.”

Breakthroughs in two areas. Two areas of platinum manufacturing in particular have witnessed exciting technological breakthroughs: casting and repair. In casting, the widespread use of induction melting provides for consistent control of melting temperatures, and vacuum- and pressure-assist casting have cut down on porosity and other quality problems, resulting in fewer rejects. Computer control permits precise repetition of successful casting conditions, and in the final stages of production, laser welders can eliminate minor defects and permit quick, safe sizing of rings and other repairs.

The result, say manufacturers, is better-quality jewelry produced faster. “We’re spending less time to produce the same amount of platinum,” says Dan Coghlan at North American Jewelers in Chicago, which in response to increasing demand for platinum recently invested in a Schultheiss PPC 2000 casting machine. The unit is capable of casting 700 grams at a time.

The machine’s computer control and other high-tech features also have reduced the amount of wasted effort, Coghlan says. “Our reject rate has gone from about 30% down to a 10% reject rate out of the cast, but more than that, my people tell me if I’m doing a good job when I cast,” he says. “It gives me a good feeling that when I’m done with the product, my finishers are not noticing as many subsurface defects.”

Meanwhile, laser welders are revolutionizing the work at the end of the production cycle. “Before we had a laser welder, we were recasting close to one out of 10 pieces—and I think we’re doing some of the highest-quality platinum casting around,” says Mark Lauer, president of Mark Michael Designs in Minneapolis. “Now, with the laser welder we can go in and weld the smallest of porosity, even if it’s close to the diamond or a center stone. Because of that technology, our recast rate is one in 100. [In addition,] if you were sizing a platinum ring, especially if it’s a platinum ring with diamonds or gold, you stood a chance with traditional methods of burning the diamonds or melting the gold. With this, you’re literally working with the piece when you’re holding it in your hands.”

“There’s no such thing as porosity-free platinum,” observes Rick Basta Eichberg, president of Eichberg Jewelers in Beverly Hills, Calif. “Sometimes you overpolish a piece, and shrinkage starts showing up once you already have the [platinum] soldered against 18k, or you might have stones in the piece. The only effective way to combat this problem is with the laser.”

Technology begets creativity. Improved casting technologies and the increasing availability of laser welders are giving jewelry designers greater creative freedom. “With the evolution of new alloys, we’re able to fill very high filigree and lightweight pieces that we couldn’t before,” says Coghlan. “There are different systems set up to prevent oxidation in a cobalt/platinum melt so it doesn’t discolor, and that has improved the type of product that we can cast and the quantity that we can cast consistently on a daily basis.”

“The laser welder opens up a whole arena of design possibilities that were not available before,” says Lauer. “For example, right now I’m working on a piece [for a competition] that’s going to be holding the pearl almost in a pressure-type setting, and we’re going to laser-weld the ring together with the pearls in place. I’d never have been able to do that without the laser. So then you start thinking about even suspending opals between platinum bars and all kinds of crazy things—and at that point, the design potential is only limited by your imagination.”

That design freedom, combined with production efficiencies, is encouraging more platinum jewelry manufacturers to bring high-tech equipment into their workshops. “Because platinum is so popular, people have a different attitude,” Maerz says. “That interest has led manufacturers to make better equipment, and people who want to be successful will take advantage of that better equipment.”

Mark Lauer agrees. “There are incredibly talented craftsmen out there, but when you have the precision of technology matched with design, craftsmanship, and artistic freedom, it’s an unbeatable combination.”

Suzanne Wade is a freelance writer from Mansfield, Mass., and a former staffer at AJM, Lapidary Journal, and Colored Stone.