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Beginner bench jeweler follies

Hello everyone! I have just recently graduated from GIA, and started
my first job as a bench jeweler. My fist day went ok, but the second
day was a veritable disaster. It seemed common sense and all the
years of teaching I had, just failed me.

It would comfort me to know I’m not the only beginner out there who
wrecked a few expensive things on their way to becoming a good
jeweler. Does anybody else have any interesting, funny, or horrific
beginner bench stories to share?


Oh its not just beginners! One can be very experienced and skilled
and still dance along the ragged edge of disaster. Probably few would
publicly admit to specific occurences. In my thirty years I have
toasted a number of stones, including quenching an expensive sapphire
(ofcourse I knew better but it was new job jitters), melted
innumerable prongs(if its not too bad you can restore a prong with
sturdy pliers), had the buffer snatch stuff out of my hand and WHAM!
(skull fracture on one occasion).

It just happens. It may not be comforting at the moment but use
disasters as learning experiences. Analyze why it happened and avoid
it in the future. And after awhile you may even be able to laugh
about it. Hahahaha, oh that sapphire still stings though.


I started at age 10 in my fathers shop. After doing grunt work, they
showed me how to put on a half shank.

“See David, do it just like that”

I removed a thin and worn shank, soldered on a new one and filed the
new piece of gold down to MATCH EXACTLY the one I just cut off!"

15 years later, a little more experience, I was making a necklace
that had 6 rows of cable chain with soldered bezels in between with
4mm round - 7mm bezel set cabochon opals in it. Took days.

When I polished it, a voice came from the heavens and said “gimmee
that chain!” and the polishing machine grabbed the necklace “flap,
flap, flap” at 3600 rpms. Cut my legs up before I made a mad dash for
the door.

Started all over again. That’s when I found out about polishing
chains on a base ball bat.

David Geller
510 Sutters Point
Sandy Springs, GA. 30328
(404) 255-9565

Diane, When nervousness takes over you dont always give yourself
time to think through what your’e doing until its too late. Against
my better judgment I will tell you a story. It was my first day of
work for a jeweler in colorado and the owner was having me set up
the extra bench that he had for me. He left to tend the showroom. I
was setting up the flex-shaft and the handpiece was resting in the
tray so it would be out of the way while I crawled under to plug in
the foot pedal. The handpiece had a wire brush already in the collet
for some reason. When I was under there, I accidentally pressed down
on the pedal and suddenly the handpiece shot off of the tray and
landed squarely on the top of my head, spinning furiously until it
had become so tightly wrapped in my hair that it had to
stop.Painful? You bet, but I could only think about getting it off
me before my new boss came back, which didnt happen because it was
on the top of my head and I couldn’t see to untangle it.

So, when the owner walked back in there I was, on my knees with a
flex-shaft stuck to my head. He had to cut it out of my hair but had
a hard time doing so because he was laughing so hard. Feel any
better Diane?

Making yourself a quality jeweler requires fixing the mistakes. Do
not past it off to someone else. Do you have a bench at home? Work
at night on making your own jewelry. This will be practice and
profitable. Are you working with an experienced bench jeweler?

Learn from your mistakes and you will be come a good jeweler.Do not
get discouraged it at least takes 10 yrs to master your work.

When I was an apprentice on Jeweler’s Row we were in a big room, the
jeweler I worked for, Anne, another jeweler, Ken, and the setter.
Everyone wore headphones because otherwise listening to each other’s
radio choices would have made people kill each other.

When I made a mistake, Ken would fix it for me, but I would have to
buy him a Coke. Ah, those were the days. I loved that job.

The worst mistake I made there was I was soldering a charm on for
one of the office girls and the charm from Jamaica turned out to be
metal with paper – it was a little man and his clothes were paper. I
burned them off.

Luckily, I happened to own the Rio Colores Resin kit and I re-did
the colors. She forgave me.


Elaine Luther
Metalsmith, Certified PMC Instructor
Hard to Find Tools for Metal Clay


I am also a GIA grad, and can tell you that they give you a great
base of kowledge, but you will learn more in the first month than
you did in JMA! We all have bad days…stones go crunch or something
just kinda melts, even when you KNOW you didn’t have that much heat
there…it happens, life goes on…

I was having a bad day about a week ago. I was replacing a stone in
a ladies micro pave engagement ring and when I went to pop the stone
in it “jumped”. It was a 1.5mm and the last one I had, and the lady
was coming back for the job in an hour (Yes Mr. Geller, I asked for
and got the rush fee!). I checked my tray, I checked my bench top, I
checked the hems of my apron and pant cuffs…nothing. I had the
lights out, on my hands and knees with a flashlight crawling around
my not-so-surgically-clean shop frantically looking for the
tell-tale pinpoint of light, and had been for the better part of a
half an hour, when our salesman can in and asked what I was looking
for. I told him and he began looking too. I was getting excuses ready
in my head, trying to come up with some way to get the gal to leave
her ring until the next afternoon when my buddy said,“Uhh, Jim? I
think I found it…”

Stuck with wax to the side of my benchpin…

Good luck with your new carrer!

Jim Turner
Turner Jewelers
Pittsburgh, Pa

LOL Kevin,

I did the exact same thing but I was home alone in my studio had to
navigate the chuck key and walk around with a brush in my hair til I
found someone to remove it!

And that was a 1st day jitters event!


I was getting excuses ready in my head, trying to come up with some
way to get the gal to leave her ring until the next afternoon when
my buddy said,"Uhh, Jim? I think I found it…

Stuck with wax to the side of my benchpin... 

I’m still looking for two missing diamonds (from different mishaps)
in my studio…

But this reminded me of a time I had made a setting for a freeform
opal… when the time came to set it, I couldn’t find the stone. I
searched and searched-- I had just had it! Another jeweler finally
asked me what I was looking for and joined the search. It was
freeform, so I could not substitute another stone. As I finally
stood there, stymied, scratching my head, she said, “Uhh, Noel, I
think I found it… Back up a couple of steps.” I had been standing
with my back to her… She plucked it off my butt. It was sticky on
the back (don’t recall why) and must have fallen onto my chair and I
sat on it. Obviously I never would have found it!

Not serious like melting somebody’s gold heirloom, of course, but
things do happen.

Noel (spelled with two dots over the e and pronounced no-elle-- my
time of the year! My birthday next Sunday.)

Probably few would publicly admit to specific occurences. 

Oh, I would. We hopefully make fewer “lame” mistakes, but we never
stop being human. And as for Jim Turner’s wayward 1 1/2 pointer - you
should know by now that they KNOW. Little tiny stones KNOW when the
customer is coming, and think it’s their mission in life to drive you
nuts… They sit there, just waiting, and then run to the last place
you would ever look at the last minute…

Having started at 12 yrs old, with a bench set up in my Mom’s
laundry room, I had my 1st real job at a store at age 16. On one job,
making a fancy linked chain, it was within minutes of completion,
when I screwed up at the buffer, and literally destroyed it beyond
recognition. And boy did it sting as it spit all those little pieces
back out at me.

Ed in Kokomo

I wasn’t a beginner when I tried to burn the place down. I had put
some settings in the boric acid alcohol mix. Flamed off the ring and
then proceeded to get some other settings out of the jar with my
still flaming tweezers. Poof, the jar that I was holding in my hands
went up in flames right under my nose. It startled me and I threw the
glass jar up in the air, caught my hand on fire and the floor too. I
ran to put out my flaming paw, then threw the shop towel on the
flaming floor. By then the oxygen line was adding to the growing
fire. Not a good thing. By then my brain was working again and I
grabbed the fire extinguisher. What a mess that made. My brother had
been in the shop about 20 minutes before my mishap. When he came back
in and looked around he said, What did you do? It wasn’t like this a
little while ago. We spent a long time getting the mess cleaned up.
Found that stuff for weeks. The hand was fine the next day, I used a
lot of aloe vera that night and only had a few blisters and no pain
the next day. I learned to never hold the jar, and have a lid ready
to cover quickly if I do something stupid like catch it on fire. As
for bench mistakes, they happen and make you really good at fixing
melted parts. Been at this 30 years and can fix about anything I mess

Janine in Redding, CA. I am almost done with custom jobs and looking
forward to time off next week.

Thanks for all the great bench stories!

Hi All! I just wanted to thank all of those who were so kind to
share their stories in response to my post “Beginner Bench Jeweler
Follies”. It gave me lots of encouragement to forge ahead into the
hectic holiday week, and also gave me a few good laughs, too!!

By the way, the next day went much more smoothly. :slight_smile:


I made plenty of mistakes as an apprentice, and still make the
occasional mistake 15 years on. Not too long ago I made the mistake
of assuming.

A customer of mine (also a very good friend, thankfully) handed me
an emerald and white-stone ring and asked me to re-tip the numerous
claws as well as replace one of the many “diamonds” that had been
lost. I carefully removed the emerald and proceeded to set a new
diamond and re-tip the claws.

To my horror all the white stones burned and developed that
lovely(?) frosty look. They were cubic zirconias. I had assumed the
customer knew the stones and took their word for it, plus knowing
them well I doubted that they would have had anything other than

This posed 2 problems for me. [1] I had to replace the stones, but
first… [2] I had to chat with my friends and find out exactly what
they thought the stones were and what did they want in there. In the
end the hubby had actually bought the ring knowing they were C/Z’s
and they were happy for me to replace them with C/Z’s, so I did so
at my own cost.

I really should have checked the stones regardless.


I too had a mishap that I still sitting on my bench. My husband’s
niece had picked out some stones and helped design her ring. She
picked 4 matching 5mm, triangle Chrysoprase cabs, set in a flower
shape on the top and a textured BD round band. I made the whole ring
and went to set the stones and I was missing one.

I have contacted the supplier that I originally bought these from
but these were not stones that he had cut and that only cost me $6.00
each. He measured these stones in May when he was in Calgary and said
he would cut me a new one for $30.00. I am still waiting, waiting,
waiting… I have emailed him a number of times and phone a few as
well just missing him being in the shop each time.

So this ring sits. 8 months so far. I can’t do any more until I
replace the missing stone. This is the only one that I have lost that
I did not eventually find. I am starting to wonder if this ring is
jinxed. Good thing this one was for family, that I cannot get my
money back on until I find another stone.

Karen Bahr - Karen’s Artworx
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

When all is lost…Working between my bench and running a gallery, I
transport tools, stones, whatever I need for the day. Arriving at
the bench to pick up the day’s stones to set, I find the container
upset and stones scattered. On the floor desperately looking for the
only stone that fit a Christmas gift expected done the following
day, I thought I’d found it only to get to the gallery and discover
it wasn’t the stone at all. Repeated searches of the bench and floor
found nothing. Not being able to replace the stone in time I was
losing a good sale. On the way back I discovered I’d lost my
glasses. Not a good day. But this am I did find my glasses unhurt in
the drive…Not where I thought I’d lost them: and the stone…this
little iddybiddy stone? Turned up at the gallery in my files case.
All is not lost! Just not where I thought anything was! Lisa in NY
where it’s still not wintery:)

Dianne, About 40 yoers ago, I started a new job in in Newport Beach,
Ca. As I was setting up my bench, the store owner came in and handed
me an antique pocket watch that kept popping open. She said to be
careful as I took it in my palm and put my thumb over the crystal. I
talked to her last year and she said "Tom., you can tell me now, the
moment I handed you that watch you broke it on purpose, didn’t you."
She has never believed it was an accident. Welcome to the club.

Tom Arnold

Hi Diane,

I’ve been a shop master for years, and my measure of a jewelers’
skill isn’t that they never screw up a piece; but how quickly and
how well they repair the disaster. Hang in there and know it’s a
long learning curve…every once in a while it’s going to seem as if
the piece is made of solder, with good torch control you don’t melt
too much of the ring. When one of my early mentors went to work for a
crochety old master jeweler, Harold (the old guy) gave him a job
that was way over my friends head. After contemplating impending
disaster Rick came back and asked "What happens if I melt the ring?"
Harold replied “Think of all the practice you’ll get making another
one just like it.”

Sorry that’s not really funny; but it’s a cautionary tale: Pay
attention to the piece you’re working on to the point that if you
really have a problem you can restore the project to it’s original
condition. Although it’s easier on the newbie,and the journeyman to
pass on a job that’s out of their league; always do take the job
that stretches your boundaries and challenges your skills at least
somewhat. If it’s a little harder than you want you’ll get better

Good luck
Bruce Morrison

Dear all

Here is my definition of learning setting while at the bench…Once
you learn most of the basics of diamond setting. Think again, you’re
still at the main floor and you now have 30 stories to climb.
Climbing to the top of the ladder, so to speak.

I just finished being setting for long hours these last few months
and many setting projects passed my bench-peg. Some of them I haven’t
seen before… I just closed my eyes for a few seconds and pictured
how it should be done… I called upon my few setting years of
experience “all 47 of them”…sought out the burs and tools to use
and then methodically attacked each process…slow at first…then
figured out a newer method to put into my hard-drive crevasses of my

Voila’ the second ring to pass my bench came to me lots easier, now
the third ring was a dream and also lots faster with NO ERRORS in
judgement. This discertation applies to anything you folks are
working on.

Explore every ‘avenue’ to create a new technique, it might seem
unattractive to your manager, but it will make your life easier in
the long run. If you, like me have to modify any tool at your
disposal, then do so! Some of my most interesting setting tools ARE
HAND MADE. They are totally modified for a specific setting project
and they are kept separate.

Let me share one idea with you all, where ever you folks may be,
call it my Christmas present to anyone reading this diamond setting
essay. If you have a Channel Setting with Princess diamonds and you
want to make darn sure that the Channel Wall bearing cuts be at one
level. Here is my simple technique.

First of all if you use a round bur to make the channel wall a
slightly wider, try using a round bur and grind the top of the
opening. Now lay the stone on top of the opening, if it is over
lapping a tad, great. Lets proceed further, so to speak.

Remember most of my burs are interchangeable with other setting
ideas. Obtain your 156C bur or as its called an "undercutting bur"
grind off the pointed section, leaving ONLY the very widest part of
this bur. WHY? Glad you asked,

THIS IS YOUR NEW CUTTING BUR, this new bur will only cut a groove
for the girdle of the stone to rest against the wall. Now run it
the rest of the spaces allocated for the Princess stones. If you use
a #006 round, or bud bur of the same sizes, again you might run to
problems. You might not have the luxury of making a straight line in
the Channel Wall!!!

This method is only a guide line to the rest of your setting
process, from this point on you may attack the Princess setting the
usual way. By the way, a Princess Diamond in a Gypsy Setting is one
of the easiest setting methods to do…:>)…


These stories have been so fun to read I have to share… For a few
years after college, to save money, I had my bench set-up in my
home. For a couple years, I lived in an old house with 3 other people
so my bedroom was also my studio. I had a bench and a separate
soldering table. I was working on a ring one day at the soldering
bench. I got it up to temperature and was soldering on some wire when
the ring rolled off the table and into my lap (yeah, I didn’t use
anything to hold it in place). Naturally, my knee jerk reaction was
to open my legs so I wouldn’t burn myself. In the process, my arms
also flung open. Well, I had my torch in my left hand which moved the
flame right over fabric drapery hanging in the window which
immediately burst into flames while the ring was burning a hole into
the original circa 1735 wood floors. Fortunately, a bowl of water
quenched the flames but it was difficult to explain to my roommates
what the smell was coming from my room! Lesson: never hang anything
flammable in my studio and secure my soldering job!

Chaya Caron
Chaya Studio