Photos by Kent Blechynden. The Dominion Post.

It’s a special art, being able to turn metal into jewellery. Kimberley Rothwell meets the goldsmiths. 

LOOKING through the microscope on Karl Williams’s workstation is like walking into a vast crystal world. One stone in a ring encrusted with tiny diamonds looks as big as a fist, the minuscule claws that hold it in place are like clutching fingers.

Karl is putting stones in where others have fallen out, meticulously inlaying each one with a thin pointed prong called a beading tool. ‘‘The stones aren’t glued in or anything, and each tiny little claw has to be carefully worked over the stone – you’ve got to make sure the stones are all set evenly, that the distance of the claws and the metal coming across is the same,’’ he says.

Take a step back from the view in the microscope and it’s almost impossible to see the claws that hold the stones in place.

This is just donkey work for a goldsmith such as Karl, fixing up a ring bought in a chain store. Apart from his microscope and a few other bits of technology, his workstation looks a lot like the workbench of a bloke’s shed, though the desk has been cut into and sports a piece of fabric that catches filings from pieces in progress. The desk is grimy with years of wear, pairs of pliers hang on a wire near Karl’s elbow and little compartments where he keeps other bits and bobs he needs are grey with the dirt from his fingers. ‘‘I scrub my hands about 10 times a day,’’ he laughs, holding up his sooty-looking paws.

According to the Jewellers Association of New Zealand, manufacturing jewellers such as Karl and his colleagues at Victoria St’s The Village Goldsmith are dying out. But jobs are still coming into Karl’s inbox, and the other goldsmiths are busy at work. Gary Chapman, who the other goldsmiths refer to as ‘‘the ancient one’’ or ‘‘the silver fox’’, fishes in a box no bigger than an iPod for a diamond to put into a fix-up job, checking potential stones with a pair of calipers.

It’s a box of stones ‘‘we’ve collected over the years’’, and Gary can’t say how much they’re worth. ‘‘I wouldn’t know where to begin. They’re all good diamonds.’’ The magnifying eye pieces on his glasses are flipped down so he can see them more clearly.

It’s a long road to becoming a goldsmith. Typically, they do 8000 hours as an apprentice and study for three years through the Open Polytech. But that, Karl argues, only gives you the tools to start learning the trade. ‘‘That’s what’s quite cool about it, you’re always learning new things, there’s always more than one way of doing something,’’ he says.

Gary loves the job so much he won’t retire. He’s been in the business since 1954, and at 71 finds he’s still learning the craft. ‘‘If there wasn’t a challenge I wouldn’t come back, I would have retired years ago. That’s what keeps me going. I’m too scared to retire now.’’

He was going to become a display artist like his dad, but his father talked him into a career in metalwork. He used to design the pieces he created, but now just sticks to the technical side of things.

It’s quite a noisy environment. There’s the almost constant tick-tick of the vibrating sonic jewellery cleaner, a tub with rings suspended in it that jiggle themselves clean, the clunk-clunk as someone hammers out a ring on the anvil, and various other tools filing, hammering and scraping.

Jewellery designer Ian Douglas says, ‘‘so much of what we do is actually still done the same way it would have been done 100 years ago. We’re still forging metal, hitting it and shaping it, like we used to’’.

Laser technology has probably been the biggest watershed in goldsmithing Gary has seen in his 55 years in the business.  He explains: ‘‘The biggest dream in the jewellery trade was to be able to hold pieces in your hand so you can solder them together. With the laser, you can tack it into place and then solder it. You don’t have to bind it with wire to hold the article together, you can hold it in your hand.’’

He demonstrates by tacking a pendant to a ring. Just a couple of zaps of light and the two are stuck together, but not so permanently they can’t be pulled apart if a mistake has been made. He doesn’t need a vice, just his own steady hands to hold the two in place. With them tacked together, he can now more permanently bind them with solder – a tricky process if the pieces aren’t absolutely still or in the right place. The only pitfall is having the laser hit your fingers. ‘‘You get little burns,’’ Gary says.

Karl is starting work on an engagement ring. He unwraps the square-cut diamond his client has brought in to make it. He will make a band and coronet setting from platinum to drop the stone into.


‘‘A nice platinum solitaire ring would take at least six hours,’’ he says. ‘‘You can get a degree of detail and finesse with platinum you can’t get with other metals. So it’s worth spending that extra time getting it beautiful.’’