WATERLOO — It’s a Thursday morning in early November. Greg Schreiber is at his bench, headlamp focused on a gleaming diamond ring and his face already streaked gray with polishing compound residue.
A goldsmith at Roth Jewelers, he and fellow goldsmiths at the longtime downtown Waterloo jewelry store are working steady to provide customers a shiny, glittering holiday.
“It’s a skill that’s no different than a woodcarver, plumber or electrician,” Schreiber said. “It’s art, math, engineering and science. You have to know how things are put together, how gold behaves when it’s melted. Jewelry is meant to be worn, so it has to be durable.”
Roth has three full-time goldsmiths, also known as bench jewelers. They include Greg, his father, Kevin Schreiber, owner of Roth Jewelers; and Mandi Martin. Business is steady year-round, but sees a bump in the holiday season, Kevin Schreiber said.
The holiday season is a big one for jewelers. In 2017, jewelry sales in November and December reached $9.1 billion, 28 percent of the industry’s annual revenue, according to the National Retail Federation. This year, 22 percent of respondents in the NRF annual holiday consumer survey said they are hoping for a gift of jewelry.
Holiday shoppers’ desire for all things sparkly keeps Martin, the Schreibers and another father-son goldsmith duo in Cedar Falls on their toes.
“It’s an extremely busy time, probably the busiest time of the year,” said goldsmith Larry Rasmussen, who works alongside his son, Drew Rasmussen. The Rasmussens own LR Jewelers in downtown Cedar Falls, which employs three goldsmiths. Drew is the third generation of Rasmussens to learn the craft.
At the holidays, the family is busy at the bench, creating and retooling “anything from pendants to birthstones to family (heirloom) jewelry,” Drew Rasmussen said.
Many of the hand tools used by goldsmiths have been around for decades. More modern tools, like laser welders, have been game changers for jewelry artisans. Martin at Roth demonstrated how a hairline crack in a diamond ring setting can be repaired with a laser welder without risk of compromising the structure of the ring.
“Before, we’d have to use a torch, which heats up the whole ring,” said Greg Schreiber. “The laser welder is like laparoscopic surgery — it’s the least invasive approach.”
The welder also allows goldsmiths to work on metals they couldn’t previously, like stainless steel and titanium. “The torches didn’t get hot enough,” Martin explained.
At Roth, Greg Schreiber is able to help shoppers design custom jewelry pieces using computer-aided design software. Customers can see a 3-D rendering of their piece before the first precious gem is cut or metal melted. The software also allows jewelers to have a digital record of a jewelry piece, eliminating the need to keep physical master molds.
No matter the tools used, the sentiment is the same, Roth owner Kevin Schreiber said.
“There’s something special about presenting a customer with a new ring, or an old piece made to look new again,” he said. “Every day we remind ourselves that these are keepsakes, family heirlooms. These are people’s treasures, and we treat them that way.”