Login to enhance your online experience. Login or Create an Account

Nov 25, 2009

Chris Myers: Jeweler Turned Machinist

As the Taste in Rings Changes, Jewelers Turn into Machinists

Established in 1992 by jeweler and machinist Chris Myers, Steelwerks specializes in custom surgical stainless steel and titanium products, including designer wedding bands, engagements rings, earrings and necklaces. As medical grade materials, stainless steel and titanium will not discolor or irritate people with allergies or sensitive skin, and far exceed the durability of the more conventional jewelry materials like gold, silver and platinum.

When it comes to engagement and wedding rings, couples in their 20’s and 30’s are finding alternatives to the familiar gold band and diamond settings of their grandparents. “The view now among young couples towards tradition rings is there’s so much that’s not exciting,” says Chris Myers, owner of the Montreal-based custom jeweler Steelwerks. “More and more, the non-traditional wedding ring is becoming the new tradition. It’s become really, really popular to get a contemporary-looking band out of non-traditional materials.”

Steelwerks specializes in rings and other accessories cut from stainless steel and titanium into contemporary shapes. Unlike gold, these materials do not irritate the skin. Where “traditional” rings have organic, smooth curves and intricate details cast from wax moldings, the new look is boxier and chunkier, with bold straight lines. Rather than molding the ring designs, Myers cuts the shapes out of stainless steel or titanium billets, resulting in an “architectural” aesthetic, according to Myers. “That’s really what people expect nowadays – crisp lines.”

The 31-year-old Myers, who has been a jeweler for twelve years, started out as a goldsmith apprentice, learning the arts of wax modeling, metal casting, and stone setting in the old tradition. He sensed that popular tastes were changing due to youth culture’s new relationship with jewelry.

“When I was an apprentice, I was dating a girl that was a piercer. At the time – 10 or 12 years ago – body jewelry was really big. I didn’t see much of a future market for traditional jewelry – especially since there’s already so much competition in that area – so I followed the body jewelry route.” Myers quit goldsmithing to capitalize on the new trend of making body jewelry, and for a while employed six to seven people. About five years ago, Steelwerks segued into matrimonial rings. “Now I’m more focused on wedding or engagement bands, which myself and one employee work on. I don’t do much body jewelry anymore.”

Since the trend in new rings designs took off, even competition from overseas began imitating the style in mass-produced form. Steelwerks, however, remains competitive because of its custom capabilities, says Myers. “When people are making that kind of purchase – an engagement or wedding ring – people appreciate working directly with the artist.”

With changing tastes, come changing tools. “Most jewelers haven’t a clue in the world of how to machine. That’s why I consider myself more of a machinist than a jeweler,” explains Myers, who made his first rings by cutting the steel and titanium outlines with a manual mill before polishing and engraving. As Steelwerks’ ring demand grew, Myers followed another new trend, this time in tooling, by using a technology called “computer-numeric-controlled machining,” or CNC. Very simply, CNC reads the shapes of CAD design files off a PC and cuts them automatically.

CNC automation has been historically an expensive exercise, generally limited to high-volume manufacturing or large-scale prototyping shops. Steel-cutting CNC machines were huge industrial hulks of equipment, weighing several tons, costing over $100,000, and needing an expertise in not only professional cutting, but also machine-code programming.

The newest development in tooling, however, is the concept of a "personal CNC" machine, where the mill has shrunk in size and simplified in its use. A personal CNC machine is scaled for an individual craftsperson, and can be operated without prior experience. The mill has comparable rigidity and power of industrial machines, but is less expensive because it cuts slightly slower than a high-volume factory model. But for creating custom pieces, prototypes, or short runs of component parts, the personal CNC is the perfect solution. Steelwerks purchased the Tormach PCNC 1100, a full-capability personal mill that costs under $7000.

“Tormach’s CNC gives me the ability to have five arms,” says Myers. “Anything I could do, I could do manually, but it would take me a lot longer – not hours, but days. To manually work a product, it would take me four or five days, but with the Tormach, I can do the same in just three to four hours. It’s incredibly faster. And automatic machining has precision; it doesn’t make mistakes.”

For jeweler-turned-machinist, the Tormach PCNC 1100 represents a tremendous boon for productivity and consistency. For a new custom ring, he can choose the CAD file of the appropriate ring size and immediately cut out the basic outline. For tiny jewelry components which require a consistent size, he can automatically cut twelve at a time. The Tormach CNC can also do intricate detailing, such as fine engraving, or calligraphy-monograms for necklaces – tasks that would usually take a lot of extra time and wasted material if performed manually.

“It’s a really amazing product. Right off the bat, I could tell that this machine was what I needed. The Tormach CNC is above everybody in the field, because it’s so simple. Just plug it in and use it,” explains Myers, who says the real learning curve is not with the hardware, but with the software. Thankfully, many inexpensive programs for CAD and CAM (the translators between CAD files and machine language) have become available in the last few years, and more user-friendly features are added with each edition. With this new type of personal CNC, machining is more like using a very powerful printer, rather than using an industrial machine that requires intensive programming and debugging.

“I’m 100% self-taught. I have no schooling in machining,” Myers says. Like other novices to CNC, Myers found the Tormach to be a warm introduction to the technology. “It’s been a fantastic mill. It would be a great learning tool for people training for CNC.”

“A lot of people who want to get into CNC aren’t poor, but they don’t have the big bucks. And they also don’t want a piece of equipment that’s so intimidating: heavy, gigantic, that won’t fit in their garage or basement. The philosophy of the Tormach CNC makes a lot more sense – making it “personal.” One thing I like about the machine is that it’s affordable for people who don’t have the $100,000 to drop on this technology. I did look into spending that much on a big machine, and re-mortgage my house. But I’m glad I didn’t. The Tormach CNC did the same job perfectly for $6800. I’ve paid it off already.”

Now that rings have broken out of the mold, jewelers now have an affordable and efficient tool.

This story was originally published as a Tormach Customer Showcase story in November, 2009.