By Shawna Kulpa
Ask most jewelers about repairing a chain or finding and they’re likely to offer you their best Charlie Brown impression: Good grief! And it’s an expression that’s somewhat warranted, given the risks involved in working on the tiny links of a delicate chain or applying a torch near a heat-sensitive finding. But these jewelers are also just as likely to admit that there’s a great sense of accomplishment when they’ve successfully completed the repair—not to mention the little rush of adrenaline that comes from taking on a risky job.
To help you achieve that same sense of satisfaction, we spoke with jewelers about their best practices for chain and finding repair projects. While following these practices can’t guarantee that every job will go smoothly, they can help you feel more confident in your ability to tackle such repairs head-on.
When Susan Eisen of Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry & Watches in El Paso, Texas, takes in a chain for repair, she and the customer spend a lot of time going over any problems with it as well as what needs to be done. “We keep the customer informed by explaining the whole process,” she says. In her experience, she’s found that many jewelers will simply quote the customer a price without offering any explanations. Instead, she recommends walking the customer through what the repair will entail. “We talk about the whole picture, not just about what they’re asking us to fix,” she says. She’ll specifically look for other issues with the chain that could need fixing, such as worn jump rings, a bail that may need reinforcing, or other places on the chain that look like they could break. “It’s very helpful, and customers appreciate knowing everything.”
In addition to walking customers through the repair process during take-in, Eisen takes pictures of every piece brought in. “It’s time consuming, but it’s saved us many times,” she says. She and her staff take photographs of every piece from multiple angles, and all of the images are time- and date-stamped to prove that they were taken before any repairs were made. If a customer later returns claiming that a jeweler put a ding in a piece, the original photos will show whether that ding had been there all along. “I recommend it to everyone,” she says. “Most [jewelers] don’t have the time or desire to do so. But when it saves you, you’ll see that it’s worth the time and effort.”
In lieu of photos, Jo Haemer of Timothy W. Green in Portland, Oregon, likes to make photocopies of the pieces when she takes them in for repair. The photocopy can serve as proof that no links are missing when the customer returns to pick up the repaired chain. It can also prove helpful should another link on the chain break later: If a customer comes back claiming it’s the same one that had been fixed, Haemer can pull out the photocopy to verify. She adds that such return visits are far from rare: “If one link on a chain needs to be fixed, others will likely [need to] be too. Chain repairs can be fraught with difficulties.”
Both Haemer and Eisen recommend weighing the items when brought in as well as measuring the chain and counting all of the links in front of the customer. “You can’t ever be too careful,” says Eisen.
According to Haemer, cleanliness is not next to godliness when it comes to soldering chain links. “I almost always clean [any other item] before taking a torch to it, but with chains, I leave them dirty,” she says.
When Haemer repairs a chain, she cleans only the edges of the cut link she’s soldering closed. For most links, that can be done with a few swipes of a file. But for lightweight, thin chains, she uses flush cutters to create a clean edge, since filing the tiny chain would be tough. She then purposely leaves the other links dirty to prevent solder from flowing onto them and creating stiff spots in the chain.
“The dirt acts as a shield,” she explains. “The solder won’t flow where it’s dirty. The dirt keeps the other links from getting flooded with solder, so you don’t wind up with the dreaded stiff spot in an otherwise lovely chain. It’s a pain to clean up the burned-on schmutz afterward, but it’s still much easier than redoing the job because the solder ran.”
Another way Haemer has found to avoid having links flooded is to first roll down her sheet and wire, thereby reducing the amount she uses. “I close down my rolling mill almost all the way and roll out my solder super thin,” she says. By rolling down the solder so it’s thinner than an average sheet of paper, Haemer not only decreases the amount she’s applying, but also increases its surface area. “That way, the pallions are large enough to pick up and place, but they melt down to nothing.” This method also helps with cleanup, she adds: “Ideally, you don’t want to have to go in and clean up any solder with a file because you’ll leave file marks, and you’ll never get things quite as pretty again.”
Judy Willingham of Prairiefire Gems in Manhattan, Kansas, uses another method for containing solder flow: She paints the adjoining links with a water-based correction fluid, such as Wite-Out. The fluid acts just like one of the more traditional anti-fluxes, such as yellow ochre, and it comes with its own applicator.
When repairing a chain, it can be easy to lose your place among the links, especially when they’re exceptionally small. To avoid this, Arthur Skuratowicz of Georgetown Jewelers in Wood Dale, Illinois, uses a marker to indicate the link in need of repair.
“Before I even assemble the chain back together, I use a red Sharpie and physically mark the open link,” he says. “Even after I pinch it closed, I’ll know that the red link is the one that needs to be soldered closed.”
He does this even when he uses a laser welder to secure the link. “With laser welding, you really don’t need a reference since you’re holding [the link] in your hands and using a microscope to view it, but I still use a marker. If I have to put the chain down or drop it, I can still quickly find the right link.”
Because they’re small, findings and some chain links can be vulnerable to heat. That’s true especially of findings containing heat-sensitive steel springs, such as lobster-claw or spring-ring clasps. A laser welder is the safest avenue for these types of repairs, given its localized heat. But when that isn’t an option, there are a few easy ways to protect the piece from heat.
Like many jewelers, Marc Firestone of Krombholz Jewelers in Cincinnati relies on a heat-shielding paste to guard against any heat exposure during soldering. “I have a 6 inch stainless steel pot, and I’ll fill it about three-quarters of the way with Thermo Shield [his specific brand of paste] and then sink things in it that I don’t want to get hot,” he explains. “You can also make little troughs where you’re working, to help concentrate the heat. When I had a big chain that I was trying to solder a tongue to, I put the chain and tongue into the paste and then made a trough in the paste where I put the solder.”
Once the repair is complete, the pieces can be pulled out of the paste and easily cleaned with water. He keeps the leftover paste in the pot and stores it under a lid, which keeps the paste pliable for a few weeks. When it does dry out, he adds a bit of water and stirs to rehydrate it. (Firestone adds that the paste can also be applied directly to jewelry pieces, but notes that it tends to dry out quickly that way.)
Metal also makes a great shield for protecting delicate links and findings. Willingham, for example, uses titanium strips as a heat shield during her chain repairs.
“I have titanium strips that I’ve bent into a V shape,” she explains. “Along the edge that stands on my soldering block, I’ve cut tiny V or square shapes out of it.” She places the titanium strip on her soldering block so that the cutouts line up over the chain, framing the area to be repaired (see photo). “It keeps the heat from being diverted,” she says.
Alternatively, Skuratowicz likes to use copper strips as his heat absorbers. “After I place the chain on my solder block, I’ll lay two small strips of copper on either side of the red link I’ve marked for repair,” he says. “The copper is good at absorbing the heat, and it helps me avoid melting the chain.”
Skuratowicz combines his protective copper shields with a less aggressive flame that uses less oxygen than he would normally use for soldering. “I adjust the torch flame, reducing the amount of oxygen so that the flame stays the same size but doesn’t burn as hot,” he says. “Oxygen controls the heat of the flame, and a tiny, super-hot flame will melt a chain or any previous solder joints.” He bases the heat of the flame on the thickness of the links. “You start with an under-heated flame that you slowly build up so you don’t damage the piece. With trial and error, you’ll find a happy medium.”
One of the riskiest repair jobs jewelers can face involves fixing a failed jump ring that connects a clasp to a bracelet or a necklace. Unfortunately, they face it commonly: These jump rings are often left unsoldered because of their proximity to a clasp that features a steel spring. If heated, the steel will lose its temper, rendering the clasp useless. But not soldering the jump ring closed also creates a vulnerable spot in the chain. “If a chain is going to fail, it will be at the jump ring because it’s not soldered shut,” says Haemer.
However, she notes that it is possible to accomplish this with a fine-tip torch…and easy solder. “Don’t be ashamed of using really easy solder if a repair job warrants it,” she advises. Haemer admits to using 6k and 10k easy solder for difficult repair jobs such as this. “The lower the karat, the lower the melting temp. I would never use an easy solder to size a ring, but a chain link doesn’t have the same stresses on it as a ring shank would have,” she says. “It’s tricky, and I have a 15 percent fail rate, but it can be done.”
Easy solder can also come in handy when repairing some machine-made chains due to the way they were manufactured. “Many chains are made by a machine using a wire with a core of easy solder that melts at a lower temperature than the wire’s metal,” explains Skuratowicz. “As the machine bends the wire into patterns, the chain’s links are shaped but not soldered closed. The link chain then goes through an oven precisely set at the temperature [needed to melt] the easy solder core.” The solder then melts “and the links solder themselves closed.” Because this chain already has easy solder in its links, if a jeweler were to attempt to use a hard solder to repair it, the easy solder would start to flow long before the hard solder reached its melting point.