By Shawna Kulpa
What’s in a name? Everything, when your customer wants his beloved’s moniker engraved onto the new ring that will soon adorn her finger.
For centuries, jewelry makers have been adding personalized messages and images onto jewelry using nothing more complicated than a hammer and chisel. Over time those basic tools transformed into more mechanized and pneumatic means of engraving, helping to speed production and ease jewelers’ hand strain. Laser engraving systems, the latest development in the field, have saved even more time and effort—but they do come with a hefty price tag compared to that of a tried-and-true hand graver.
Deciding whether or not to invest in any technology is never (nor should it ever be) an easy decision. And laser engraving systems are no different. Besides considering things such as the initial upfront investment as well as the potential return, you need to consider the true benefits this technology could have on your business. We spoke with several experts in the field to help you understand the laser engravers on the market today, the benefits they offer, and how to determine if one of these systems makes sense for you.
Although there are three types of laser engravers on the market today, most models operate in a similar manner. Rather than drag along a diamond-tipped tool to remove material from the surface manually, as most mechanical engraving methods do, a laser beam is redirected at the surface of the metal by mirrors. The laser beam then draws whatever the user is trying to engrave onto the surface. As the beam hits the material, everything in its path is vaporized. The main differences between the three types of laser engravers available are how that laser beam is produced and its resulting wavelength.
The oldest of the bunch, Nd:YAG lasers will likely be the most familiar to those in the jewelry industry, as they are what is found in most laser welders on the market today. They use flashlamps to produce a beam with a wavelength of 1,064 nanometers, which is the ideal wavelength to be absorbed by most metals and some plastics. However, because organic materials, such as wood and glass, require a higher wavelength to be absorbed, YAG lasers cannot be used to engrave onto those surfaces. Also, because they use flashlamps and are cooled with water, they generally require regular maintenance, as the water filters and the lamps, which have a short life expectancy, require frequent replacement.
YAG lasers have slowly been phased out and replaced with pulsed fiber lasers, which use a fiber optic cable that has been doped in rare elements. These units are similar to YAG lasers in that they have a wavelength of 1,064 nanometers and can be used to engrave and mark most metals and plastics. They also perform poorly on organic materials, such as wood and glass. However, these lasers are air cooled and require virtually no maintenance beyond a regular cleaning of the lenses.
In carbon dioxide (CO2) laser engravers, a tube of CO2 acts as a medium to create the laser beam. The wavelength at which it operates is 10 times larger than that of pulsed fiber and YAG lasers— 10,064 nanometers. That wavelength is ideal for the light to be absorbed by many transparent and organic materials, such as glass, wood, acrylic, rubber, and more, but it is not suited for most metals. While special sprays are available to make a metal surface suitable for use with a CO2 laser, the resulting marks are simply a chemical reaction between the spray and the metal, and they can be scratched off.
Despite the differences in the types of laser systems, there really isn’t a big difference in price. As with most technology, the price of laser engravers has gradually fallen. “It used to be that fiber lasers were $50k or higher, but prices have come down over time,” says Gary Paresky, regional sales manager of LaserStar Technologies in Riverside, Rhode Island. He notes that buyers can find basic CO2 lasers for around $8k, while basic fiber lasers start around $11k. Optional accessories, such as rotary devices for engraving rings and bangle bracelets, can add a few thousand dollars to the cost of a fiber laser.
“They’re pretty close in price,” says Paresky, but he notes that fiber lasers have the benefit of lower maintenance costs over time. “You clean the lens once a month and change an air filter every six months but otherwise, there’s virtually no maintenance to do. YAG lasers require the replacement of de-ionized water every few months, replacement of flashlamps every six months, and cleaning of optics in the laser path. CO2 lasers need a cleaning of the optics, a cleaning and/or lubrication of the XY gantry rails and bearings, and changing of air filters.”
Before you decide on which type of engraver to buy, give careful consideration to the intended use. Will you be engraving only precious jewelry metals, or do you anticipate needing to regularly engrave other materials, such as wood or plastic?
“One mistake that many folks will make is that they’ll buy an inexpensive CO2 laser but then find out that it doesn’t work on metals. [CO2 lasers] also don’t have a scan head, so they’re only good for doing flat items—there’s no way to rotate items,” says Paresky. “Fiber lasers work on metals, plastics, and various other materials. A typical jeweler might have a diamond drag engraving system in which they’ve always been able to do plastic, metal, and glass. With a laser engraver, they’ll have to choose between a fiber or CO2. Neither can do everything. It’s a big decision point, but for most jewelers, the ability to engrave on metals is key.”
Regardless of the type of laser engraver used, the depth of the engraving ultimately depends on the power level of the laser—the higher the wattage, the more powerful the laser, the deeper the engraving. Nathan Button, product manager of tool and equipment/packaging and display at Rio Grande in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says that while there are some lower-priced, low wattage (under 10 watts) systems on the market, he notes that you usually “get what you pay for.” The lower the wattage of the laser, the less expensive the system, but also the less powerful. While some of these systems may be okay for applying a light initial etching, if you want to achieve any sort of depth in your engraving with these machines, multiple passes would need to be made.
Instead, Button recommends jewelers interested in investing in a laser engraver look no lower than a 20-watt laser. “It allows you to do all the jewelry materials,” he says. “Depending on how quickly and how deep you want to engrave, you can go to upper wattages.” But he cautions buyers against going too high on the wattage, especially if they’re interested in using the device for engraving only. There are laser engravers so powerful they can actually pierce and cut out shapes entirely from the metal.
“There are higher wattages out there for people doing a lot of piercing,” Button says. “But those aren’t typically the most engraving friendly—they’re too powerful.”
Ron Spain, sales and operations manager of B&D Sales, a Stuller Inc. company based in Cranston, Rhode Island, agrees that more power is not necessarily a better thing. “A 20-watt machine will service most jewelry engraving perfectly fine,” he says. “Sometimes less is more.”
However, Button also recommends thinking about not just what machine will meet your needs today, but also what will meet your needs a little further down the road. “Where do you want to be tomorrow?” Button asks. “Understand what you’re doing today and what you want to do in the next few years. Don’t overbuy, but don’t underbuy.”
If you’ve been hand engraving with your trusty gravers for years, or if you’ve been doing it mechanically with a pneumatic engraving device, you may be wondering what benefit you would get by investing in a fairly pricey laser engraver. After all, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
One of the primary reasons cited as to why jewelers should consider a laser engraver is simply the time it saves. Though there will always be some products and designs best served by hand engraving, there’s also a lot of work for which laser engraving may make more financial sense. Why spend half a day painstakingly engraving a pattern that a machine could create in minutes? And what else could you be doing with the time a laser engraver would save you?
Paresky believes that, with the right job, the time savings between hand engraving and using a laser engraver can’t be beat. “Obviously it will vary depending on the depth in the metal, but typically engraving a name and date with a laser on the inside of a ring will take about 20 seconds. With hand engraving, that same message would take several minutes.”
Button agrees, noting that the time saved with a laser engraver could be put to other profitable use. “We can do a lot of things, but should we be doing them? What makes our time more profitable? In the time that you’re saving, what else can you be doing that’s profitable?”
Another difference between hand and laser engraving is the resulting finish. With traditional hand engraving, you’re literally digging up mounds of material that you’ve gouged out.
“With a laser engraver, you’re vaporizing a channel, leaving it very crisp and without a build-up of material, so the look is different than with hand engraving,” says Paresky. He also notes that the laser beam diameter is about 30 microns. To put that into perspective, the average human hair measures about 100 microns in diameter.
When it comes to deciding whether or not to invest in a laser engraver, Paresky acknowledges that it can be difficult to calculate the return on investment (ROI), especially for smaller jewelers and manufacturers. “Many jewelers don’t do engraving, and if they are doing engraving, in many cases they’re offering it as a free service to close the deal. That makes it hard to calculate the ROI.”
Larger manufacturers will have an easier time calculating and justifying the ROI due to the high volumes involved. “Most jewelry manufacturers have gone to laser engraving because of reduced time and the quality of the engraving,” he says. “A good example is a trademark, logo, or serial number that has traditionally been stamped. The laser engraver produces a much better result, and with complex logos where a stamping looks unacceptable, a laser produces a sharp, clear image.”
To help calculate the potential ROI, Paresky emphasizes the importance of first deciding how the laser engraver could best be put to use in your shop, and then being able to both promote and sell those services. In today’s market, there’s a big demand for personalization, but in order to fully take advantage of buying a system, you need to show your customers what the machines can do.
“You have to make sure the customers understand that you have that ability,” he says. “Laser engravers can be a profit-generating machine, but you have to market it to take full advantage of your investment.”
Also, consider the possible unintended effects investing in a laser engraver could have on your business. If you’re the only engraver in your area, other jewelers could start sending engraving work to you. “Ask yourself, Do you want to take on that external business?” says Paresky.
Finally, also consider that engraving doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. There are companies out there using both laser and hand engraving in their work.
“We run into companies [primarily in the gun industry] that use engravers to scribe the surface of the piece that a hand engraver can go back over,” explains Spain. “It’s the idea of using the technology to accentuate the handwork. It’s a huge labor saver.”
If you’ve decided that a laser engraver has a place in your business, it’s time to start shopping. But what questions should you ask the suppliers?
• What are the training and support options?
Even if you’re experienced in using a laser welder, you’ll want to ask the manufacturer or supplier about the training and support options they offer.
“Learning how to use a laser engraver is different than [learning] a laser welder,” says Paresky. “Most jewelers already have experience doing repairs with a torch. Learning to use a laser welder is just a matter of applying the same techniques they currently use, but with the laser as the heat source rather than a torch. With a laser engraver, the user needs to be comfortable with a computer and have some ability to work with CAD software in order to prepare files that the engraver can understand. You’re going to want support and help to learn how to use it.”
Spain cautions buyers against solely basing their buying decisions on price. “Look at the level of [training and support] service that’s provided,” he cautions. “I see people looking at inexpensive systems and then getting frustrated because there’s no support option. These are not easy systems. Find out about the support system.”
If you’re just engraving basic text on a ring, it’s a pretty simple and easy process. But if you want to engrave a photo image, logo, or handwritten message, you need to scan in the image on a flatbed scanner and then convert that image into a format that the laser engraver understands—and that’s where things can get tricky.
Depending on the complexity of the design, the process of “converting that picture into a format that the laser understands can take 10 seconds or many hours,” says Paresky. “Most images can be converted using automated tools built into software such as CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, or Rhino, but only if the user knows how to use them. The more experience a user has with CAD software, the easier this process becomes.
“The actual engraving time is usually minimal compared to the time needed to prepare the file,” he continues. He emphasizes the importance of this step if users want and expect a crisp, solid engraving. Not taking the time to make sure the image details are right will only result in a less than great engraving job. “Like they used to say about computers…garbage in equals garbage out.”
• What type of presets does the engraver come with, and can they be changed?
Ask about what type of presets the engravers come with that could be used as starting points for engraving specific materials. “You need to vary the beam because certain metals reflect the light differently [and] some materials will retain heat longer,” says Button. “Most systems have those preset into them, though you may have to tweak it.” That’s especially true if you opt for a laser engraver that’s not commonly used in the jewelry industry. “Not all silvers are created equal.”
• What type of accessories will I need?
If you plan to engrave the insides of rings and bangle bracelets, be sure to inquire about the types of available fixtures that will allow you to do that. These are usually available at an additional cost. Also consider any non-jewelry items that you think you might engrave, such as pens and key chains, and ask if there are specialty fixtures available for them as well.
• Does the engraver come with its own ventilation system?
Because these machines vaporize the metal, you’ll want to ask if an engraver comes with any type of built-in dust collection or air filtration system. Not only do you want to direct the smoke that results from the vaporization away from the user, that smoke also contains precious metal material that you’ll want to capture. “There’s money in that dust and smoke,” says Button. “You don’t capture as much as in polishing, but you’re still recapturing some of that.”
If an engraver doesn’t come with a built-in system, what type of air filtration system does the manufacturer recommend, or could it be incorporated into an existing ventilation system?
“Many jewelers already have a ventilation system set up and they can Y connect a hose over to the engraver,” says Paresky.
• Can I have samples made with the engraver?
When you’re narrowing down the field, don’t be afraid to ask suppliers for samples produced by the laser engravers.
“We encourage customers to contact us and we’ll run samples to see what different watt machines look like using their files,” says Button. “We might not run them in platinum, but we’ll use something comparable. You can see how the engraving applies to you and how you’d be using it.”
Jewelry engraving has come a long way from the days of a hammer and chisel. Laser engravers have sped up and simplified the process. While they may not be the solution for every jeweler, they are an option that allows jewelers looking to make their mark in a new way to work faster while also freeing them to spend time working on other profitable aspects of their business.