Sunday, January 28, 2018

My Questionable Sense of Humour

Anyone who knows me well will be all too familiar with the kind of jokes I throw out there. Your blank stares and pitying sighs notwithstanding, I know that y'all truly appreciate them and wish to encourage me in my quest for the perfect knee-slapper. My favourite part is the delayed reaction as what I've just said percolates through and you realize that, “Hey, he's trying to be funny.” I live for it.
I suppose it may have something to do with the gypsy existence I led for the first part of my life. Our family moved around a fair bit thanks to my dad's government job, and the longest we stayed anywhere was about four years. This meant that I was frequently the new kid in town and had to figure out ways to make contact with like-minded individuals. A good joke is sometimes an excellent ice-breaker, and I made a point of collecting a few favourites to drop into conversations. The main problem with this approach is that, after I had thrown down some of my best stuff, all too often I would be rewarded with some sort of “Little Johnny” joke; contrived, filthy, and seldom funny. Worse yet, a grossly racist and sexist “Rastus” or blonde joke. It was through repeated disappointments that I came up with a few short one-liners that were so weird that only the most discerning individual would attempt to respond. Most people would just chuckle uncomfortably and begin to sidle away.
I met a kindred spirit this way when Curt, who I had only just met, said, “I saw the Buddha running a hot-dog stand, so I said, 'Make me one with everything.'” And we were off. We pulled together some exceedingly odd “Finder” jokes and generally made nuisances of ourselves honing them carefully for maximum effect. Example: Jean-Paul Sartre sat down at a café. When the waiter asked if he'd like anything, he responded, “I think not.” Then disappeared. (I told that one wrong for an embarrassingly long time.)
Once, I said to a guy at the bar, “ You know what the white stuff is in chicken shit?... It's still chicken shit.” His response took me somewhat aback. “ Actually, it's uric acid,” he said, and explained in exquisite detail the excretory functions of birds and their differences from mammals. I knew that this was someone I could spend some time with.
So the next time I drop one of my painfully convoluted puns into the conversation, stopping it cold, I'm just on the lookout for a connection.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Over the years, the question has come up surprisingly frequently, “So, how do you size a ring? Do you, like, stretch it or something?”
No, we usually don’t stretch them, although very occasionally will stretch a plain band up by a tiny amount. It is risky and makes the ring thinner, so we’d prefer not to.
No, what we do is, generally, cut the ring and either remove enough material to size it down, or add enough material to size it up. The length of material necessary to raise or lower the size is just over 2.5mm per, or the thickness of two dimes. When asked what we do with the gold that we cut out of down-sized rings, this number will help to reassure customers that we’re not making out like bandits on each sizing; most of the cost of sizing is in the labour. It takes time to do it right.

The simplest sizing is one where the ring is being sized down, is still in good shape, and the back of the shank hasn’t been thinned out by wear. The ring is cut and filed so that there will be no obvious seam, then closed up, maintaining the original, circular shape as much as possible. It is then soldered, cleaned up, and polished. Would that it was always that simple, but that’s the basic gist.

Sizing the ring up involves opening the ring to the correct size, ensuring, once again, that the basic shape is maintained. The opening is then filed so as to present two parallel sides, a piece of gold filed to fit, and the repair soldered and finished as before. The sides of the opening need to be parallel so that the new piece will be held in place while soldering, otherwise it pops out as it’s heated and burns a hole in your shirt. Don’t ask me how I know. I am, of course grossly over-simplifying the process, but I haven’t got all day.

Where the process gets complicated, is when the back of the shank (the ring part of the ring) is so thin that, to size it up in the normal manner would render it ridiculously thin. This can be due to wear, or built in to the structure of the ring by shabby manufacturing. If the latter, little can be done to improve it, but if it’s just the back bit of the ring, then extra material can be removed, out to where the shank is a bit thicker, then a more substantial piece of new gold can be soldered in. We try to send stuff out looking better than when it came in.

If there is so much wear that the ring is thin more than half-way around the shank, then a full shank replacement will be necessary, but that’s a story for another day.
Just a note about solder. When we talk about solder in the industry, we’re not speaking of lead solder, which is the most common type that people think of. Horrible stuff used on electronics and copper plumbing. Our solder is actually karat gold (10K, 14K, 18K) that has been alloyed in such a way as to lower its melting point. Properly used, it makes an invisible joint that is as strong as the original material.
Thus endeth the lesson. For more pedantic fuckery, stay tuned.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


And, lo, it came to pass that, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-five, there came into our lives a Plant. A schefflera arboricola, by name. Also known to many as the dwarf umbrella and parasol, and to the Taiwanese as the Hainan. And as a Plant, it was Good. And it was Fruitful. Well, not exactly fruitful, as it bore no fruit, but it certainly knew how to go forth and multiply.
The original plant five years ago, about seventeen years old. As it got taller, the top foot or so would be unceremoniously lopped off and disposed of.
One day I decided to try a make a new plant out of the cutting, rather than simply chucking it and, boy, did that work.
This was taken a couple years after the initial planting, when it had already been shortened several times. The root base was filling in nicely, sort of clutching the soil. The pot is quite small, so the roots need to be pruned back every couple of years.
Whether I used a cutting from this plant or the original, I don’t recall, but I wanted one for the office downtown. I didn’t have any artistic motives, at first. Just a potted whatever to bring some life into the shop. Preferably something more or less indestructible. This thing fit the bill. It’s actually so dull that I have apparently never seen fit to snap a photo of it. It looks pretty much identical to the original.
That plant thrived (throve?) in the abundant sunlight, as well as the bright fluorescents at the office, and it  was time to start chopping it back. Well, waste not, want not. I brought a nice flat pot from home and started yet another cutting. So now we’ve got the grand-child of the original. This one also took off like the proverbial bat and got chopped back repeatedly.

A few years later, when the people who looked after the plants in the hallway of our building managed to kill the one outside my office, it was time for another iteration, the great-grand-child.
This is actually the first one that I didn’t personally repot. It was done by Joan and Chris, my apprentices, while I was off on holidays. They apparently did a good job because this is what it looks like a couple years later. It’s the bushiest one of all and hasn’t been hacked back at all yet. That top section is starting to look a little, ummm… uppity. Might be time to let it know what’s what.

Back home, now, I hear tell that Kristin is moving into a new house and, as if she hasn’t got enough plants already, I figured she could use one of these puppies. Besides, the first son was, once again, getting a little gangly. This was probably the most aggressive chop-job yet, as I took the entire top of the tree off and potted it. The old base looked pretty sad for a few weeks but, hey looky. The first little leaf has popped out the side and we’re off to the races once again.
Now we come to the reason for putting this whole thing together. Kristin contacted me last night and told me that her plant was already getting too big. Now, granted, I tend to plant these things in fairly tight pots, unless they’re going to be decorative plants rather than pseudo-bonsai, but it’s only been a couple weeks. Kris has always had a way of helping plants to thrive, so this doesn’t surprise me overmuch.

It’s choppin’ time.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Cheater Specs

Born as I was with an extremely near-sighted left eye, it has always been my contention that I was predisposed to be a goldsmith or an engraver. I have been able to work at very close quarters with my right hand without my knuckles getting in the way. Check it out.
This also meant that I sucked at sports, due to the complete lack of depth-perception, which was good, since it meant that I had more time to spend in my tiny basement workshop, honing my skills.
I only wear one contact len, which is seldom a concern, but the onset of something resembling old age has brought about a new development. Upon occasion, I require reading glasses. Carrying these around in a bulky old case is not my favourite thing, and not using a case just results in crushing said specs.
A while back, my buddy Russ and I were having lunch at the Second Avenue Grill downtown and it became obvious to our server, the lovely Natalie, that we were having trouble deciphering the bill. She showed up at the table with two of the coolest pairs of reading glasses, and we got to keep them. Once again, the problem of keeping them handy and protected presented itself. These specs were so slim, however, that they fit into a cigar tube, and my friend James recently gave me a Fuentes stogie for my birthday, the container of which worked perfectly. Whipping this out in a restaurant or at the symphony raises some eyebrows at first, but soon my brilliance becomes apparent.
It will, however, make you a little bit uncomfortable if you're familiar with Papillion, the memoir of Henri Charrière.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Back in the mid-seventies, after having cut off the hippie hair and decided that I was, indeed, a goldsmith, I had reason to enter Ben Moss Jewellers in Winnipeg. This was before I had discovered the concept of profit when pricing the stuff I was making, and I was buying chains at retail and selling them, at a loss, to my customers. This is still, somewhat, the story of my life, so it is with some regret that I think back to the job offer I received from Sid Trepel.
Sid was, as I learned later, not just a salesman or store manager, but the CEO of the whole shebang. His father-in-law, Ben Moss, had started the business in Winnipeg in 1910 and Sid took over in the late 'fifties. He was in the process of expanding the business and, for some reason, had set his sights on me. Problem is, he wanted a sales person and I am most emphatically not one of those, but now I realize that I may have missed an opportunity to learn more about, you know, business.
Ben Moss, the business entity, and I parted company from there on as I pursued making jewellery for people, rather than the masses. I often wonder whether a little bit of discipline and knowledge of the inner workings of the retail industry would have changed the way I do business for the better, or to the detriment of the kind of work I do.
I've never thought of myself as competing with retail jewellers, although what they do definitely affects the way I need to work. The fashion changes over the years, from white to yellow gold and back again, the swing from practical to flashy, bulky to delicate, have meant that my people developed different needs, to which I have had to respond.
Ben Moss Jewellers tried to respond to their customers in their own way, but the great toll of competition finally beat them and they are closing their doors after a hundred and six years. I just wanted to say thanks for the chance, Sid.
I'm still standing.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Apropos of nothing, I hereby present a piece of long-lost trivia from a bygone era.
We were moving a bunch of boxes around, preparatory to having some painting done, when I came across a box of old records. It has been necessary over the years to do an occasional cull of my record collection and whenever they turn up, it behooves me to have a look at my past.
In a boxed-set of Donovan's “Gift from a Flower to a Garden”, a truly gag-worthy pile of hippie tripe, I found this old 45.
The memories came flooding back, as memories do, and I figured it was absolutely imperative that I immortalize the flipside for posterity, as a tribute to the ingenuity of our rural folk. (I couldn't do the the Wabash Cannonball as the trial software I downloaded for the purpose limited me to a single track. It is, however, excellent software and I have paid for it, but finding all my login information seemed way too cumbersome. It's called LPRecorder/LPRipper and works great.)
The record was a gift from a friend from way back who grew up, to the extent that any of us grew up, in Nicollet, Minnesota.
In Nicollet, by all accounts, they like to kill things. This is the story of the Eden Valley Fox Hunt which concerned the winter recreational event of a neighbouring county. Rather than donning the pinks and pursuing the hounds in a display of spiffing horsemanship and jolly good sportsmanship, these yahoos wait 'til winter so's they can release a panic-stricken fox on the stark white snowscape. They give it a headstart, then proceed to run it down with snowmobiles.
As I recall, the final verse of the tune goes something like:
"Did you ever wonder how it feels,
Bein' chased by twenty snowmobiles,
Dragged underneath the bogie wheels,
And bleedin' all over the snow? Oh! Bleedin' all over the snow!"

Whether it was the isolation or the inbreeding, the sense of fun in the town was exquisite. One of the local fellows had a trapline and dogteam, in keeping with their desperate grip on a disappearing pastoral culture.
Feeding a team of sled-dogs is never an easy prospect, and when finances get tight, as they will in a small town at any given moment, one needs to get creative. In a mixed farming neighbourhood, there are always, shall we say, disposal issues.  Most especially in winter when, should old Bessie, the prize milker, unceremoniously croak, it's damn sure tough to dig a hole in the frozen ground to give her the dignified burial she so richly deserves for all her service to the family.
No, best you should call up buddy down the road who will respectfully load the deceased into his half-ton and cart her away to a finer place. Whereupon Bessie, now frozen stiffer than a wedding prick (a phrase I picked up from Wayne) is chainsawed into manageable chunks and flung over the chainlink to the waiting huskies.
So, what if your daughter's beloved Shetland pony, purchased on the cheap due to rather high mileage, becomes sad, lame, and incontinent? The twenty-two calibre out behind the barn doesn't seem to be quite the solution, so you call up buddy down the road.
Lies having been told, the pony is loaded into the reeking half-ton. "You'll give Shelby a good home, won't you?" pleads the tot. Uncomfortable and not being entirely accustomed to live livestock, the boys assure the little girl that all will be well, slam the tailgate and get back to the homestead to give the problem a bit of thought.
Now, this being a beloved family pet, it seems only fitting to do the job with a sense of style. After some cogitation, consultation, and beer, one of the boys comes up with an idea, as well as a small, eight-point rack. These antlers, having been removed more or less intact from the skull of a none-too-large buck, turned out to be the perfect fit for old Shelby. A little baling wire to secure them in place and the hunt is on.
Now, I've seen the shaky Super-Eight film of this debacle, and it truly is a wonder. Sad, really. In a kind of hilariously surreal way. They placed the bewildered little nag in a woodland clearing and she looked around curiously, antlers askew, as the boys skulked into position.
They took up a tactical pincer with the wily beast at the focus of the crossfire. On some inaudible signal, Super-Eight being very primitive visual technology, they all opened fire.
Shelby took it well and dropped unceremoniously where she stood. Typical trophy still-shots were taken to immortalize the moment; grinning buffoons astride the majestic eight-point shetland buck.  I don't have any pictures or films, but if I can figure out how to get an MP3 of the foxhunt up here, it shall be done. Further bulletins as events warrant.

 Disclaimer: Management neither supports nor condones cruelty of any sort. The above is strictly a matter of historical record. So there.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Tremors and Upheaval

My buddy Mel of Regal Imports once complained that Swarovski was selling glass as though it was diamond, while our industry was selling diamonds as though they were glass.
The trend over the past several years has been an unfortunate race to the bottom for the manufacturers of jewellery and, while I can understand the need to make a profit in a monstrously competitive business, it seems to me that the magic and legacy has been lost. Jewellery used to be (and in many cases, still is) an important part of the great events in life. It was not something purchased lightly and was expected to last, if not for generations, at least for a lifetime. This would no longer seem to be the case in mass-market jewellery.

With the popularity of white gold came what we call “beige gold”, an alloy that was conducive to large-scale mass production, but entirely unpleasant in colour. This lead to widespread acceptance of rhodium plating to make the jewellery acceptable to the public. Customers take it as given that their white gold rings need to be “dipped” periodically to maintain the colour, and are actually being told by sales staff that white gold that does't require replating does not exist. This is misleading if not fraudulent. Now, I understand that this practice has led to a secondary income stream for retailers that they would be loathe to give up, but it erodes the trust that has been a mainstay of the jewellery industry historically.

The recent development of CAD design in the industry has cut costs and design time for manufacturers, but has also accelerated the use of micro-pavé. Not being in the repair industry, this phenomenon hasn’t affected me overmuch, aside from much mean-spirited hilarity, but I am terrified of the day when these rings start falling apart in great numbers and the remount business is confronted with a multitude of near-invisible diamonds that a customer expects to be reset securely into a new piece.

CAD has also led to innovative techniques, such as “Invisible Setting”, which further promotes the use of marginal stones in what amounts to disposable jewellery. When these invisibly-set stones fall out, which they inevitably do, they are all but impossible to replace properly and securely. My friends in the repair industry hate doing “No Guarantee” work, but are forced into it by the inherent insecurity of the modern setting techniques. We like to stand behind our work, but if the basic structure of the piece is compromised, there is little recourse.

Granted, I've drifted away from the initial subject of diamonds, but I get all enraged sometimes, and my mind wanders. I'll come back when I'm more focused.