A jeweler with cutting edge technology

May 10, 2012

Personal technology is getting cheaper, better, smaller.  But have you ever tried to get fixed a broken cell phone or mp3 player?  When I broke my portable USB flash drive, I brought it to a computer repair technician, unsure if he’d simply turn me away or not.  Those little “thumb” drives are just so small.  No moving parts really, they’re all circuitry.  Turns out that getting it fixed wasn’t an impossibility.  I just had to go to some unusual places.

Going the Way of the TV Repairman

Wes Morris, Columbia based computer repairman, has been in the business since 2003 and has struggled in recent years.  “In my personal experience,” he says,  “it’s a slow decline.”

Morris can distil the problem in a single sentence, though it’ll take a bit of translation:  “There’s a tendency for the miniaturization to prohibit repair and since the initial investment in the equipment is nominal in comparison.”

To translate, Morris is getting at the two-fold problem repairmen experience.  First of all, a lot of tech is so inexpensive, it’s cheaper to replace than to fix.  Secondly, even if you wanted to fix it, a lot the circuitry is just too small to be worked on by hand.

Morris isn’t sure where he fits in in this new world of computing:  “It would be my opinion,” he says “that over time, my industry, if you will, will all go the way of the tv repair guy.”  

Enter, Mike Bellman.  He’s another Columbia based computer repair technician--and he even repairs TVs, too!  Bellman, too, has noticed the miniaturization of technology over the years, but says it doesn’t really affect his own business. “Most people are buying laptops instead of desktops now,” he says.  “And the most common hardware repairs that I’ve been involved in is a damaged power connector or a cracked screen.  Because those types of repairs are repairable,  it doesn’t reduce the amount of help people need.”

But when you’re talking about actual broken circuitry, Bellman can’t always help you.  He was the first repairman I called when broke my USB flash memory drive.  The device itself was cheap--less than $15 dollars, if I remember correctly.  But I had a lot of unsaved work on it and was pretty attached to that data.

“Those kinds of connections are pretty small.” says Bellman.  “And it’s often difficult for someone with even a steady hand to correct that solder point.  So I referred [him] to a jeweler.”

That’s right: a jeweler.  Because, when you’ve broken something that intricate, you don’t need someone who’s good at technology, you need someone who’s good at small.

A Jeweler who Stays Ahead of the Curve

I went to visit Gary B Robinson jewelers in Columbia. Robinson sells rings, earings, bracelets, and the like, but he’s also something of a repairman too.

“We have some of the latest equipment as far as the laser welder and the CAD cam designing and milling system.” says Robinson.  “The laser welder gives us lots of capabilities that we can’t do with the torch like fixing your usb port, eyeglasses, we fix bridges for dentists.  Anything metal that requires a weld that at torch might burn up, the laser can do it because you’re working in such a small area.”

The laser welder looks more like an MRI than a welding tool.  There’s a microscope attached and all the work is done in a huge metal box.  It makes a beeping sound while the laser is active.  There’s no real light or heat noticeable from the outside.  It’s sophisticated stuff and it allows Robinson to repair some pretty complex equipment--like consumer electronics, for instance.  

But Robinson is most excited by his CAD system, bought just a few years ago.  CAD (Computer Aided Design) is a complex and expensive set-up that allows Robinson to design entirely new pieces in 3-D on his computer, then manufacture a mold out of wax, and finally cast that wax in silver, gold or whatever the customer needs.

More than a Piece of Technology

CAD systems are pretty rare for jewelers but then again, so are laser welders.  Robinson has put a lot of money and effort into staying ahead of the technology curve.  The repair-side of his business supplants revenue from the retail-side.  Robinson says that the shop does pretty well despite the down economy.  But it’s not simple economics that keeps this business going.  It has to do with the personal relationship we have with these objects.

“With information,” Robinson says, “ it’s not like you can go and get another thing with that information on it.  But even if it’s not as technological as that, you might have a favorite pair of glasses [and] they don’t make the glasses anymore.  Old jewelry, it gets worn out.  I tell them, ‘it’s going to break again!’  They say, I love this piece, my husband gave it to me.”

Personal technology is inexpensive and replaceable.  If we attach value to it, it’s not always real-world, tangible value.  Sometimes, we treat it more like jewelry.  Like something special.

“Part of it is the economy” Robinson says, “but a lot of it is sentiment. And that’s what drives this business whether times are good or bad.  Jewelry is a really emotional product and there’s a lot of emotions and sentiment tied up in it.  It’s not just metal and stone. Ao that’s where people come in they want to restore it, preserve it.”

As for that USB drive, I never did get that data off of it.  Robinson has a pretty good success rate with these things, but basically he just reconnects the broken connections and hopes for the best.  What happens in the circuits themselves is a mystery.  But I got over it. I can live without the data I lost.  Then, with a little effort, I got a brand new one.

This story was part of Under the Microscope, a weekly show about science and technology in mid Missouri.