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How Laser Engraving Restores Antique Jewelry

by Shari Berg 02 Aug 2023
Four antique bracelets in 14k gold with intricate roping designs and prescious gemstones.

Laser engraving antique jewelry can restore original details or add new ones in a way that respects its history, elegance, and exquisite craftsmanship.

Antique jewelry is any piece of jewelry that’s over 100 years old. Besides age, another characteristic is the superior level of craftsmanship and high-quality materials compared with modern jewelry pieces.

They hold a lot of history and are incredibly rare and valuable. Jewelry collectors fortunate enough to own an antique piece may choose not to wear them to preserve their value.

If you have any antique jewelry in your collection, you may have questions about ways to restore it or add new components to it.

In this blog, we answer all your questions about laser engraving for antique jewelry, including:

  • What is laser engraving?
  • How does laser engraving work?
  • What are some challenges in restoring antique jewelry?
  • How does laser engraving protect intricate designs?
  • How does laser engraving remove imperfections?
  • Can you add custom laser engraving to antique jewelry?

What is laser engraving?

Laser engraving is a modern and precise technique that uses laser technology to create intricate designs, patterns, or custom markings on jewelry.

Unlike traditional engraving, it’s a non-contact process using a high-powered laser beam that removes material from the surface of the jewelry, leaving behind a permanent and finely detailed engraving.

This engraving method offers several advantages over traditional engraving practices:

  • It’s non-invasive. Laser engraving is a non-contact process, which reduces the risk of damage.
  • It’s precise. Laser technology provides exceptional precision when creating highly-intricate or detailed designs that are difficult to achieve manually.
  • It’s versatile. Laser engraving works well for delicate gemstones and metals that couldn’t withstand the pressure of traditional hand engraving methods.

A laser engraving device used for antique jewelry modification.

How does laser engraving work?

The type of laser used for jewelry engraving depends on the specific gemstones, metals or other materials in the piece. For instance, a CO2 laser is typically used for engraving metals, while a fiber laser is best for plastics.

At Harris Jewelers, we use a Trotec laser engraving machine. Trotec engravers focus on precision, making them an ideal choice for working on antique jewelry that requires a delicate touch.

Once the best type of engraving technology is selected, the process typically involves these steps:

  • Preparing the jewelry for engraving. Jewelers skilled in laser engraving position and secure the piece of jewelry in the engraving bed.
  • Configuring the laser. Computer software for the engraver is programmed for the specific task. Parameters include the power of the laser beam, the speed at which the laser moves, the resolution, and the depth of the engraving.
  • Laser engraving. Once the parameters are set, the jeweler can begin engraving the antique piece of jewelry. The entire process is computer-controlled, allowing for precise and intricate designs.

An antique opal ring presented for laser engraving at a jeweler.

What are some challenges in restoring antique jewelry?

Using laser engraving technology to restore antique jewelry isn’t a new concept. Jewelers skilled in the craft have relied on lasers to repair and refurbish pieces from antique collections for about 30 years.

Even the most skilled jewelers occasionally face challenges in restoring antique jewelry using this method. Some of the most common include:

  • The age and condition of the jewelry. Antique jewelry is often made from delicate materials easily damaged by laser engraving. Age also affects the way the laser engraving takes, with older metals more brittle and prone to cracking.
  • The type of metal. Not all metals are safe to laser. Some metals, like copper, can become damaged during laser engraving. Consult with your jeweler to determine if all the metals in your antique piece are suitable for lasering.
  • The skill of the engraver. Never work with an engraver who doesn’t have extensive experience and expertise laser engraving antique jewelry. The most skilled laser engravers understand the risks involved in lasering an antique piece of jewelry and make sure you know the risks before proceeding.

Using laser engraving on antique jewelry safely

Laser engraving can work wonders with antique jewelry pieces. However, the technique is not suitable for all types of antique jewelry.

For instance, gemstones easily damaged by heat such as opals, pearls, and turquoise can crack or discolor during laser engraving. If your antique pieces contain these elements, it’s best not to risk it.

Other types of antique jewelry and gemstones that don’t respond well to laser engraving include:

  • Opaque or low-refractive index gemstones such as amber and jade.
  • Delicate materials such as gold leaf and enamel.

How does laser engraving protect intricate designs?

Laser engraving can protect intricate designs in antique jewelry in a few ways.

One of the most important is its ability to add depth to the design without damaging the original metals or other materials. The laser beam vaporizes the metal or other materials on the surface, creating a deep, permanent engraving to protect the design from wear and tear.

Creating a barrier around the design is another helpful way laser engraving protects intricate designs in antique jewelry. The laser beam can create a thin layer of metal or other material around the design, adding a layer that protects it from the elements to prevent fading or corroding.

How does laser engraving remove imperfections?

Jewelry can lose its luster after a while, especially if it’s been worn frequently. Antique jewelry is not immune to the regular wear-and-tear issues that all jewelry experiences.

Laser engraving removes imperfections in antique jewelry in a few ways.

  • Removes scratches. Laser beams vaporize the metal and other materials on the surface of the jewelry, removing scratches and other minor imperfections.
  • Fills in dents. Laser beams met the metal or other surface materials on the jewelry, filling in dents and other defects.
  • Resurfaces the jewelry. Sometimes the surface of antique jewelry becomes rough over time. Laser beams can remove the top layer of metals and other materials to create a smooth, even surface.

An engraver uses a laser engraving machine to add custom designs to antique jewelry.

Can you add custom laser engraving to antique jewelry?

The short answer to this question is yes, in most cases. However, as previously mentioned, laser engraving isn’t suitable for every piece of antique jewelry.

Choose a reputable engraver who has experience working with antique jewelry. Be clear about your expectations and ask if what you want to do is likely to damage or devalue the piece.

Devaluing antique jewelry

Besides the risk of damaging your antique jewelry, there’s another concern to consider before pursuing laser engraving. In some instances, altering a piece of antique jewelry can affect its value.

Antique jewelry owners usually get their pieces appraised for insurance purposes. Take the appraisal with you to the laser engraver. Ask if how you want to modify the piece is likely to reduce its worth.

You also must check with the insurance company that issued the original policy to ensure your coverage isn’t affected by making any changes to the antique piece.

In most cases, laser engraving done well that doesn’t cause damage to the piece can increase its value. Engraving adds a personal touch to the jewelry that makes it even more unique.

Before you decide whether to proceed, weigh the risks and rewards.

Laser engraving expertise at your fingertips

Laser engraving antique jewelry is a delicate process that’s best left to those with the most skill and experience.

Harris Jewelers uses only the best laser engraving equipment and engravers with the most expertise to ensure your prized antique pieces aren’t damaged during the process. We never engrave antique pieces not suited for the process.

Stop by our showroom with your antique jewelry to get an expert opinion on whether laser engraving is appropriate.

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