Last updateThu, 17 May 2018 7am

The Retailer’s Perspective: It’s a CAD CAD World...


They say that change is inevitable, and I agree. So many of us complain about how the internet has changed our businesses, but in the next breath talk about how much we love it in general. But the internet wouldn’t be in business without one other little invention that has rocked our world even more - the computer!  I guess the computer has just been around long enough that we forget that we used to run our businesses without the benefit of five or six of them in the store.

When I graduated from college in 1987, I typed my final term paper (a 30 page document) on a typewriter.  I cut and pasted my graphs with tape and scissors, and I corrected my mistakes with whiteout. Do the math, that’s only 26 years ago. But something that I feel changed our businesses even more than the internet is the introduction of CAD/CAM. CAD/CAM has probably had just as big of an impact on our industry as the internet. Here’s my thinking…

A couple of years ago I was thinking about really getting into CAD/CAM, which stands for Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing. I took a little trip to Atlanta to attend a day of intense training to see if it appealed to me (it didn’t).  But, it opened my eyes to the world of CAD/CAM and how it all works.  So, here are my thoughts on what I learned that day and what I’ve come to realize since then about this phenomenon known as CAD/CAM.

First off, you can’t learn it in a day. Hell, I don’t think you could really grasp it if you took intense classroom training every day for a month. It’s that complicated. My training session was a lot of, “Whoa, slow down, go back, do that again, what are you talking about, why did you do that, what’s a vector, what’s a toolpath, what’s a bitmap, what’s a relief…”  It’s truly like learning a new language.  But, that’s only half of the equation. That’s just the CAD side.

Once you’ve generated the ring on the computer, you have just that - a ring on a computer.  Not a ring on your customer’s finger. So, enter the CAM side of the equation. The thing that I guess surprised me the most was the fact that you have to have two completely different computer systems to run each side. Once you’ve generated the computer model in CAD, you have to generate a real 3D model in wax. 

Once you’ve generated your CAD model on the first computer, you then generate a ‘tool path’ which tells the next computer what the ring looks like that you want the CAM side to carve out of wax. Then, you save the ‘tool path’ on a flashdrive and go into the shop where your mill is located.

One of the reasons for two computers is that the designing of the CAD is usually done in the comfort of your office or your showroom. Doing the CAM on the other hand happens in a loud, dirty, dusty shop. You basically just set up your milling machine to cut the new ring, you turn it on, and you walk away for a couple of hours while it does its thing. You really don’t want to be sitting in there while it’s throwing wax shavings all over the place and sounding like R2D2 - only louder.

So, my training day in Atlanta went something like this; some dude who really understood CAD/CAM bedazzled me with what it would effortlessly do in the confines of his office. Then, he magically generated a tool path that he saved on a flashdrive, because never the two computers shall meet. Then we got up and went into a dirty, dusty shop where several mills were each hooked up to their own computers. He picked the one he wanted to use, put the flashdrive in the computer and hit some buttons and the machine started moving as he configured it and lined it up. Then he hit the big red switch and it started cutting and throwing wax dust all over the place. Then, we left the room, closed the door, and went to lunch. When we came back, the milling was finished and we had a beautiful wax pattern of the piece he created so quickly in his office. 

I was sold!

Before I left, I signed up for the trial version of the software, got home, loaded it up and promptly forgot everything I’d learned because…it is hard! It was then and there that I decided that CAD/CAM is best farmed out to people that like to sit in front of computers all day and stare at computer screens. I asked my trainer, who was an excellent jewelry craftsman, how often he sat down at the bench and he told me about 2-3 times a year. That’s just not for me. I’m a shop guy, not a computer guy. 

My introduction into how CAD/CAM really works opened my eyes up to something interesting. I can spot a CAD/CAM’d piece of jewelry from a mile away as opposed to a hand carved, hand set piece. And, that also opened up Gene Callaway’s eyes to something interesting as well.

Think about this: How often does a customer come into your store wanting a ‘custom’ ring and they pull out their phone and start showing you pictures they’ve pulled off the internet saying, “I like the top on this ring, but not the shank. I like the shank on this ring, and the scrollie things on this ring”? 

How about - every.single.time!  

Gene Callaway, owner and president of Southeastern Findings in Tucker, Georgia realized that almost every piece of mass produced jewelry that’s been created in the last decade or so has been made using CAD/CAM. It’s a whole lot of basically the same things over and over… like halo heads… with little different twists and trims to make them unique. 

Gene realized that it’s really more like ‘component CAD’: this head, that shank, this trim, these side diamonds, those prongs. So he’s putting together something kinda cool. Gene has been in the jewelry findings business for years where he sold you the parts, and your jeweler married them together. Now it’s possible to pick the parts online, and he’ll marry them together for you using CAD. You’ll be able to go online with your customer and pick the head they like, the shank they like, the trim they like, etc..  Then, Southeastern Findings will combine all of these elements together in their CAD system and send you the computer file and a picture of the finished piece. 

From there, it’s your choice on what happens next. If you have a mill, you can stop here and do it yourself, or Southeastern will mill it for you. You can cast it yourself or they’ll cast it for you. You can set the stones or they’ll set the stones and send you the finished piece. You decide.

What I really like about this system is this; 20 years ago, all the rings in the fashion magazines were made using the technology of the era. Thus, all of the findings houses carried those parts. Now, all of the rings in the fashion magazines are made using CAD/CAM technology, and now Southeastern Findings is carrying those parts. You and your customer can pick the parts out for their job just like you did 20 years ago, only now you’re doing it online and having that great invention we call the computer do most of the work.

Like I said in the beginning, change is inevitable, and this change is a good thing. I’m planning on going into more detail about Gene’s new offering next month. But, in the meantime, if a customer walks in and starts to show you pictures on their phone, contact Gene Callaway and Southeastern Findings at 800-282-8285 and ask him to marry a few computer generated parts together and make your customer’s dreams come true. I have.

If you’d like to see a short demonstration, check out www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHmngN4tEFg.

Chuck is the owner of Anthony Jewelers in Nashville, TN. Chuck also owns CMK Co., a wholesale trade shop that specializes in custom jewelry and repair services to the jewelry industry nationwide. If you would like to contact Chuck or need a speaker or instructor for your next conference/event he can be reached at 615-354-6361, www.CMKcompany.com or send e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..