Traditional jeweler finds high-tech gem

The Baltimore Sun

Sam Fribush, the owner of Berman's Jewelers in Ellicott City, was an old-school jeweler until an employee dragged him into the 21st century.

Fribush started working at Berman's in 1964 and took over the family business in 1993. For decades, he followed a time-honored - and time consuming - method for custom-designing items for his customers, one that involved carving molds out of wax and painstakingly measuring by hand such details as the size of the stones and the spaces between them.

Recently, though, he has embraced computer technology that is faster, less expensive and more precise than the human hand, and also leaves more room for customer involvement.

"I was kind of an old fuddy duddy," said Fribush. "I did everything by hand. I wasn't interested in modern technology."

But employee Gary Dellone, hired in 2000, persuaded Fribush to purchase Matrix 3-D software and a Revo540 Milling System from Gemvision, an Ohio company. "Gary had to talk me into it," Fribush said.

The machine, which arrived in January, has changed the way Berman's Jewelers creates its custom designs. (Though Fribush is so old-fashioned that he waited until he could pay the full price for the machine before purchasing it. "I don't like to pay interest," he said.)

Berman's Jewelers started in Baltimore more than 100 years ago. In 1939, Sam's father, Paul Fribush, went to work for the Berman family, and in 1956, he and a partner, Herman Miller, purchased the company. The store moved several times, settling at 16 W. Howard St. from 1960 to 2000, then moving to Ellicott City.

Sam began working in the store after school and on weekends when he was in high school. After graduating from Baltimore City College high school, he began working at his father's store full time. "Other than being in the Army, it's the only job I've ever had," said Fribush, whose wife, Paula, also works at Berman's. "Once you get in the jewelry business, it's kind of in your blood."

He became chief executive officer after Miller retired in 1988 and his father passed away in 1993.

Berman's sells a combination of custom-made and pre-made rings, bracelets, necklaces and more. But Fribush looks at the gleaming merchandise neatly arranged in glass cabinets and says what the company really sells is happiness. His creations are part of special moments in people's lives, particularly weddings, and that is important to him.

Until recently, Fribush designed jewelry just as he had always done, and as his father had done before him. He sketched ideas based on what customers said they wanted, then carved the design out of wax, creating a mold. "This is something that's been done for thousands of years," said Fribush.

But the Gemvision technology has turned tradition on its head. Now, Fribush still starts with sketches, but Dellone translates those drawings into a computer program, which creates a rendering of the design that can be printed out, e-mailed to the customer, or shown on a laptop computer screen that's set up in the store.

Customers can see how the ring would look with different kinds of metal or stones, and they can suggest changes. In the past, any changes at that point would require hours of carving a new wax mold. But now, a few taps on the computer keyboard are all that's required.

Once the design has been selected, the Revo540 is put to work. A block of wax is placed in the machine, which is in a workroom with a window so customers can watch, and a tiny drill bit carves out the design. The milling typically takes about two hours for the front and back of the wax block. Then the wax is placed on a rotary, so the sides can be milled, a process that can take a few hours more, if the design is complex.

In the past, Berman's charged $300 for the wax mold. Now, it charges $140 for the computer rendering. And since the machine can create six molds at once, it is more cost-efficient than human effort, Fribush said. And, the problem of a broken mold or a less-than-perfect carving are eliminated. In the past, "one slip and 5 1/2 hours of work are gone," Fribush said. "You can't really repair wax."

Dellone said he believes four jewelers in Maryland have similar technology.

Dellone noted that the machine allows more creativity because the measurements are so precise. "You can take stones and you can place them to where they almost touch each other," he said. "It's just so perfect."

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