A local company is putting a 21st-century spin on an ancient craft that dates back more than 100,000 years — jewelry-making.
In the last six years, the owners of Sutton Smithworks — the husband-and-wife team of Tom and Peggy Sutton — have spent more than $100,000 on new, computerized equipment and technology for their downtown custom-jewelry shop.
"If you’re not changing and advancing, you’re not growing as a company," Peggy Sutton explained.
Their equipment purchases include two mills, some computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software, a laser welder, a 3D jewelry printer and a new casting machine that allows them to make jewelry castings in platinum, palladium and stainless steel — metals that are tougher to work with than the traditional gold or silver.
She noted that before getting the new casting machine, their shop — like all of the other jewelry shops they know of in the city — had to send that work to Toronto. Being able to do it in-house not only saves time and money, it gives them greater control over the jewelry-making process.
The 3D jewelry printer enables them to cast models in one piece rather than in two or three. Not only does that cut down on production time, it allows them to create hollow and intricate jewelry models they couldn’t produce before.
Sutton noted their workshop is now equipped with eight computers that perform a variety of functions.
"You wouldn’t think that a goldsmith shop has a lot of computers, but we do," she added.
Stuart Henrickson, head of entrepreneurship at the University of Manitoba’s I.H. Asper School of Business, said on the face of it, it sounds as if Sutton Smithworks is doing all of the right things.
He said it’s never easy for businesses to determine if or when it should be investing in new technologies or how much it should invest. Especially if it’s in an old-world industry.
"But jewelry-making is now getting into laser technology and 3D printing, etc.," he added. "It really is the way of the future, and it is important for them to stay ahead."
He said two bigger issues for entrepreneurs is making sure they can afford to make an investment and making sure they’re likely to see a big enough bump in revenue and profit to make their investment worthwhile.
"You have to make sure you have enough capital because a great idea with great intentions may end up harming a company if they end up putting themselves too much in debt. Then if there is a market pullback, there’s not enough income gain from it," he said.
"So you always have to have a good feel for your industry and never take on too much debt that you can’t handle," he added. "There is never a perfect answer, but it’s the struggle of an entrepreneur."
It’s not just new technology that Sutton Smithworks has been investing in over the last six years. It’s also tripled the size of its staff: to nine, including the two of them, from three staffers.
Some of the newer hires have included an apprentice goldsmith to help Tom, who is also a goldsmith; an accredited jewelry professional; another employee who is in the process of obtaining her accreditation; a technician; and a gemologist. The latter hire allows the company to offer jewelry appraisals.
"You have to stand out as being different than most places," Sutton said. "So we’re expanding the scope of everything we can do. It just allows us to be a little more of a one-stop shop."
With all of the recent investments in people and equipment, Sutton said the company has seen its yearly revenue grow by about 75 per cent since 2010.
During that time, the nature of their business has dramatically changed. Before, about 70 per cent of its revenue came from custom work it did for other jewelry shops and the rest from work it did for its own customers. Now it’s the other way around, with 80 per cent of its revenue coming from sales or work it does for its own customers and 20 per cent from work it does for other shops.
With all of the growth in business volume, staffing and equipment, the company outgrew the 1,400-square-foot premises it had been leasing since 1993, when Tom struck out on his own after the jewelry store he worked for went into receivership.
Last August, Sutton Smithworks moved into a new 2,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of a heritage building at 250 McDermot Ave., where it has room to continue growing.
"We’re trying to build a future for our staff because eventually we want to retire. And our hopes are that our staff will purchase the business from us," Peggy Sutton added.