The Midas Touch

Words Denise Irvine, Images Ashlee DeCaires

The tools of Paul Briggs’s trade are neatly assembled in his workroom. There are pliers, files, and fine saw blades as well as machinery for drilling and grinding, microscopes for fine details, and computers for producing 3D images of the bespoke pieces he designs.

Paul is a manufacturing jeweller – something of a rare breed ­­– and he is the co-owner with wife Suzanne of Midas Diamond Jewellers on Hamilton’s Barton Street.

He draws on nearly five decades of experience to design, make, and restore precious pieces for his customers. On the bench in front of him on this Friday morning he has the instruments required for handcrafting an under bezel in 18 carat gold. The intricate under bezel is akin to a frame and it will sit below a top plate that holds the stones on the cluster ring he is repairing for a client.

“It’s one of those jobs where a microscope comes in handy,” he says, and he has this handily parked by his bench. At an adjacent desk, he’s also working on an engagement ring for another client. His preliminary design is displayed on a computer screen. It has a trio of stones, two diamonds, and a sapphire, and there may be a delicate koru design as part of the ring’s shoulders.

Paul says a one-off piece always starts with his pencil drawings of ideas, then the chosen design is scanned and computer software provides 3D images that give a photorealistic drawing of every angle. Clients can see exactly what they’re getting.

The design is processed into a wax or resin model and cast in gold or another metal (some of these steps are now out-sourced to other experts in the field). Paul will then put the parts of the ring together, painstakingly hand-finishing it, and hand-setting the stones.

He has embraced the technology changes that have occurred during his long career; he says they enhance his skills. In earlier times, he’d start from scratch with gold bars or sheets of gold. “A lot of the preliminary work is now done by machine, but knowledge is vital.”

Paul and Suzanne (and Midas) have been in business in Hamilton – on different sites – since 1984, and on Barton Street, at the entrance to Casabella Lane, for the past 12 years. To the best of Paul’s knowledge he is among three manufacturing jewellers in the city. He’s trained a number of jewellers over the years but at present it’s mostly just him at the Midas bench.

“It suits creative people. There are a lot of areas for talented people to earn a good living in this trade.”

Paul’s own training began in Hove, Brighton, and he and Suzanne came to New Zealand in 1974, after they had met and married in England.

A big part of his early work was in repairs and restoration of antique jewellery from the antiques shops in Brighton’s famed laneways. Nowadays, while he relishes creating one-off designs, he says 70–80 per cent of his work is still repairing, remaking, and redesigning pieces, giving new life to old.

He shows a photograph of a beautiful bracelet he recently created for a client, reworking an old gold watch strap and a pair of heirloom gold earrings (that the woman had found too heavy to wear) into a highly original piece. He suggests that people don’t dismiss old bits of broken jewellery, gold, silver, or platinum, as they can be used to make a splendid new item.

“I love the creative side of my work. It is so satisfying. I enjoy the customers. We hear happy stories when people are getting engaged or married, or buying gifts. And there are heartbreaking stories when someone has died and precious family jewellery is being restored or redesigned.”

Paul has seen many changes in jewellery fashion, beginning with the angular and more abstract styles he made in the 1970s. Today, customers come to see him with designs that they’ve found on the internet and they want something similar. He says there is so much more choice and it is difficult to pick a trend. His personal design leanings are towards art deco and art nouveau.

For bespoke rings, he works to people’s budgets and this dictates the size and quality of the stones chosen. He sources diamonds from countries such as Australia, South Africa, and other African nations, mostly dealing through one importing company. He and Suzanne pride themselves on the quality of their diamonds.

The biggest diamond Paul has ever worked with was 10 carats – “the size of a 10 cent piece” – a ring for a customer who’d bought the whopping diamond overseas. He says 1 carat diamonds remain popular; a good quality stone of that size would be $12,000–$15,000.

When he has time, he makes special pieces for stock in the store but Midas’s carefully selected range of ready-made items – including a huge choice of diamond rings and wedding rings – mostly come from manufacturing jewellery companies.

Buying and display is in the capable hands of Suzanne, and the experienced Midas staff team includes Paul and Suzanne’s daughter, Louise, who does marketing and website work. Paul says they’re always looking for quality pieces that are edgy, a little bit different, and recently Suzanne has added a collection of Italian leather bags and some distinctive homewares to the shop floor.

Midas also has a registered valuer, with valuations done in-store, and there is a free professional ring cleaning and checking service. The latter is warmly recommended: during this interview with Paul, Suzanne whisks my rings away and they return sparkling and splendid, and there is accompanying advice on one that needs repairing.

As I leave, Paul turns back to the jewellery on his workbench, reaching for his tools. “You need tonnes of patience,” he says. “I’m a little bit of a perfectionist. I strive to do the best I can.”

Midas Diamond Jewelers
307 Barton street, Casabella Lane, Hamilton

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