In August and September 2020, wildfires raged in Northern California. Jeweler Lance Campbell could look out behind his home in Sonoma County and see the orange haze. “During the day, the smoke was so thick you couldn’t see the sun," he says. "But at night, the moon shone like a bright copper penny.” At that time, the blazes seemed unlikely to reach his patch of heaven. Yet far up in the night sky, they changed the color of the distant moon.
When Lance talks about color, he speaks precisely which is not surprising since he's been a jeweler for 50 years. A Native American of Cherokee descent, he grew up with the teachings of Plains tribes. These included the Arapahoe people for whom he was a ceremonial Sundancer. Early in his career, he trained as a silversmith mastering Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo jewelry and learning to cut stones for setting and slices for inlay.
By this time, he had settled in California and worked at the Adobe Trading Post, where he stayed for more than 20 years. During his tenure, he taught himself goldsmithing using Metal Techniques for Craftsmen, by Oppi Untracht. “Not everybody can learn that way,” he says,” but it came naturally for me.” The quality of his work was such that the Adobe Trading Post evolved into a fine jewelry store. He left to work in San Francisco with David Clay, a master goldsmith known for his custom designs. Lance worked there many years until David Clay retired.
Today, he has found a uniquely suitable place to practice his craft: Lang Antique & Estate Jewelry in San Francisco. Lang has a strong reputation locally, nationally, and internationally, for their outstanding Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Victorian, and unique jewelry by lesser- and well-known designers. Co-owner Suzanne Martinez learned about Lance’s skills from her friend David Clay and is thrilled to have him. "We buy extraordinary pieces that we sell to a discerning clientele," she says. "And only a master can work on them. We've been so fortunate to find Lance. He has a rare depth of knowledge and skill that he brings to all his work. He's a perfectionist, and that's what we need."
Suzanne and the other buyers have remarkable aesthetic excellence that sets Lang apart, attracting clients worldwide via their website and store. The buyers share credit for the exquisite jewelry in their cases with Lance, whose meticulous work rejuvenates the beauty, intricacy, and luster of each piece that reaches his bench. He loves what he does. “Some jewelers don’t want to do repairs,” he remarks. “They consider it second to designing and custom work. I’ve done everything, and I love repairs, particularly antique and estate jewelry. No two pieces are alike, and it’s a privilege to work on such expertly crafted designs.”
When diamond or gemstone jewelry comes into Lang, the first thing Lance does is remove the stones. “We send them to GIA® for grading. We need to know what we’re selling, and the customer wants that information too." A grading report helps determine pricing and gives customers security.
What's the most challenging repair he has done? He laughs. “They’re all hard. I love the opportunities to improve my techniques and learn new ones.” He sees each piece as a journey of rediscovery that reveals the jewelry’s full beauty and fascination.
On an average day, Lance works on 20 pieces, adding up to about 400 a month. Half of these involve resizing rings sold from the case, and the rest are new pieces the buyers acquire. The challenge he faces most frequently won’t surprise any of you: previous repairs poorly done. “Many of these issues result from the wrong solder, poor technique, and base plate on die-struck rings.”
“Most people who sell their heirloom jewelry to Lang don’t know about its repair history,” he says. “Someone brings us a ring that’s stamped platinum. But I can tell it was assembled using white gold, so technically, it can’t be called platinum. I’ll take it apart, make required repairs, then reassemble it with platinum. Now it’s a platinum ring.” Does he stamp jewelry? “Not unless the customer requests it. Then, of course, we do it."
Typically, refurbishing rings takes the most work. “They get much more wear than other jewelry,” he says. “There are lots of difficulties from the shoulders on up, and the shanks get worn thin. So most need a new half shank.” He also mentions worn down beading on antique jewelry. On one ring, he had to rebuild 100 beads. Of course, he replaces or retips untold numbers of prongs. Gallery repairs require incredible craft and ingenuity because the old metal is brittle — primarily white gold. They can get particularly challenging when there’s filigree, and he needs to remove and replace tiny pieces.
What has changed jewelry repair the most — particularly antique jewelry repair? “The laser welder,” he says without any hesitation. "I can use it on any piece, and it won't affect the patina, which is a huge advantage. And I can accomplish those tricky bead and gallery repairs that would’ve taken a lot more time without it. I remember the days before I had one, and I don't want to go back there." Both his first and current laser are Rofin.
During these COVID days and months, Lang keeps the number of people in the store to a minimum with alternate day schedules. Clients come by appointment. Lance divides his time between his home shop — where he still has casting equipment — and the store. He has a scenic commute on the famed Highway 101, which crosses into the city via the Golden Gate Bridge. “It would be an even better trip if I didn’t have to pay $7 each way for the bridge,” he muses.
At their home on the north side of Petaluma close to open fields and farming, Lance and his wife Wendie relax with their birds: two small macaws, two large military macaws, and two cockatiels. “They’re between 18 and 22 years old,” he says, “They can live to 60, so they'll be with us for a while." He spends two hours a day with them, giving him a focus away from his work so he can start the next day refreshed and ready for Lang's new challenges.