Feature Friday: My Metallurgist Mojo

saraboudreauxLet’s flash back to summer of 2005: This was the summer after my first two semesters as a chemistry major at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I had my “life plan” all lined up: pursue a bachelor’s in chemistry, followed by a master’s in forensic science. I even chose to follow the path to obtain the much more difficult track of the American Chemical Society certified chemistry degree. This involved taking many more high-level chemistry and math classes, which coincidentally gave me a mathematics minor as well. My fellow students thought I was completely nuts, since the standard chemistry degree alone is hard enough. But, I thought this would better prepare me to follow my dream: to enter into this field of forensic science; where science could help catch the bad guys from all the mystery books I loved reading. It was 1 year down, 5 to go.

I arrived home after my part-time retail job one day that summer to a message from my academic advisor in regards to a job opportunity. Insanely curious and excited, I come to find this position is with some company called Stuller, a jewelry manufacturer. I have lived in Lafayette my whole life and never knew this existed. Who knew? I wasn’t even sure why Stuller would be looking for a chemistry major. Well, a couple of phone calls and interviews later, I was hired part-time as a laboratory technician in the Assay Lab. This was so exciting! My job was to run fire assay analysis on metal samples taken from our casting grain, sales grain, sheet, and rod products to ensure the gold content met the legal requirement for the proper karat designation. Once I mastered that task, I learned to run x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis to analyze the other elements present in the metal. It was a way to use my analytical skills in an industry I didn’t know needed this type of analysis.

With graduation rapidly approaching, I was in the middle of getting my graduate school things in order when the director of the Metals Technology team, Shan Aithal, asked me if I would consider staying at Stuller after graduation. After much deliberation and some intense soul searching, I accepted the position of Material Process Engineer here at Stuller in 2008. And I haven’t looked back since!

wear red 2013

Wear Red Day in support of University of Louisiana. L-R: Me, John Butler, Shan Aithal

In my first months, I directly shadowed Randy Welch in the melt room. I got to learn all about the melting and processing of metals, flux chemistry, etc. I melted and poured customer scrap from our Clean Scrap program, karat gold sales grain, karat gold casting grain, and, my personal favorite, platinum grain and ingots. I got to mix my chemistry knowledge with Randy’s experience to help us get a better understanding of what elements work in some alloys and not in others. I helped standardize flux practices and developed standard procedures for our platinum grain and ingot fabrication. I would still assist the Assay Lab in times of need, but this new world of metals would be my primary focus.

I then spent any free moments I had spending time in various departments like Casting, Metal Fabrication, and Finishing/Polishing. I knew that if I had to improve the way each of our alloys performed, I had to fully understand how it would be used in every process. I asked tons of questions and tried to wrap my head around all the jewelry terminology that was still new to me. I worked on making minor adjustments to several of our alloy formulations to improve things like rolling properties, reduce cracking during investment casting, and help achieve a better color match of our solders to our cast mountings and findings.

In 2012, the Metals Technology Team and Research & Development department merged to create one large Research & Development team. As an R&D Associate Process Engineer, I got to expand my knowledge by working with this amazing group of guys to really start to push Stuller to the future of manufacturing. My job became even more challenging and that much more exciting! I started to be involved in the Stuller forum, mainly focused on the plating topics on BenchJeweler.com.

This merger also put me together with Mike Melvin, who taught me everything about electroplating. This was something I could really understand and help bring some technical knowledge to match his 30 years of experience. Together, we set standard plating practices throughout the factory. I researched new plating processes and products to stay on top of the fashion trends and revamped Stuller’s old procedure of analyzing our rhodium baths in house rather than sending samples out for analysis. I also became involved with the annual Bench Jeweler Workshop by working the plating booth. My first two times were rough since I am extremely shy by nature, but now it is something I look forward to each year. I love getting face time with our customers to discuss their plating successes and tips and assist with any problems they might be having. (Come see me at our 2016 Workshop! I would love to chat with you.)

In spring 2015, the R&D and Metals Technology departments split back into two departments again. Here, the team became much more focused on the metals and metals processing. Since then have improved the performance and look of many of our karat gold solders. I am in the process of creating a technical data sheet for all of Stuller’s sales grain offerings. I have also posted a couple of videos and blog posts on the Stuller Blog.

Sara rolling sx overhead 080409

Me, at the fire assay lab

Recently, in January 2016, I became the new Assay Manager of the Assay Lab. I have come full circle, back to my chemistry and analytical roots. I am excited to bring my knowledge and experience to this important role in ensuring the finest quality metals are used to produce the premier quality products for which Stuller is known.

Stuller began as an opportunity to gain experience in college, turned into a full-time position, and has morphed into a wonderfully rewarding, challenging, and exciting career. I even met my husband at Stuller! I can’t imagine being anywhere else or doing any other kind of work. I embraced Stuller and all it has to offer, and Stuller has embraced me back ten-fold.


Mad About Metals

First Impressions

My earliest memories of gold stem from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. I loved when Bugs asked to use the “tell-E-O-phone” and received the massive pile of gold coins. I knew that pirates searched for buried treasure, which was, again, chests filled to the brim with gold coins. Scrooge McDuck swam in his massive sea of gold coins. Gold was just something that inspired awe and was worth the effort to find. To a 5-year old, it’s shiny, pretty, and makes you rich! Evil criminal masterminds kept trying to steal it from banks, people, and anywhere they could get their hands on it. Little did I know how gold, along with other metals, would impact my daily life.

I began my close relationship with gold in 2005, when I started working part time in Stuller’s Assay Lab while in college. I would run fire assay analysis of our karat gold materials, verifying that our products were meeting the legal requirements for gold content. This led to my current place as an Associate Process Engineer with the Metals Technology Department when I graduated in 2008. Since then, metals have been my life.

What is gold?

Seriously, what is gold? Well, gold is element #79 on the periodic table. It has 79 protons, 79 electrons, and 118 neutrons. It is a transition metal, a precious metal, and has a Vickers hardness of 216 MPa (22HV). Its melting point is 1064.18°C. Its electron configuration is [Xe]4f145d106s1. There is 0.00001% gold in humans and 3.1×10-7% gold in the Earth’s crust. Even 1×10-7% in the sun! Not to mention countless other physical properties measured by scientists over time.

What first comes to mind when a person thinks of gold is its physical appearance: shiny and yellow. This is true. But gold is so much more. It’s a noble metal. It’s a soft metal. It’s soft enough to be shaped into practically any form, and rigid enough to retain that general shape. It can be polished to a high shine. This sparkly quality is the initial draw of gold itself. It captures your attention and draws you in. It’s this appeal that has had us, myself included, hooked on gold since its first discovery.

Myths, Legends, & Symbolism

Humans have always been fascinated by gold. From the start, we associated this stuff with richness, high quality, god-like attributes, and royalty. With the yellow color and sparkly luster, the Egyptians saw gold as a symbol of the sun god, Ra. It was thought of as the sweat of the sun to the Incas. Stories from leprechaun gold to King Midas made their way into our history. Some are completely fictional stories, while others, like Jason and the Argonauts, have some ties to actual historical events. An ancient method of separating gold from gold-rich sea sand was to allow the water to flow over sheep skins. The gold would get caught in the fibers. The skins would be hung to dry and later beaten to remove and capture the gold. So, there’s some credibility to Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece.

Gold has become a symbol for immortality and eternal life due to the fact that it never tarnishes, oxidizes, corrodes, or fades over time. Gold objects were buried with deceased loved ones to bring them riches and happiness in the afterlife. Love is seen as eternal and ever-lasting, so it is only fitting we associate gold objects commemorating exceptional life events, the most well-known being wedding and engagement rings.

Gold Jewelry

Gold jewelry has evolved over centuries, but many of the basics are still the same today. Gold was mixed with silver and copper to make it more durable and cast into different colored alloys. Today, we use those same metals mixed with gold in addition to many other elements, depending on the desired end product. The concept of lost wax casting started out primitive, though now large machines and ovens cast both large and small trees with dozens of parts using those same practices. Make a wax of your desired item, invest a mold around it, burn out the wax, and finally melt and pour the gold into that mold.

The most popular choice for engagement rings and wedding bands, including yours truly, is gold. It’s such a versatile metal. It comes in so many different “flavors,” as I like to say. What was my pick? (And, yes, I was given the choice by my boyfriend, who became my fiancé and is now my husband.) I chose 14 karat palladium white. There were many reasons for me to choose that type of alloy, but that’s a story for another day.

Kings and queens may come and go, but gold will still be around. Gold has stood the test of time for this long, and it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Gold is here to stay.

Have a favorite gold “flavor”? Share it in the comments section.

Metals Tips to Make Your Life Easier

If you’ve been following our Stullerhacks, you’ve had a pretty good sampling of neat tricks of the trade. Today, I’ll show you how to sort white metals you might have mixed up.