The Studio – Jewelry Blog by Rio Grande

Rio Superstar: Jeff Zirwas, Maestro of the Machines

Jun 26, 2014
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Heather Apodaca
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Jeff

Jeff Zirwas has worked in the Rio Grande manufacturing department for 28 years and is one of the key people behind many of the findings, tools, and equipment we sell.

We like our "Superstars" posts to give you a glimpse inside Rio, a close-up of the people who make us tick: the outstanding jewelers, customer service representatives, purchasing managers, machinists, strategists and others who together make Rio the company it is.

One of the things we are most proud of is the depth of the product lines we are able to offer jewelers. This depth is due largely to our in-house manufacturing teams, who create just about anything our product managers and directors can dream up. So this week we want to introduce you to Jeff Zirwas, our manufacturing technologist and one of the indispensible components of Rio Grande.

Think of one of the staple items on your bench. Is it an ear wire? A bead? Maybe it’s a tool or a piece of equipment. Whatever it is, if you order it from Rio, chances are that Jeff and his team of manufacturing wizards had a hand in making it. From the mammoth Neutec casting machines, which start out as nothing more than a piece of sheet metal, to the tiniest crimp beads, Jeff and his team make thousands of the items you see on our website.

And for the last 28 years, Jeff has been instrumental in conceptualizing and expanding our manufacturing capabilities.

"When I started here, there were just three or four machines in our shop," he says, "but the Bells had a vision of what this place could be." Today, he has lost count of how many machines the manufacturing area holds…nah, come to think of it, he probably knows each and every one and even has pet names for some.

Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts

purplemachine

The "purple machine," as it’s known in manufacturing, makes fancy twist beads.

When I first told Jeff we wanted him to be this month’s superstar, he immediately shook his head.

"I’m not a superstar," he said. "I just surround myself with people who make me look like a superstar. I surround myself with the smartest people I can find. And they make me look good."

The manufacturing teams at Rio truly embody "whole brain thinking," the concept that any complex problem can be resolved faster and more effectively by bringing together the know-how of several experts. Wider ranges of experience and different ways of thinking working together reach the best possible solution in less time. This concept guides Rio Grande's flat, participative management structure across the entire business, but nowhere is it more visible and more effective than in the manufacturing teams, where roughly 45 people come together to create some of our most innovative findings and equipment.

"There’s no one guy who solves a problem," Jeff says of his manufacturing team. "It takes all of us to come up with a solution. I might think this way, and he thinks that way, and together we come up with the solution to a problem."

neutec

Neutec casting machines are built from sheet metal in the manufacturing area.

When approaching a new problem—which is pretty much every day—he likes to remind himself of Occam’s razor, the principle that states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions is usually correct.

"The simplest solution is usually the best solution," he says. "We have to remind ourselves not to overthink it all the time."

This kind of team-based, focused thinking has inspired many of the most innovative processes and machines in manufacturing.

Jeff’s Imaginarium

When he gives tours of manufacturing, Jeff gets excited about showing off the different machines and what those machines are capable of building. And his enthusiasm is infectious. Standing in manufacturing, surrounded by hulking old steel machines made in the 1920s and shiny new ones with glittering digital screens spewing rows of numbers, you can feel the energy and excitement vibrating off him.

"Ingenuity is what gets us excited down here," he says. "That and someone telling us we can’t do something." He's showing me manufacturing's latest innovation, a machine that makes full bead wire. "Everyone told me it couldn't be done," he says. "There’s a guy on the East Coast who has been telling me it can’t be done for years! And that just made us want to do it. Nothing motivates us like someone telling us we can't."

jeffdemos

Jeff demonstrates how the machine that makes full-bead wire works.

So, when Rio wanted to expand our line of bead wire, Jeff and his team jumped at the challenge. They pulled an old machine down from storage that was originally designed to make hollow beads and they set to work. Today a long coil of round copper wire is fed into the heart of the machine. From the other side, the wire emerges as fully formed, perfect full-bead wire, exactly what everyone told him he wouldn't be able to do. It's Jeff's pride and joy.

Jeff and his team have also developed machines that make crimp beads, ear wires, settings and tiny hollow beads. One of the longest projects Jeff has worked on was a machine that automatically adds a bead and a coil to a hammered ear wire. It took more than two years to finish, and Jeff likes to joke that it gave him every gray hair on his head.

"I think one of our greatest processes is our ability to take a problem in any area, figure it out, and fix it," Jeff says. "We never run out of new things to make."

jeffexamines

Jeff examines a piece of full-bead wire.

Heavy Metal Art

Machinists like Jeff and his team are not often compared to artists, but they do have many things in common. They both possess a vision for what is possible, and they both have the dedication and persistence to figure out how to bring that vision to life. They use nuts, bolts cogs, gears, and more to do it, instead of brushes, chisels, charcoal or pencil, and paper, but, like true artists, they will adapt any tool or material at hand to make it happen.

"It’s like Leonardo Da Vinci," Jeff says. "He would make these incredible sculptures from stone. We're kind of like that. But we take a hunk of metal and figure out how to run it through machines and turn it into something beautiful."

 

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An Ethics Award for Rio Grande: One Employee’s Real-Life Tale

Feb 12, 2014
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Amy Cliser
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Here at Rio, we all strive to do business in ways that honor our customers, community, environment, and one another. Saul Bell founded the company back in 1944 as a small family-run business and, though it has grown to have more than 300 employees and is now a proud member of the Berkshire-Hathaway family of companies, the company is still run by members of the Bell family, and it still feels like a family affair. Recently, we were surprised and elated to be recognized by The Samaritan Counseling Center as a recipient of one of its 15th Annual New Mexico Ethics in Business Awards. The award is based on “high standards and exemplary practices,” something Rio Grande strives for every day of the year.

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Rio Grande’s Winter Workshop Series: Today’s Tour of Jewelry Making Classes

Jan 29, 2014
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Amy Cliser
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Today Amy visited several of the bustling classrooms here at Rio Grande’s Winter Workshop. Some participants were quiet and intensely focused on trying new techniques. Others worked in a happy cacophony of clanging and then paused to examine their progress. Rio Grande is wonderful place to be this week—learning and discovery is all around us! Maybe today’s photo tour will get you planning your trip to the Land of Enchantment for next year’s Winter Workshop.

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Rio Grande’s Winter Workshop Series: Catching Fire with Jewelry Designer Dana Schneider

Jan 27, 2014
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Amy Cliser
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Rio Grande Winter Workshop 2014 is underway and we are having so much fun with our guests from around the globe! Today Amy chatted with participant Dana Schneider, a jewelry designer whose name is on the minds of every costume designer in the L.A. film scene. Dana’s creations can be seen in multiple films, on television, and are worn by some of the most famous performers in Hollywood and beyond. Take a look and be inspired by Dana’s fun story, then come back all week as we bring you other highlights from Winter Workshop 2014!

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Welcome to Rio Grande’s Annual Winter Workshop!

Jan 23, 2014
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Amy Cliser
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Rio Grande’s annual Winter Workshop starts this Sunday, and we are busy setting up benches, cameras for close-ups of instructors’ work, Foredom® flex shafts, anvils, 3DESIGN® software–you name it! Follow our excitement this week as we bring you highlights of this GREAT event where participants hone their skills with some of the very best teachers in the industry, mingle and crowd around workbenches in the demonstration area, exchange jewelry-making experiences and tips, bond with each other over wonderful meals, and get a behind-the-scenes look at Rio’s facilities.

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Inside Rio: A Few of Rio Grande’s Favorite Customer Service Superstars

Jan 14, 2014
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Heather Apodaca
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Our Rio Superstars posts usually focus on the many talented jewelers who work on our technical support team. This week, we thought we would visit a different part of Rio and introduce you to just a few of the superstars from our customer service teams. First-rate customer service is one of the things we pride ourselves on here at Rio, so we are thrilled to introduce you to the people who make it all happen.

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2014 Saul Bell Design Award Competition Gala Awards Dinner: Coming to Albuquerque in May!

Dec 16, 2013
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Molly Therese Bell

The Saul Bell Design Award Gala celebration will happen right here in beautiful Albuquerque, New Mexico, in May of 2014. And the timing is excellent! The celebration will take place in conjunction with one of the most prestigious and mind-expanding events in our industry—The Santa Fe Symposium!

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Rio Grande is People: A Glimpse of Rio

Dec 12, 2013
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Bernadette Bennett

From really big process and system changes to the tiniest details, there’s usually more than one person involved in the decisions around here. We like to call it “whole brain thinking.” Oftentimes, when someone has a good idea, we gather a team to brainstorm it. During one such recent brainstorm, someone had the great idea to create a video that shares a glimpse of the people here and their experiences. Take a look inside Rio!

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Rio Grande’s 2014 Winter Workshop Series: Registration is Open!

Nov 13, 2013
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Shelby Chant
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Registration is now open for this week-long event where you can get hands-on in any number of jewelry-making classes taught by the industry’s most beloved and talented instructors, watch demonstrations of the tools and processes that will enhance your work at the bench, and tour our 180,000 square-foot solar-powered facility. What a great way to experience Rio firsthand and start 2014 with a shot of creativity and learning!

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Winter Wonderland—er Workshop—at Rio Grande

Oct 24, 2013
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Viqui Sanchez
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Rio Grande is here after the holidays with an exciting array of new and returning classes for you in the 2014 Winter Workshop series. Make a day or two of it, or plan to take a whole week! The classes, demonstrations and tours lined up for the week of Winter Workshop give you lots to choose from. Gain a new skill—or hone a skill you’ve already got. Browse through today’s post to find out more, and reserve your seat early!

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