Practical Technology

Nickel Free Plating: Making it Work

Part 3

by Dan Schafer

We were faced with a dilemma. The European Community regulations prohibited us from plating nickel on jewelry worn next to the skin. Our nickel free plating technique was producing a quality nowhere near what we had been achieving with nickel. Our items would come out with either the backs bright and the fronts rough and dull, or the fronts bright and smooth but the backs dull and blotchy. Of course it was also quite easy to get an unhappy medium where neither side was terrible, but nor was either side pretty.

Something had to be done, but we had to know where to start. I didn't know. I didn't know whether there was something wrong with our bright copper solution, something wrong with our electrical conduction, or something wrong with the way we were racking our items. Perhaps with our kind of jewelry we were attempting to do the impossible. I tried to dismiss this last suggestion as one not even to consider, but I suspect, as things went from bad to worse, it still niggled at the back of my confident posture.

Fortunately one of our suppliers had, as a partner, a plating expert and trouble shooter who was willing to give us some advice. Though we were a pretty insignificant customer for him, he took enough interest in our case to fly from Bangkok to our factory in northern Thailand.

When we went to work trying to get at the nature of the problem, there was a tremendous easing of anxiety to have someone beside me who knew what he was doing, who had seen many of these problems before. Actually most of Norman's customers were plating PC boards where the plating is very precise and the standards are very high. Very few of his customers plated jewelry, and hardly any of them plated the kind of jewelry that we had, but here was a man who knew plating, who could just look at an item, look at a system and know the sorts of problems one could have. He would have an intuitive sense of the direction to go to solve those problems. We didn't accomplish a lot that first visit. Our bright copper bath definitely had some problems. Mostly they came from attempts to solve other, insignificant or imaginary problems.

So that first trip dealt mainly with trying to get a chemical balance that restored the bright copper to its normal brightening ability. By the time we had to rush Norman to the airport to get back to Bangkok, we had achieved that and learned several principles that should help us improve our actual nickel free plating, but "should" was still "should" and not yet "did".

But two things from that visit had a longer range value. The first, a very mundane but practical thing was Norman mentioned almost in passing some copper brightening systems that his company had supplied. He had no desire to push anything commercially. He wanted to help get us on our feet, more as a matter of personal obligation, and as it later developed, friendship. But later, as we will get to in another article, one of his chemicals was a significant factor in our winning this battle.

The second factor I am only beginning to reap the benefit of now, several years later. Here I had a man with a wealth of understanding, years of experience and tremendous insight resulting from continual exposure to problems in his field. I could trust this guy. So why didn't I? Well I did up to a certain point. But I kept thinking, "I have a unique problem that no one understands better than myself. I am there in the plating room everyday. I see the results when they are better, and I see the results when they are worse. I know what it is to fight with this special kind of jewelry that is designed all wrong when it comes to ease of plating. Norman comes here one day, sees the situation quickly, makes his assessments and then is off to take care of his big boys' problems. He is doing his best to help me, but he just doesn't have time to understand it the way I do." Whatever truth there was in my rationalization, I now see what it was: PRIDE.

Pride is subtle, especially when it is pride in our intellect or understanding, because modern man makes the mind the judge of everything, including our own character. It is hard for that judge to judge itself wrong. But really pride stands in theway of truth. What is prejudice except my deciding I understand a thing before receiving a presentation of the actual reality of the matter?

In retrospect, regarding learning how to plate nickel free, it is hard to say how much my outer compliance but inner scepticism about Norman's conclusions, prolonged our failure to win. But I have no doubt that in a universe where there is a continuity between morality and truth, to the degree there was moral failure there was an obscurity of truth. Since understanding, enlightenment and inspiration are all descendants of truth, how could I expect the inspiration to solve the problem when my pride had set up a moral blockade to it?

To be continued.

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