Cheap Jewelry Tools and the Pareto Principle

Q: If a tool selling for 20 percent of the price can accomplish 80 percent of everything I want to do with it, then what’s the matter with that? This is, in engineering parlance, known as the Pareto Principle, or the 80:20 rule.

A: Our field may be one where you’ll find it useful to forget that rule. It may apply to some fields, but in ours, that small increase in functionality may be the difference between a tool worth owning and using, and one which, though it tries to work, simply cannot do the job well enough to be worth the aggravation.

I can think of many examples: Cheap drawplates made in India, often available for under ten bucks, will indeed give you wire, most of the time. But sizes are variable, and finish isn’t so good. The first time you try a well-made French steel plate, or a good carbide plate, you’ll never use those Indian plates again.

Pepe Tools made a wonderful looking dapping die (Harbor Freight sells an equally decent looking Chinese copy for even less) and dapping punch set. The steel was good, the finish was great. They looked wonderful, and cost a lot less than a good French or German dapping block. But the devil is in the details. The block was made with depressions which are full 180 degree hemispheres, and the matching dapping punches are exact fits. Looks good, but there’s no clearance in there for the metal thickness. And if you try to produce a full hemisphere, the sharp edges of the hemispheric depressions leave scars on the metal, and the lack of a draft angle at the top makes the metal very difficult to remove from the block, and that’s if you can even find a punch that gives you both a good dapping job and enough clearance for the metal. You don’t become aware of these limitations until you try to use the tool, and for many uses with smaller discs not fitting the whole hemisphere, you don’t notice. But it’s a key difference.

A number of other Pepe tools had similar deficiencies, not obvious at first. Their jump ring winder, a cheaper copy of Ray Grossman’s “JumpRinger”, was a good example. Looked good, and saved you money. But trust me. Ray’s tool is much more usable, even if the differences appear quite minor; the devil’s in the details.

Or how about this neat looking little Swiss-made saw frame. Very light-weight and good in the hand. comfortable, looks good, nicely made. But the blades fit into these drilled holes, held by a set screw. It has too small a clamping area; those set screws often won’t hold a blade much finer than about 3/0 size. First time you notice that, you’ll go back to your old standby German saw frame again.

I suspect this whole principle is less applicable to tools we use for a couple of reasons. First, jewelry is all about the details. A tool that does 80 percent of the job it should do is probably not doing a good enough job to pass muster in my trade.

With hand tools, the limits are often in the hands themselves, as much as in the tools. Limiting a tool’s performance by 20 percent may mean a much larger limitation in the degree to which the human user can make it work. Think, for example, of the dramatic difference between what you can do with ordinary saw blades, versus higher quality ones. Or high quality Swiss or German needle files versus cheaper ones from China or the like which may still work, but just do not yield quite as uniform and precise a cut or finished surface. Or the subtle difference in feel and performance between good German hand pliers versus the cheap ones from Pakistan. The latter may be fine for beginners or those on a budget, but for fine control and good work, most experienced users simply won’t bother with junky cheap pliers if they’ve got a choice (not to say there isn’t a place for them too, especially when you need to modify a plier for a specific job)

It’s like jewelry itself. It’s either made right, or it isn’t. Almost right is simply not right. There’s a lot of commercial junk jewelry that fits that description, but we all know the difference when we see it. It’s right or it isn’t.

Same with tools.

by Peter W. Rowe M.F.A., G.G.