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Short on Words

Mini Issue: Engraving


Published June 18, 2008 at 5:46 a.m.

Grand wedding proposals on the Jumbotron or skywriting that reads, “I love you” aren’t necessarily the most meaningful ways to convey affection. Sometimes heartfelt sentiments take a smaller form. Much smaller. Just ask Gary and Harriet Mace.

The owners of Mace Engravers in Burlington inscribe rings and other trinkets with tiny words and symbols that commemorate everything from wedding dates to favorite songs, from nicknames to Bible verses. They’ve etched a dinosaur on the outside of a ring for a paleontologist, mountain ranges for climbers. They once engraved a ring with words that wrapped around the band comparing a couple’s love to red-hot chili peppers. And they’ll never forget the quirky romantic whose inscription began: “To Poophead . . .” Perhaps the teensiest engraving job was on the inside of a baby’s ring, about 1 millimeter wide.

Their “funny little business,” as Harriet describes it, started 32 years ago. Harriet, 57, and Gary, 58, were then recent University of Vermont graduates working at Garden Way Publishing in Charlotte. Gary was trying to figure out what to do with his art degree. So when the couple got wind that local jewelers had to send their wares to Boston because of the dearth of hand engravers in the area, he decided to take up the trade. The Maces moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for five months so Gary could learn hand and machine engraving at Bowman Technical School.

Hand engraving, which Harriet describes as “a dying art,” produces a deeper, longer-lasting cut than does machine engraving. “You see more of the human touch,” she explains. Gary demonstrates the technique at his cluttered workstation. The process involves first putting a mixture of water and a chalky substance called Chinese White on the metal to be engraved. Gary then draws the design or lettering on the metal with a mechanical pencil. (To see what he’s doing, he uses magnifying glasses that make the image three or four times larger.) The piece is placed on an engraving block, a heavy steel sphere that the engraver can rotate as he works. Finally, a tool called a graver is used to cut out the letters or design along the pencil line.

Gary is the only hand engraver in the Burlington area and one of few in the state. Because of their specialized niche, the Maces do engraving for businesses all over the country. They have also worked with every jewelry store in town. Doug French, co-owner of Fire & Metal, has been collaborating with Mace Engravers since they set up shop. “They’re a little mom-and-pop operation just like us,” he says, referring to the jewelry making he does with wife Marty. “The work is outstanding. We depend on them a lot to dress up our stuff.”

Despite his ability to create minuscule etchings on everything from wedding bands to fly-fishing rod rings, Gary claims his hand is “not steadier than anybody else’s.” He admits to the occasional slip-up, but says a small mistake can be polished out. Though he enjoys engraving by hand more than with a machine, Gary says the monotony of the work sometimes makes him feel like a machine himself.

Harriet, the more sociable half of the couple, runs the front of the shop and handles some machine engraving. What she enjoys most is contact with the customers, many of whom the duo has had for years. Some people bring things in to be engraved each time they reach a milestone in their lives — births, weddings, graduations, and even deaths. “It can be very personal,” Harriet says. “It gets emotional.”