When we make jewellery at our studio, we are faced with several decisions, and one of them is how to set a precious stone into a piece of jewellery. This old craft is called stone setting and the person who does it is called a stone setter. It’s a very demanding job - it involves knowledge of gemology, gem cutting and polishing as well as goldsmithing. Stone setters need to be completely accurate and flawless in their work. They often work with stones less than 1 milimetre in size as well as stones worth thousands of pounds. In this article, read all about how this precision craft evolved and how we set stones into jewellery at KLENOTA today.
How stone setting evolved over time
Jewellery has been worn since prehistoric times. At that time it was primitive and made of bones and sticks. Over time, people learned to work with metals and the first metal jewellery appeared, made of bronze, iron, silver and gold. It was made from metal sheets and wires and at first they were simple but gradually they improved and cast jewellery was born – pretty much the same method as we know today. The jewellery could then be decorated with twisted wires, small beads, engravings and the like.
The most distinctive element of the jewel was undoubtedly however the gemstone, which generally had a spiritual or healing significance. It protected the wearer, averted evil energy or symbolised some god. We know the first such pieces of jewellery from antiquity. In Egypt for example, gemstones were set into a band. The most popular were jasper, carnelian, malachite, quartz as well as the royal lapis lazuli and turquoise. The colour blue was considered royal in Egypt. The stones were then processed into cabochons or pebbles. Other minerals were also known about, but were often replaced by glass because they were too difficult to work with.
The first mentions of stone setting
The craft of stone setting as its own separate discipline began to appear later - in medieval Italy, in the 14th century. The Middle Ages were dark, full of poverty, disease and war. Precious stones and jewellery made of precious metals were the prerogative of the nobility and the church and jaspers, garnets, sapphires as well as emeralds shone on their jewellery.
Over time, even the middle class could afford the more commonplace minerals. The Victorian era (2nd half of the 19th century) highlighted the beauty of pearls, agates and black onyxes. During the Art Nouveau period (turn of the 19th – 20th century), pearls were popular as well as transparent gemstones such as diamonds, amethysts and aquamarines which were widely used. The Art Deco period (1920s and 1930s) loved geometry, so in this period a variety of innovations and new gemstone cuts were created, especially square ones. Transparent minerals were combined with opaque ones - for example diamonds with onyxes - and contrasting was popular. New gem cuts and technologies also helped along the development of stone setting. For the very first time the style of setting stones into a channel appeared, which created fascinating jewellery that gave the impression that it was made of ribbons of gemstones.
Stone setting as an art
Jewellery can be set with gemstones in a variety of ways. Sometimes the stone is held in place by prongs, at other times it is embedded into the metal or has a metal band around it. It might seem that choosing how to set the stone is only a matter of appearance, but it’s not that simple. The setting must first and foremost be functional (ie. do its job) and it must serve the gemstones in such a way as to highlight their qualities as best as possible. The type of mineral (its fragility, the way it cleaves and its transparency), the size, type and symmetry of the cut, the type of metal, but also how often you will wear the piece of jewellery all play an important role in choosing the stone setting.
All this information is important so that the stone setter knows which tools to choose or how careful they must be to avoid damaging the stone. Some stones are easily scratched while others crack easily. A good example is moldavites and emeralds which can’t just be set in any setting. A stone setter also has to consider how best to place the gemstone in the setting to hide any of its imperfections.
How does a stone setter choose a particular gemstone cut?
Stone setters work with two types of polished stones - cabochons and faceted stones, and each of these are suitable for different minerals.
Faceting is suitable for transparent varieties of stones where we want their sparkle and inner fire to stand out. We achieve this with the help of individual surfaces (called facets) that refract (bend) and reflect light inside the stone so that as a result, the stone shines from the inside. The key part of the stone for faceting is called the girdle. This is the widest part of the cut stone when viewed from above and separates its upper and lower halves (the crown and the pavilion respectively). The girdle runs all the way around the perimeter and we could think of it as a kind of belt as it were. It is also crucial in determining the origin of some stones, because a part of it can be left uncut so that some of the raw stone is visible. The girdle therefore ensures that the stone is held in place.
The cabochon cut is suitable for opaque stones - for example for agates, opals, onyxes or turquoise. This cut has a flat base and is cut into a convex round or oval shape. It is also ideal for minerals with a Cat's Eye or chatoyancy effect. A cabochon cut can also be used with labradorites and sun as well as moon stones since it really allows them to excel.
The key to a perfect piece of jewellery is that the gemstone that is set into it is beautiful and fits perfectly. To achieve this, at KLENOTA we carefully select each stone for our stone setter according to its optical qualities, dimensions and symmetry of the cut. If the stone were to have a different size, it might not fit well in the jewellery, which would affect the overall look of the jewellery and the stone might fall out over time. This is also the reason why at our studio we don’t accept stones for setting from clients. Since our goal is quality, perfection and satisfaction – in such circumstances we wouldn’t be able to guarantee those.
Types of settings
Prongs are little claws that hold and at the same time to some extent protect the gemstone. Most often there are 4, 5, 6 or even 8 of them, they can be single or double prongs, round, pointed or flat. We also often come across three prong settings, which are not only suitable for trillion cuts, but which will also comfortably hold round stones. Some prongs hold more than one stone. It depends on the design of the jewellery, but mainly on the size and cut of the stone that the prongs need to hold. There is a bearing (a notch) cut into each prong that the gemstone needs to fit into exactly. The bearing must be angled correctly based on the size of the stone, it must be in the same place on all the prongs and it must not be cut too deep so that the prong doesn’t break. After the stone has been set, the upper part of the prong is bent over the girdle and pressed tightly on to the surface above the girdle so that the gemstone does not move. Lastly the prongs are evened out to the same height, cut and then polished.
This type of setting is suitable for solitaires - large central stones, which are the main star of the whole piece of jewellery. The great advantage of prong settings is that light penetrates into the stone from all sides and its colour, brightness and internal fire are able to stand out the best. The gem literally shines!
The prongs come in different lengths and thicknesses, depending on the type of jewellery and the size of the stone they are to keep in place. Occasionally, a prong may come loose when it catches on clothes for instance. That's why it's a good idea to check your jewellery regularly. If you find that the prongs no longer bend all the way down to the stone or the stone moves around in the jewellery, it’s best to stop wearing the jewellery and bring it to us immediately. At KLENOTA, as part of our warranty service we will repair it for you for free.
Setting small stones into a pavé setting is ideal when you have a few small stones cut into a round brilliant cut. They are arranged right next to each other so that there is very little metal between each one. The word pavé comes from French and means “paved” and the result is really reminiscent of a piece of jewellery paved with gemstones. This method is a real form of art and can only be done well by experienced stone setters. They drill small holes in the jewellery which they push the stones into, thereby fixing them into place. Gemstones arranged in this way create a dreamy, sparkling surface and the piece of jewellery gives the impression that it is made entirely of gemstones. Small diamonds are most often set in this manner.
The prong category also includes a type of stone setting known as the “garnet technique” which originated in the Czech Republic and is used for setting Czech garnets.
This is a nice, modern way to set a single stone into rings with a simple design. Thanks to the clean way the stone is set, using only compression between the two sides of the metal, the stone gives the impression that it is floating in between the metal in the jewellery. In order for stone setters to be able to set a gemstone this way, they must be experienced and skilled. This type of setting is sensitive to any damage that the jewellery might sustain since the stone could be susceptible to falling out or cracking. The advantage of this setting is that light can penetrate freely into the gemstone, so it will show it off its full beauty.
You’ll also find this type of setting in our collection and it is a very interesting type of setting - the stones are inserted into grooves next to each other up to the top level of the band. They are fixed into place by pressing the stones down slightly from above or from the side. This type of setting is most often used for square or rectangular cuts and with these, truly remarkable pieces of jewellery are created. However a channel setting is also suitable for round gem cuts. The advantage is that the stone is well protected but it can be harder to clean at home. If you don’t dare to clean it at home yourself, bring the jewellery to us - as part of our KLENOTA lifetime service, you will be entitled to free jewellery cleaning and sterilising with UVC light.
This is a technique most commonly used to set cabochons. The gemstone is set in such a way that it fits perfectly into the bezel part of the band, then the stone is fixed into place by bending the upper part of the metal edging over the top of the stone to hold it in place. This method of setting stones is secure and the stone isn’t able to simply fall out as easily and if the bezel band comes loose, it is very easy to push it back into place. This method is used for cabochons largely because it is the most beautiful way to securely hold in place this type of stone cut. Although the bezel band doesn’t allow light to penetrate the stone from the sides, with cabochons this doesn’t matter as much.
Setting stones into a bezel is probably one of the oldest techniques in jewellery. In ancient times, gemstones were usually polished into cabochons so this method of setting them was the safest. This is evident for instance on the St. Edward´s Crown, where smaller symmetrical stones have been set into the bezel. At KLENOTA, we have dedicated an entire collection called The Bezel Collection to this type of setting. Let yourself be enchanted by its minimalist and delicate design.
Before the stone is set
When jewellery is made, the part when the stone is set into it is usually the icing on the cake and the jewellery needs to be almost finished before the stone is set. The sizing of the rings and their alignment needs to be checked, with earrings also that their closure works and that each piece of jewellery has been cleaned well with an emery board, that it has been pre-polished and that there are no left over remnants of polishing pastes after it has been polished. After the stone has been set, the jewellery should just get a final polish, or be rhodium plated or supplemented with a pearl if required. If the setter inserts a stone which is the wrong size into a ring or the fastening on earrings needs to be replaced, the stone often needs to be removed again before the adjustment to prevent it from being damaged by fire. This is why at our jewellery studio, every piece of jewellery undergoes a thorough inspection before a stone is set into it.
How stone setting works
After checking the jewellery, the setter selects suitable stones, measures the piece of jewellery and drills the holes or grooves into it. In most cases however, there is no need to prepare the jewellery by hand because this work is done by casting and all of these preparations have already taken place when the piece of jewellery was made. The setter then uses milling machines to shape and adjust the place where the stone is to be set, then carefully examines the gemstones and selects the most suitable ones and decides how best to orient them. After that comes the setting. The jewellery is fixed in place so that the setter can exert the necessary pressure when bending and rolling the metal over the stone. When the stone has been securely fastened, it needs to be cleaned and polished. The polished jewellery can then be plated and if required, handed over for any pearls to be glued. At that stage, the jewellery is finished and is ready to make its way over to you.