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Stone Setting Pro’s and Woes

Posted by Yvonne Raley on

I don’t set my own stones.  Or hardly ever.  And this is not much of a confession, because being a stone setter is a separate job from being a jeweler or goldsmith.  Both of those employ setters (as well as casting services and polishing services).  A good friend of mine - a 40 year industry veteran who has taught at a well known goldsmith school in Germany - has never set a stone.  My aunt, who is also a learned goldsmith, never learned to set because that required an additional year of training.
Can setting a stone be so hard?  Some of it is fairly easy, actually.  I can fold a bezel over a large and sturdy cabochon; and I have tool set for small bezels that I can use adequately. I can work with snap sets and I can successfully fold over the pre-notched prongs of a calibrated faceted stone.  “Pre-notched” and “calibrated” are the crucial words here, however, because that’s baby stuff.  Pretty much anybody can do that.
The rest, as far as I’m concerned, is high art.  Or almost.  A couple of weeks back, I sat next to one of my favorite setters, A. and watched him hammer set one of my $200 emeralds for a custom order, listening to him telling jokes that I can’t repeat here, and marvelling at his skill.  A’s equipment, with its varying size drills and polishing wheels, reminds of a dentist’s office.  The workbench is tiny because booth rentals in N.Y. are expensive; it is dusty, littered with tools and small gemstones.  A. only sets, he does not solder, polish or do anything else.  And even though he’s the most skilled setter I know – he does all my emeralds and Tanzanites – there are certain jobs he won’t touch.
Here's the expensive emerald, bezel set (hammer set - see below)
There are a lot of different types of settings.  Here’s a quick rundown.
1.  Prong setting: for this kind of setting, you need to learn to drill the grooves that form the seat for the stone into the prongs, matching them exactly to the depth of the girdle and the pavilion of your gem.  To make life easier, you can use snap sets, but they are flimsy.  You can use pre-notched settings, but those don’t always fit the stone.  Since I use a lot of older cuts and step cuts, pre-notched settings don’t always work for me.
2.  Bezel setting for larger round and oval cabochons: for those, you can get a bezel pusher or use a burnisher, which you use to fold the bezel walls over the stone.  But the stone has to fit very exactly, and if you don’t do it well it looks uneven.  You can also hammer set a bezel with a special attachment to your drill that makes a quick hammering motion just like a tiny jackhammer.  But if you apply too much pressure, you will break the stone (hammer setting an emerald can be a challenge, for instance).  Another bezel setting method is with a concave looking tool (it looks like the inside of a semi-sphere, I can’t seem to find the name of it anywhere) that you can use with a stirring motion.  But if your stone is too high you will scratch or crack it it.
3.  Bezel setting for faceted stones: that’s the same as for cabochons, but the bezel is open in the back and the stone can easily scoot around or fall out while you try to set it.  The gems I use are also very small, which poses extra problems.
4.  Bezel setting for square or other pointy stones: you can also hammer set those or hand set them with a bezel pusher.  But this one is harder to do.  One jeweler that helps me on occasion refuses to set those.  You cannot fold the corners in these settings. 

Garnet in Square Bezel

5.  Burnished setting: for this, you drill a hole directly into your piece of jewelry, then widen it to fit the gem.  You set the stone flush with the surface of your piece, shoving tiny pieces of metal over the edges of the stone, like in a bezel but using the surrounding metal instead.  An alternative to this is the beaded setting, where you first burnish the stone but then “shove” larger beads of metal by creating a sort of a star or square around the stone.  Burnishing is sometimes also called “gypsy setting” or “flush setting”.
Tie Bar with Diamond - Beaded Setting
6. Channel setting: here, you drill a channel into the metal and set all the stones into it in a row.  The stones will be held down by the sides of the channel.  So this is similar to bezel setting but the stones are only held by two sides.
7. Pave setting: that’s when you set a multitude of tiny stones together by using tiny prongs or again “beads” that get shoved over the stone.  Unfortunately, pave set stones can easily fall out.
In addition to this list, there are mixed versions.  I.e. you drill a hole as in flush setting but then build prongs out of metal which you solder around the hole and fold over the stone.  That’s an insane amount of work, though.  While most setting only takes a few minutes, this would take much longer.
As you can tell from the above list, you need to invest in a serious tool set in order to master all these forms of setting.  Also, you need to consider what type of stone you have.  For burnished settings, the stone cannot stick out of the back or it will scratch the wearer.  Also, deeper stones are always harder to set than shallow ones.  Lastly, some stones break more easily.  For that, the Moh’s scale of hardness is not that relevant, because that just tells you how scratch proof the stone is.  What matters more is the kind of cleavage some stones have.  Emeralds, but also aquamarines, crack very easily.  Tanzanites are brittle.  If you use a setter that tends to hurry, don’t give him any of those stones.
Some setters are excellent at one type of setting and really bad at another.  Opals, for instance, which are very thin slices of material that fracture easily, can be a challenge for someone who is mainly used to burnishing and prong setting.  Large emeralds pose a problem for those setters who apply too much pressure.  And once, I’ve had a setter refuse to burnish baguettes into a ring, saying it could not be done.  Another setter did a beautiful job burnishing those very same baguettes.  But then they turned out not to hold very well.  One stone broke, another fell out.
Custom Ring with Burnished Baguettes and Squares
How often do stones break?  I’d say maybe one in 50, not counting the breakage during resizing (which is due to overheating the metal).  But that’s enough to cause trouble.  It’s one reason why custom jobs with handpicked stones are every setter’s (and jeweler’s) nightmare.  So are jewelry repairs of pieces that have sentimental value.  More than once, my gemstone dealer D. had to repair a stone that a setter scratched, or to replace a broken stone without the customer knowing.  I think this is also why custom jobs cost so much.  Everyone who works on the item knows that if this item breaks the jeweler doesn’t get paid, and then the setter or jeweler may lose the next commission. 
While I’ve seen stones fall out during the polishing process, and silver mis-measured and mis-cut, the largest number of problems arise during setting.  The setting is too small or too large, the stone too deep, one method of setting turns out too dangerous or risky, the stone turns out to have a tiny crack that could explode during setting, the pressure might make the stone disintegrate when it gets steamed at the end.  And so on and so on. 
I love making jewelry, I really do.  But becoming a setter?  Never.

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