Technique of the Month: 6 Stone Setting and Gem Polishing Tips and Ideas from Expert Jewelry Artists
Gemstones are a way to add color, value, and sometimes even texture to your metal jewelry designs. Stone setting in metal jewelry is one of the metalsmith’s most rewarding and important skills, wouldn’t you agree? But it certainly isn’t the easiest. Fortunately, as with most things, stone setting gets easier with practice and expert help.
When it comes to setting gems, there are two pointers I often see: always sand what will be the bottom of your bezel before soldering it to the back plate, and mark the inside of the bezel wire with an arrow or similar mark so that you will know which way is up, literally, and make no mistakes later on. But that’s just a small fraction of the stone setting advice I’ve learned from watching and reading the project tutorials of various jewelry artists. These six tips from expert jewelry artists featured in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine will help you prepare and set gems in jewelry more professionally, faster, and more efficiently–which also means less expensively.
- Let the sun shine in: When working with translucent or transparent gems, find a way to set them in a way that allows light to pass through and show off their beauty. In their Montana Agate Disk Earrings, above, Tom and Kay Benham found themselves with a translucent stone after finishing, “and we especially wanted to take advantage of this characteristic,” they said. “So our first design question was: ‘What’s the best use of this translucent material?’ Because, when worn, dangling earrings would allow light to pass through the agate and highlight its delicate pattern, that’s the type of jewelry we decided to make.”
- Hold the stone: Tom and Kay are always full of handy tips, like this one for getting a good grip on stones. Stick a T-shaped piece of folded duct tape on the back of your stone to serve as a handle and provide more control. “There is no worse sound than the twang of the piece you are working being flung across the room from the spinning lap,” say the Benhams. “In addition, the use of the handle allows you to orient the disk on each lap so that it is at right angles to the previously ground scratches. This also allows you to see that the previous scratches have been replaced with another set of finer scratches.”
- Brush your teeth: When working with porous gems and materials like teeth, bone, shells, etc., it’s a good idea to seal the surface to keep dirt from settling into those pores during fabrication and wear. “If the roots are dirty, use dishwashing soap and scrub with the toothbrush until they are bleached white,” Roger Halas says. “Dry thoroughly, then coat with clear nail polish. The polish not only creates a finished look, it also prevents the teeth from getting dirty again. If you don’t coat them, the roots (which are deceptively porous) will become embedded with grime during construction.”
- Make your mark: If you cut and polish your own cabs for gem setting, instead of using a Sharpie marker to mark your stones, Roger recommends using a paint marker instead, as Sharpie ink can penetrate and discolor the stone. “But if you do make this mistake, don’t panic,” Roger says, “a little acetone cleans it up.”
- Hang in there: When soldering a bezel wire closed, Tom and Kay recommending hanging the bezel on the side of a firebrick during soldering. “Hanging the bezel from the firebrick allows you to evenly heat it and reduces the chance of deforming during soldering,” they said.
- Carve out your niche: Even if you aren’t a lapidary who can cut their own custom gems for stone setting, you can still get customized cabs by texturing them. It’s also a great way to hide a chipped or otherwise flawed stone. Tom and Kay stacked four silicone carbide separating discs with fiber spacers between them on their flex shaft mandrel and used that to carve their cabochon. “Inspired by sculptors who produce texture on stone, we decided to turn the flaw we’d uncovered into a feature,” the Benhams said. “Carefully bracing the cabochon, we sculpted a design into the problem area.”
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