Lexi’s Tips for Selecting Cabochons: Choosing the Pick of the Litter, Stonewise

Do you suffer from sleepless nights because of your jewelry-making addiction? Are you still awake at 3 a.m. because your mind can’t stop designing something elegant for that gorgeous new triangular Rain Forest jasper and other cabochons you just bought? If so, you are a true jewelry artist, and welcome to my world.

ABOVE: This box of stones is all cataloged and ready to become part of my shaman series.

Here it is, 2:37 a.m., and I know that in three days we will be having the Rocky Mountain Bead Society Bead Bazaar here in Denver, and I’m already eagerly anticipating seeing Gary Wilson, one of my favorite cutters and dealers of cabochons. I’ll be there standing in line when the doors open at 10 a.m. There will be eager enthusiasm among many who will sprint toward the booth of their favorite bead or cab seller. I’m guessing that the anticipation of these doors opening is something akin to the 4 a.m. Black Friday sales that I’m always too sleepy to attend (and I don’t need anything that badly), as several hundred women head to one spot or the other during the opening minutes of a bead and jewelry show.

Does this sound familiar? Of course, it’s all good natured–and I haven’t heard of any tramplings or deaths–but still, we have an urgency in our steps to be the first to see what new faceted gems and cabochons await.

buying and setting cabochons with Lexi Erickson

These are some I just couldn’t let get away, even though the shapes may present challenges to set, and they are pretty large.

If you are in the blush of your first months of jewelry-making ecstasy, you may just rush to buy the prettiest color cabochons . . . but as an old timer in this business–well, maybe not that old–I’d like to share a few tips about buying cabochons for your jewelry.

One of the first things you must realize when choosing cabochons is this: not all stones are created equal. Just because someone is a stonecutter does not mean that his stones are easy to design around. I’ve learned this the hard way. There are several cutters that are my favorite because of the ease of designing with their stones. While a stone may be pretty, it may not work well with your style or designs. I still have a blue agate I bought 25 years ago because it was pretty, but it doesn’t go with my style, so there it sits, in my Riker box of pretty cabochons that I will never use.

buying and setting cabochons with Lexi Erickson

Don’t pass up the bizarre and unusual, such as cut cue balls, pottery shards that have been shaped, and reflectors from a 1930s kid’s tricycle–those should be fun!

How to Choose a Cabochon

1. When you are choosing cabochons that will be used with a bezel, check the shape and make sure that the bottom is flat, otherwise it will rock back and forth on the backplate of your piece. Mabe pearls are especially guilty of this. A perfectly flat bottom will make it much easier to work with.

2. Check the sides of the stone. Notice if the sides are straight up and down, or if they are angled toward the top of the stone. Stones angled with a smaller bottom and larger toward the top will not fit well into a bezel. Cabochons with the straight sides will probably need to be set into a bezel with a bit of glue to hold them. Stones wider at the bottom and gradually narrower at the top will be easier to set. Faceted stones will need special treatment of a step bezel or special setting techniques requiring some expertise and special tools.

3. When you find a stone that screams “PICK ME PICK ME!” first check out the angle of the sides. Well-cut cabochons will have the same angle all around the stone. A poorly cut stone will have different angles on each side, and though you may not notice it now, your bezel will fold down differently on the sides, and it will look like a poorly set stone, when really it’s a poorly cut stone. So hold a stone at eye-level and check the angles around the stone.

buying and setting cabochons with Lexi Erickson

The popular Sonoran Sunrise, cut by two different cutters. The stone on the left is a $5 stone; the side angles are different and the face has a wrong angle cut. The color is muddied. The stone on the right is a $20 stone and is beautifully cut.

4. Check the front of the stone to make sure it’s level across the face of the cab. Again, poorly cut cabochons will catch a reflection of an angle, which may mar the beauty of the face of the cab. The polish, or the recent excursion into matte stones (my favorite) should be an even finish all across the face of the stone.

5. A well-cut stone will have a tiny, almost indiscernible 45-degree angle cut all along the bottom edge of the stone. This is there for a very important reason. When you have a snug bezel, and you go to pop the stone into the bezel, you can accidentally chip the edge of a stone without that little cut on the bezel as you snap it into place. I call it the “snap heard around the world.” That snap may result in a crack appearing on the face of your cabochons and the cracking of your stone all the way through. Disaster!

buying and setting cabochons with Lexi Erickson

Don’t pass up an irregular stone because you are only thinking about bezels. The piece on the left has become my signature piece, with petrified palm wood and petrified mastodon beads with amber. The piece on the right is petrified sequoia from The Clamshell.

6. Don’t pass up a stone because of its highly irregular edges. One of my favorite pieces is a petrified tree fern with a very rough top edge. I set it with prongs, as to not block the delicacy of that rough edge. So buy that unusual cut and give your creativity a nudge. A sharply pointed stone may need greater caution and some expertise in setting.

7. You will probably be given a small tray or plate to put your treasures in while you shop at a certain booth. Always keep that tray in your hand, because if you put it down, someone will start high-grading (shopping in) your tray. Trust me on this one; it’s happened more than once to my tray.

8. If you see something you absolutely cannot live without, buy it now. Don’t put it back and think, “I’ll come back later to get this,” because I can almost guarantee it will be gone. If you liked it that much, so will someone else.

buying and setting cabochons with Lexi Erickson

This spectacular piece of lapis lazuli has sharp angles, very straight sides, and a rough surface. Isn’t it yummy? Cut by Jeff Fulkerson.

As you work with cabochons, you may develop a specific color palette, and that’s natural and okay. I love Chinese writing stone, matte red jaspers, petrified palm wood (both the black and the tan), serpentine, and dino bone. The only blue I buy is turquoise.

Confession: I’m colorblind (yes, one of .002% of the women in the world), and I can’t match colors very well. I use browns and greens (which I sometimes call “breen” because I can’t see exactly what color it is). Usually, I stick with earth tones. I also wear a lot of khaki and green or black for the same reason. (People ask me if I make jewelry to go with my clothes. No, I buy clothes to go with my jewelry.) These earth tones have become my trademark, as much as my “ancient-contemporary” design sensibility. It may take a while, but look at your stone collection now. You may start to see patterns in your own buying.

When I get home from my excursion, I immediately catalog my stones. I group them according to whom I have purchased them from. This may seem strange to those of you who put all your blacks together, greens together, etc. But as an archaeologist, I learned to group pot shards according to their pueblo, which showed a characteristic style. So now, I group all my cabochons according to cutter, and each has his own characteristic style. That way, if I need another particular shape or stone, I know who I got it from. I also keep a sketchbook (or it can be done on a computer) of when I purchased it, who from, the name of the stone, price, and the outline of the stone.

buying and setting cabochons with Lexi Erickson

Because this stone was poorly cut, the bezel looks awkward and off-center. The angle of the bezel should be the same around the stone.

And no, I don’t have an exact design in mind when I buy cabochons. I may have an idea, but the exact piece is rarely in my mind, though it has happened a few times. I buy stones I like.

So Saturday morning as I start out to the gem show, my husband will say, “You really don’t need more stones. You have a lot in your inventory.” I gently explain to him, “Dear, I must buy some for my inventory. What I have is my collection.”

So go pick out the best cabochons, the pick of the litter, for yourself, and happy hunting.

To learn more about working with cabochons and setting them in bezels, get Lexi’s video, Metalsmith Essentials: Setting Stones with Bezels.

Learn more about buying and setting cabochons and other stones in bezels from Lexi!


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