Make Bezel Settings for Any Shaped Stone with Bill Fretz

Perfection isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. I think a perfect circle can be perfectly boring. It’s the departure from a circle — or any shape — that gets my attention.

ABOVE: Uniformly colored and finished cabochons with varying and irregular shapes give this bracelet design both cohesion and variation. Bracelet by Bill Fretz; photo: Jim Lawson

Of all the many ways to introduce variation into a piece of jewelry, one of my favorites is by using interesting stones. The good news is you can find gemstones galore that fit the bill. The bad news is you can find gemstones galore that fit the bill.

saturn jasper cabochons

I saw these jaspers at Tucson this year in Greg Genovese’s booth. He calls the material Saturn Stone.

Good News: Fabulous Face-Up Stones Make Jewelry Stand Out

Years ago my husband acquired several elongated cabochons of charoite. It’s beautiful material. The purple is vibrant, the chatoyance flickers in the light, and the variation from near white to inky dark gives it contrast and pattern. Plus, no two cabs look identical face up. I love the bracelet he had made for me, but when she handed over the finished piece, the jeweler remarked how much work it had been.

charoite cabochons

Because charoite has so much personality, it’s typically cut to show it off best — not to adhere to any standard size or shape.

Bad News: Cool But Not Calibrated

Every stone, though similar, was a little different, in even more ways than its lively surface appearance. Each cab varied just a tad in length, height, circumference, or all three. Her plan to cast identical bezels wouldn’t work, and she had to custom make a bezel for every stone. I love the bracelet all the more for this, but I didn’t do the work. I just get to wear it.

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When someone hands you a little pile of stones that are similar but not matching to turn into a gift, or you come home from a gem show with some dynamite cabs not a single one of which is calibrated, you, too, will have to find a way to make bezel settings for them. Fortunately, there are ways.

Good News: Special Tools for Special Stones

Bill Fretz made this hammered bangle using Argentium Sterling Silver and Fretz hammers and stakes; photo: Jim Lawson

Bill Fretz made this hammered bangle using Argentium Sterling Silver and Fretz hammers and stakes; photo: Jim Lawson

In recent years, goldsmith and jewelry tool designer Bill Fretz has shared techniques for making a lot of interestingly textured metal jewelry with Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist readers, especially bangle and cuff bracelets. But his first projects were about bezel settings. Bezel settings are also one of the first areas he explored when he started designing his specialized jewelry tools.

Freeform opal in a custom gold bezel by Bill Fretz; photo: Bill Fretz

Freeform opal in a custom gold bezel by Bill Fretz; photo: Bill Fretz

In the introduction to his demo “Bezels for 3 Nonstandard Stones,” he explained his approach this way. “Using miniature smithing stakes, unusual bezel shapes are easy to fabricate with a minimal amount of effort. The trick is to pick the stake with a curve that matches the stone’s girdle or outer rim.”

Making a bezel for a rectangular faceted stone with curved sides presents special challenges. Green tourmaline in partially built bezel by Bill Fretz; photo: Bill Fretz

Making a bezel for a rectangular faceted stone with curved sides presents special challenges. Green tourmaline in partially built bezel by Bill Fretz; photo: Bill Fretz

 

The process forms the metal by stretching it, he explains in “Hollow Form Bezel Ring,” another project. “First, the metal is bent using pliers to fit the contour of the stone, but in a shape slightly smaller.” You use heavier gauge sheet metal rather than thinner bezel wire, he says, because the metal will be thinned to the finished gauge after hammering.

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“As the process unfolds, the metal is planished, or hammered, on the small stakes, causing it to conform to the stake as it is stretched. If the gemstone and the shape of the stake are the same, a very accurate bezel can be made in a minimum of time. The advantage of this technique will become obvious to the craftsperson who routinely uses freeform stones or gems that do not conform to typical manufactured bezel mandrels.”

Bezel Settings for Freeform Gems

Least standard of all, you might say, is a freeform stone. Although a cutter could duplicate the shape of a freeform, most of those cool, unusual freeforms on the market are also one of a kind in precise shape. That means, says Bill, “they’ll have many curves that will not match any mandrel made, as it would be a waste of time to create a custom mandrel for just one stone.”

Using a series of differently shaped stakes to match the curves in the gem, Bill forms a bezel for this freeform opal; photo: Bill Fretz

Using a series of differently shaped stakes to match the curves in the gem, Bill forms a bezel for this freeform opal; photo: Bill Fretz

“The trick on forming bezels for freeforms is to think of each side as a separate unit. Pick the side that is the shortest compared with the stone, and planish on the correct stake to lengthen it. Then move on to the next side.”

Other Basic Tools for Making Nonstandard Bezel Settings

Differently shaped stones require different stakes and possibly additional tools, and the exact steps will also vary, but the basic idea is the same. So are the basic tools. In addition to the stakes, says Bill, you’ll need “a planishing hammer, a Brown and Sharpe gauge for checking sheet metal thickness, and a caliper for measuring the stone’s dimensions. The digital caliper is much easier than the traditional caliper,” he advises, “and the readout is simple. The digital caliper also lets you switch from metric to inch measurements, and is used both for measuring and as a sliding scribe.”

Good News: “Perfect” Bezels for Shapes That Don’t Even Have Names

Finally ready to make a bezel for that stone that resembles a warped triangle, wavering circle, or other “imperfect,” eye-catching shape? Good! This is the perfect time to try it.

Merle White
— Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist

See Bill in Action Making Bezel Settings

Watch Bill Fretz making bezels on video in Expert Bezel Forming: Settings for a Variety of Cabochon and Faceted Gem Shapes with Stakes and Mandrels. You don’t have to be an expert to do it. You just need to watch the expert at work and learn. Also let Bill show you how to use hammers and stakes to make hollow rings with and without stones in Forming Hollow Rings: Plain and Inlaid.

 


Find These Projects, Demos and More by Bill Fretz in the Interweave Store

 

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