The Secret Life of Bezels: Gemstone Setting with Lexi

Each year, at the end of the semester of my beginner college jewelry classes, I always asked my students, “If I could eliminate one project you did this year, what would it be?” Unanimously, and almost in unison, the students cried out “BEZELS!!!”

Lexi Erickson's astorite bezel-set pendant
Lexi’s astorite bezel-set pendant

Well, there was no way I would eliminate my favorite project. Plus, bezels serve an integral function in jewelry. So each semester I continued to torture my students. There’s gotta be some perks to being the teacher.

I thought back on my own first semester in my university jewelry class. If Mr. Barker, my teacher, had asked my class the same question, my answer certainly would have been bezels, too. I struggled with bezels. Truthfully, that’s when I learned to buy my bezel wire in five-foot lengths. It’s funny now, as I whip out bezels daily, but back then . . . well, that was another story. In my first semester class, I melted the first six or seven bezels I tried to set. That’s what started me on my collection of silver to eventually be used for broom casting! As the class progressed, I continued to melt bezels, and as my student budget dwindled, I learned to be a little smarter about bezel wire. So l will let you in on The Secret Life of Bezels.

how to store bezel wire in your studio
Bezel Wire Storage: Keeping your bezel wire wound in a coil and stored in a round container keeps it ready for fitting around a stone. If just left with your other metals, it gets bent and crimped.

Choosing and Annealing Bezel Wire

All bezel wire is not created equal. First, fine silver bezel is almost universally used. It’s much easier to bend over a stone than sterling. Some teachers teach using sterling silver for bezels, but I think fine silver is much easier. Most jewelers I know use fine silver bezel. Another important thing to know is that some bezel wire is not annealed when you purchase it. If it is springy, it will be very difficult to fit against a stone. Hold the bezel wire in one hand and bend it downward with the other hand. If it bends and stays down, it’s fine to use. If it springs back to the original shape, you may find it easier to use if you anneal the bezel wire.

To anneal bezel wire: Wrap the wire in a tight coil, secure it with binding wire, flux it with white paste flux (which will be your temperature indicator), and heat. When the flux turns clear, the wire is annealed. If you lay the wire out flat and straight (without coiling) and anneal it, there’s a good chance it will melt.

Bezel Wire Thickness: Some commercial bezel is 30-gauge and some is 28-gauge thick. I like the 28-gauge bezel wire, as it makes a bit more of a statement, and yes, it may take a second or two longer to set, but it also allows you an extra second or two before it melts. If you give yourself plenty of time to heat the back plate first, and move the flame onto the bezel after your paste flux turns clear, you will greatly reduce your chance of melting your bezel.

Bezel Wire Height/Width: Regular flat bezel wire comes in different heights, sometimes called widths, and is measured in millimeters. It starts at 2mm, which would be good for tiny stones or those with a very shallow cut, like a pāua shell, and goes up to 6mm, which may work well for a tongue- or bullet-cut gem if the stones are not cut too sharply. Always check your bezel wire against your stone to make sure the bezel does not cover too much of the stone. If it does, a shorter/narrower bezel will be more appropriate. I advise my students to buy several feet of different heights/widths of bezel to have on hand, so they will always have the right size. Nothing is more irritating than to be jamming to the oldies in your studio at 2 in the morning and suddenly realize you’re out of bezel wire. Right? So if you purchase several feet of 3mm and 5mm, one of those will usually be sufficient for most stones. When you get down to six inches in inventory, it’s time to reorder.

decorative bezel wire types
Decorative bezel wire, left to right: gallery, scalloped, serrated.

Decorative Bezel Wire: Gallery, Scalloped, Serrated

Now you may think that all bezel wire is the same. Again, not all bezel wire actually looks like bezel wire. Some bezel wire can be used as decorative accents on sheet, such as gallery bezel. Gallery bezel is pretty to look at, but has its . . . uh . . . challenges. Even though I enjoy students who try new things, I wouldn’t recommend setting a gallery-wire bezel until you have some bezel-setting experience under your belt. It’s pretty to look at, but it sure is easy to melt those tiny little “prongy things.” If you like it, I recommend you practice a bit with some scrap metal before you set it on your piece. Serrated bezel wire is much easier to use, hugs a stone well, and handles square corners and sharp-edged stones well. Scalloped bezel wire is feminine and pretty and, like serrated bezel wire, easier than gallery bezel wire to set.

make bezel wire using thick textured wire for a bold look
This is 2mm thick flat wire textured on the edges and used as a bezel. The look is bold and makes a definite statement. A perfectly round bezel is the easiest to do with 2mm flat wire.

Discovering Flat Bezel Wire

As I learned more about bezels, I discovered flat wire. I love flat wire. David H. Fell (www.dhfco.com) has one of the best selections of flat wire that I’ve seen–everything from 1.5mm x 1mm to 6mm x 3mm. It makes a gorgeous thick bezel, and I like to texture the top of it with a Fretz Sharp hammer. Be careful about getting really thick flat wire, which is a bear to bend. It works best if it’s annealed and you use it with perfectly round stones. With round stones, you can use a ring mandrel and a rawhide mallet to shape the flat wire, because I doubt you can bend it by hand, even if it’s annealed. If you use it with square or rectangular stones, then you must use a triangular file and file out “V” shapes at the corners. It doesn’t work well with irregular stones because it is so difficult to bend. Flat wire is sterling, so therefore harder to bend than fine silver, and comes in 14, 18 and 22 karat gold too, for those of you who are independently wealthy.

two bezel pusher tools
Bezel-Setting Tools: My two favorite tools for pushing a bezel over are my prong pusher (above, bottom), cut down to fit my hand, and the cut-off end of an old toothbrush (above, top), for gentle pushing and smoothing of the bezel.
bezel pusher tool
A bezel pusher has a long steel prong when you purchase it, but it should be cut to reach the end of your thumb. You have more control that way.

Making Your Own Bezel Wire from Metal Sheet

You can also use fine silver sheet for bezel and cut it to the exact size you need. It helps to have a guillotine shear because it’s difficult to cut perfectly straight bezel wire, but it can be done with patience. Fine silver sheet is usually bought in six-inch lengths, so it may not work for larger stones. A fun idea is to buy 26- or even 24-gauge fine silver sheet and run it through the rolling mill, which would give you a textured bezel (cut it after you texture it). Also, you could drill holes in the bezel and use the holes as a decorative accent.

Bezel-Setting Tips

A tip for using gold bezels: 14 karat gold is very springy. Bite the bullet and purchase 18 or 22 karat gold bezel wire. It is more expensive but will save you time and aggravation. A gold bezel set on silver will give a bit of glam to your piece. Just use regular silver solder to solder the two together.

Another tip: If the stone is too low, cut a piece of old credit card in the shape of the bezel and glue it in the bezel back under your (opaque) stone, and it will raise the stone up a bit. Native Americans use sawdust, but in rings, sawdust can get wet and expand, and after a few times expanding and contracting, it can loosen the bezel and the stone may fall out.

Some jewelers say the metal in jewelry is only to support the stone, while others say that the metal jewelry is enough and stones are merely an accent. Whatever your philosophy, beautifully and imaginatively set bezels will add beauty to your designs. Have fun and experiment. Sacrifice a bit of silver if need be, in the name of learning a new technique. After all, it’s only metal.

May your bezels never melt!

Lexi

Learn more about setting gems in bezels with Lexi and other jewelry-making experts (and get 10 complete project tutorials) in the new Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist eBook, 10 Gemstone Settings: Learn about gems, gemstone settings, and pendants. And if that’s not enough, get the whole shebang in our Gemstone Setting Bundle, where you’ll get THREE DVDs about making bezels and setting gems (in bezels as well as in unique saddle and strap mounts), 20 project tutorials in two eBooks, and so much expert instruction, you’ll be saying “bezel schmezel” in no time–and it’s all at a special value price, while they last.

 

 

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