Using Gems in Jewelry: Tips and Advice from the Pros

My gem-geek-ness is no secret; I'm drawn to colorful gemstones–spinel, ruby, tourmaline, and some garnets, especially, and my beloved pearls, of course–like a moth to a flame. Sometimes when I'm working at my bench, I think that I might make jewelry just so I can play with gems!

Two of my favorite collector's gems, hauyne and dioptase, that I'd love to own in jewelry as large, faceted gems.

One of the reasons I love gemstones is because they are natural, pretty little gifts from nature (lab-grown stones aside, of course). Whenever I'm at a gem mine or an event like Tucson where I see lots of gem rough and crystals still in their matrix, I think about the fact that they grow (literally) in the ground, given the right mix of heat, pressure, and elements. It's surprising to look at something as hard and solid looking as a colorful, transparent gemstone–something that looks so not organic and natural, not leafy or flowery–and realize that it grew as a crystal right under our feet. (Well, under someone's feet. Not many gemstones grow down here in Louisiana!)

Because they are too soft, brittle, or fragile in other ways–or their crystals simply don't grow large enough or in great enough/accessible quantities for common use in jewelry–some truly amazing and beautiful gemstones are rarely if ever used in jewelry and, as such, are considered collector's stones. Every time I see some of my favorite collector's stones, like dioptase, sparkling cerussite, bixbite, hauyne, and benitoite, I think about how gorgeous they would be in jewelry. I'm also sort of awed by their purpose; it's as if all they were intended for is beauty, and I love that idea!

Back to jewelry making with gemstones, though. Having studied gemstones, I knew about their hardness, cleavage, etc., but there are many nuances about using gems in jewelry that you learn by application–by trial and error, experimentation, and sometimes, sadly, the heartbreak of ruining one. Fortunately others have gone before us and information about using gemstones in jewelry is available. Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist's Smokin' Stones column by Sharon Elaine Thompson, as well as numerous other gemstone articles and how-to jewelry projects in that magazine, include information and tips about using various gemstones in jewelry projects. Just by flipping through some recent and older LJJA's on my desk, I found these tips about working with gemstones in jewelry.

Mabe Pearl Ring by Stuller
Photo by Jim Lawson

Mabe and Other Blister Pearls (September 2010)
Blister pearls are usually highlighted in large pendants, cuffs, or brooches because large areas of the surrounding mother-of-pearl are often cut from the shell along with the pearl, making them ideal for large statement jewelry. Mabe pearls are ideal for earrings and especially rings because of their flat backs. (Ask me how many round pearls I've lost because they broke off their posts on rings. No don't.) In addition to making them more secure with a lower profile, those flat backs also make them easier to set, and bezels protect (and hide) that raw shell-meets-pearl edge nicely.

Mabes have caught my eye lately because you get the look of a large round pearl without the price. I recently drilled my first mabe pearl for a custom piece I was making, and after I got over the initial feeling that I was hurting it (crazy, yes), I loved it! I was so pleased (and lucky, apparently) that it turned out so well, thanks to a very slow steady pace, a wet sponge under the pearl, an excellent diamond drill bit, and patience–something I usually have zero of. Must have been the pearl love that helped me along!


Fossilized Ivory Carvings and Beads in Helen Driggs's Collection. Cabs Courtesy of Boone Trading. Photo by Jim Lawson

Avoid ultrasonic and steam cleaners for mabe and other blister pearls, as they can split and crack the pearls or separate the filler and the mother-of-pearl backing from the nacre. Just like with other pearls, abrasives (including toothpaste) and many jewelry cleaners are too harsh for the pretty little things, as are detergents, perfumes, cleaners, and hairspray. Don't swim in them! As with all pearls, a soft damp cloth is the way to clean them, and avoid using pearls in jewelry designs that will allow metals or other gems to rub against them. 

Fossilized Ivory (April 2011)
When well cured, fossilized ivory is plenty durable for jewelry, but with a hardness of 2 to 3, it can scratch when worn in knock-likely jewelry such as rings, bracelets, and cuff links. It can also be damaged by acids and heat, so steamers and ultrasonic cleaners are a no-no. Be careful when cutting and reshaping fossilized ivory because it can burn.


Loose Sapphires from Stuller
Photos by Jim Lawson

Sapphires (January/February 2011)
It's true, sapphires really can be affordable enough for use in your jewelry-making projects. Smaller stones and sapphires that are not the most saturated or collectable hues are readily available and won't kill your profit margins–but they are still gorgeous additions to jewelry designs. Sapphires are hard (earning a 9 from Mohs), tough, and durable, so they are great in any kind of jewelry and can even handle regular wear in rings and bracelets–Thompson even suggests cuff links and belt buckles. You can even solder on a mounting with a clean sapphire in place if you know what you're doing.

The exception to the rule: Diffusion-treated sapphire needs to be handled gently to avoid chipping. Set it in jewelry that will receive gentle wear, such as pendants and earrings.


Lexi Erickson's Red Creek Pendant
Photo by Jim Lawson

Red Creek Stone (December 2010)
Karla Rosenbusch, Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist managing editor wrote about one of her favorite Smokin' Stones, Red Creek Stone, in a recent post on Jewelry Making Daily. Red Creek Stone is a mystery stone sometimes marketed as jasper–but it is not a true jasper and doesn't have the durability jasper has. This stone should be treated as a soft, potentially fragile stone that often has cracks that impact its durability, making it more suitable for gently worn bezel-set jewelry like pendants, brooches, and earrings. Avoid acids, ultrasonic and steam cleaners, and keep it separate from harder stones and metals that can scratch it.

To learn more about using gemstones in jewelry, including step-by-step, illustrated jewelry projects from popular professional jewelry artists, stock up on Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine! Get back issues and current issues in print or digital formats, space-saving CD collections, or subscriptions–get LJJA, any way you want it!

You know what my favorites are; I'd love to hear yours! What gems do you like to use in your jewelry making? Why?

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