Editor’s Note: Quality matters to Michael Bondanza; he has been known to rebuild entire finished pieces – some containing hundreds of precisely inlaid stones and articulated component parts – to ensure that the gems aligned exactly, the hinges opened smoothly, and every detail met his exacting standards. Such dedication to craftsmanship has earned him world renown over his 30 – year career, as well as a clientele that includes

The Johnson Family’s Diamond Cellar, Lux Bond & Green, and Tivol, to name just a few. Yet not every detail requires great investments of time or money to produce. In this article, Bondanza describes three small improvements that can be made at very little cost, but which can transform the quality of a piece from average to exquisite.

I’ve always noticed that when knowledgeable retail buyers handle a new piece of jewelry for the first time, they do three things:
  1. They hold it at arm’s length to get a general feeling of balance and aesthetic.
  2. They turn it over and examine the back, noting the design, the fine polish (or lack of it), the gallery work, the mechanics of the connections, and the presence of stamps and hallmarks.
  3. They take out a loupe and closely inspect the finer details, including the setting work, the metal quality, the polish, and the solder joints.

With the introduction of new jewelry manufacturing techniques and technologies, these buyers have adjusted their checklists – they may now note the smoothness of laser welds rather than the cleanliness of solder joints, or pay particular attention to the precision of the undercuts achieved by the latest stereolithography system. Yet the best buyers still exhibit the same intensity and care when they look at a new piece of jewelry.

I’ve always expected and welcomed this process, for it’s led to dialogues through which the finer points of the jeweler’s art can be learned and refined. And in the spirit of continuing these dialogues, I’ve listed here the top three small improvements that are essential to a refined look. Without adding much to the cost of production, these practices greatly enhance the look and feel of a piece, and serve as essential selling points for both retail buyer and consumer alike.

The Allure of Azures

When I pick up a piece of gem – set jewelry, I turn it over and look for the holes. If I don’t find them, I have to shake my head. Azuring – the practice of cutting away metal from the underside of a hole to expose as much of the pavilion as possible – allows a jeweler to create intricate patterns that give the underside a truly elegant look, among other benefits. If you’re not creating azures for your settings, I have to ask: Why?

If it’s because you think azuring will add unnecessary cost and time to the production of a piece, think again. If a model maker carves the holes by hand with a saw, a few dozen azures will take about an hour to produce. (Azures can also be designed into a CAD program to save time and labor, and maybe even achieve more precise patterns; however, CAD requires its own investments of time and money, which I’ll save for another article.) An hour devoted to azuring will yield even greater savings, thanks to two big advantages it provides.

First, let’s say that after setting all of the gems, you now need to reheat the piece to resize or modify it. As every jeweler knows, those gemstones better be clean and shellac – free before the heat is applied. Azures provide easier access to ensure this is done; the hour spent creating those small holes may actually save several hours of cleaning burned – on shellac from an inaccessible hole. Second, azures provide several selling points. Customers appreciate not only the aesthetic appeal and the attention to detail, but also the fact that azures make caring for a piece much easier. With each stone more exposed, customers can more easily clean out hand creams and other oils, which cloud diamonds and other gems. They’ll also be better able to see the results.

In addition, I’ve found that as customers come to understand the process of azuring and the reasoning behind it, they become more involved in a piece and develop a greater pride of ownership: They can now inform their friends about the finish of their new piece of jewelry. I’ve also found that this new expertise makes them feel more comfortable about other and perhaps more significant purchases.

Ultimately, azuring provides an upscale refinement that can help to justify a higher price point. If I compare two pieces of jewelry that are identical in every way except for azuring, I personally would view the piece without azures as second rate, thus less valuable. Attention to detail adds dollar value for practical as well as aesthetic reasons.

(One more thing to note: Azuring won’t help much if you want to save money by shaving metal weights. Although it will make your piece slightly lighter, you would need a 500 – piece order for the metal savings to justify that hour of work time. However, when added to the two big advantages already discussed, even these meager savings will add money to your pocket – especially in a time of wildly rising metal prices.)

To ensure it takes no more time than necessary, I always review the procedures with my staff. After laying out guidelines to create the surface area that will be drilled, I use a Sharpie pen to draw on the diamonds. Using the pen allows me to erase if I want to rearrange the placement.

Once I’m satisfied with the arrangement, I’ll begin drilling the holes from the top; after every few holes, I’ll open them with a point or bud bur. Once all the holes have been drilled and opened, I’m ready to begin azuring.

With a saw blade (generally a 5/0 is fine), I’ll now begin cutting away the metal around the holes, creating the azured patterns. Once all the azures are done, I will clean the metal with a light rubber wheel to bring out the overall pattern. (This will also enable me to see the azures clearly to determine if I need to go back and make slight adjustments.) A final tumbling with fine pins will remove any small burrs and bring out a bright finish.

I’ve found that my apprentices especially seem to enjoy azuring (at least for the first few months). Generally, they will have never done it before, but they quickly come to appreciate the challenge. They’ll even create their own techniques and increase the complexity of the patterns: Square holes will be stretched into parallelograms, then curved parallelograms; honeycomb patterns will be pushed around corners to create lacy domes on the undersides of rings. It never ceases to amaze me how great this looks!

And you thought a small hole was just a small hole.

Stamps of Approval: Styles, Stones, & More

Every piece of jewelry should be stamped with its metal quality, as well as the jeweler’s trademark. However, if you want to give your pieces some further distinction, try offering a little more information. By documenting your pieces with carat weight, date of manufacture, your logo, and style and serial numbers – even the names of the specific jewelers who worked on the piece – you establish the authenticity of your jewelry and the care with which it was made.

This information should also be written on the invoice and inputted into your computer system to generate a bar code tag. You now have a more complete record of the item, along with who purchased it, which will help with any future searches for information. Over time, these records allow you to easily track the “four w’s” – who, what, when, and where – of your more important pieces sold.

I still do stamping the old way. For anything other than rings, I either take a piece of platinum or gold, stamp the appropriate information into it by hand, then attach the plaque to the jewelry, or I stamp the information directly onto the metal. With a ring, I always stamp the inside of the shank, avoiding pre-stamped plaques. I do this for two reasons. First, unless they are recessed, the plaques will change the ring size. Second, stamping is usually done after finishing and just before the final polish, and I don’t like to solder on a finished ring.

You also might want to look into laser engraving, which allows even more decorative and highly detailed info. With lasers, you can inscribe text and logos into almost anything, with better accuracy and refinement than can be achieved by hand. This is definitely something I intend to look into over the coming months.

Oriented Toward Perfection

Even the smallest things can make a big difference. For example, next time you’re setting stones, try orienting them in the same direction, so that the stones have been squared with the shank. This practice states that your work is important, and that great care has been taken to ensure the piece has the perfect look and feel. Orienting your stones doesn’t add any cost, in fact, most setters do it automatically, and it takes only a few seconds to check. However, it creates a mindset of a job well done.

This practice is especially effective with large single-stone or three-stone rings. However, even if you’re working on a single half-carat engagement ring, having the stone set squared with the shank is (I feel) the only acceptable way to make the right presentation of your work. The customer may not realize what you’ve done unless it’s pointed out. But once they see it they will immediately recognize, as they will with all three of these practices, how much care, attention, and concern for quality have gone into that piece of fine jewelry.

With the new technologies and emerging design talent within the industry, coupled with an expanding upscale market and the growing knowledge among consumers, the opportunity for growing our businesses is enormous. So, too, are the challenges, with the rise of global competition and outsourcing. To avoid competing on price, we need to focus on the finer details, the core values of our craft, and educate the buyers. Contrary to some opinions, buyers can care about fine craft. And if we pay attention to the fine details of a piece, then explain the thought processes behind those details to our customers, we can instill in them a pride of ownership. And in doing so, we can ensure that a healthy respect for jewelry making continues – and that jewelers can continue to create and prosper.