The modern consumer is all about unique. Studies have shown that Generation Y jewelry shoppers dare to be different, opting for custom designs and designer pieces over run-of-the-mill product.

When it comes to gemstones, the same philosophy holds true. Consumers today are more open to wearing unusual gems, and there is a trend among designers to incorporate less familiar stones into their work. No longer wedded to the classic trio of ruby, sapphire, and emerald, jewelry makers today are drawn to lapis, moonstone, opal, and turquoise, to name a few. But while these gemstones offer the uniqueness consumers are asking for, they can also pose stressful challenges to the jewelers who work with them.

Most of these gems are relatively fragile, and therefore must be handled with care. Design, fabrication, and finishing techniques all play into keeping the stones safe. Technologies such as CAD/CAM and laser welding can help, making possible setting and fabrication techniques that were not an option in the past.

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On the following pages, six designers share examples of pieces that showcase delicate gemstones. They explain what they did in the design and fabrication process to ensure those gemstones not only look their best, but also stay safe during both the creation of the piece and subsequent wear.

Robert Pelliccia

JR Dunn
Lighthouse Point, Florida

To make perfect settings in 18k white gold for these irregularly shaped, hand-carved jade teardrops without subjecting them to stress, Robert Pelliccia relied on the precision of CAD. He imported a digital photo of the jade into his CAD program, scaled it to a base measurement, then traced the outline. He cast the 18k frame to fit the jades exactly and attached tiny 21 gauge prongs in the four corners on each side. After tacking the prongs in place with a laser welder, he soldered them permanently. He prong-set the frames with sapphires and diamonds, and polished the prongs before setting the jades to prevent damaging them.

Pamela Froman

Pamela Froman Fine Jewelry Los Angeles

To keep the edges of this teardrop-shaped Ethiopian opal safe, Pamela Froman bezel-set it in her own alloy of 18k pink and yellow gold. She added a diamond-studded swirl over the bottom of the bezel to form an extra layer of protection for the opal’s delicate tip, mirroring the element at the top. Set from the back, the opal is covered with a filigree cutout sheet of gold, then laser welded at the edges, taking advantage of the laser’s ability to weld next to heat-sensitive gemstones.

Leon Megé

Leon Megé Inc. New York City

The intoxicating blue milkiness of this African moonstone begged for the most unobtrusive settingdefinitely not traditional prongs, which would hide the stone and could scratch the surface of the gorgeous gem when the metal was pushed onto it. Leon Meg?’s solution was to create a low bezel-type setting for the moonstone and raise tiny beads on the inner edge of it while pav? setting the diamonds.

Four marquise-shaped buff-top cabochon sapphires are burnished into a palladium cup that sits beneath the moonstone, reflecting blue into the stone to enhance its color. Diamond-set 18k rose gold stripes are soldered to the bottom of the cup. To assemble the setting, the cup is soldered to the platinum shank, the diamond-set halo of platinum is soldered in place, the moonstone is set, and the tiny beads are gently pushed toward it as prongs.

Mark Schneider

Mark Schneider Design

Long Beach, California

A large, irregularly shaped opal in Mark Schneider’s shop was destined for reincarnation in the form of a 14k yellow gold jellyfish. But while he was working on the initial design, the opal cracked in two pieces. A crisis for some, Schneider just went with the flow, having a lapidary intentionally crack the opal at the opposite end to create three separate pieces, then modifying his design to suit.

Schneider had the lapidary clean up the edges and carve the opals a bit to give the jellyfish a more realistic appearance. Since the opals have unevenly shaped backs, setting them required special care. Trying to simply press them into a flat-backed bezel-type setting would likely end in disaster, as the combination of open space and pressure could cause the gems to break again. To avoid this, Schneider pressed the opals side-by-side into wax, and carved and cast the setting in one piece to fit them precisely. He first set the tentacles with white, black, and yellow diamonds, attached the pearl tentacles to jump rings, then set the three opals in place and snugged the metal up around them.

Alishan Halebian

Alishan Jewelry Irvine, California

A montage of delicate stones comes together in Alishan Halebian’s 18k yellow, rose, and white gold Ballerina pin. After fabricating the metal frame for the piece, Halebian set the fire opal head and chrome diopside body from the back. He used a laser welder to attach a piece of gold in a corresponding shape with an open center to hold each of the stones in place.

The skirt portion of the frame was designed to hold a piece of ebony wood on the right and a natural Tennessee River pearl on the left. Halebian placed the ebony into the setting and laser welded a scrollwork 18k cage over it. He then pinned the pearl in place with a pin that sticks up from the leg component beneath it. In the final step, the diamond-set white gold scarf, which acts as a kind of extended prong over the pearl, was laser welded on as a decorative means of holding the piece together and protecting the pearl.

Dawn Muscio

D. Muscio Fine Jewelry Studio Atlanta

When repurposing delicate gemstones from an heirloom piece, the challenges of keeping those gems intact intensify. Such was the case in this pendant and earring set by Dawn Muscio. The client wanted to use opals from a piece she had inherited in a new design, some of which were chipped. Muscio’s solution was to create heavy bezel settings cast in 18k gold for the opals. These heavy settings not only serve to hide any pre-existing damage, but also provide a durable barrier to prevent any further damage during wear.

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To set the 3 mm diameter round opals, Muscio placed each inside a cast 18k yellow bezel, then inserted a slice of 3 mm diameter tube behind the opal and secured it in place with a laser welder. The oval opals are secured in a similar manner but with a cast piece that matches their shape.