It’s harder than steel, more durable than enamel, can be worn for years without scratching, and costs less than half the price of gold. It’s not science fiction; it’s the high-end “gem ceramic” jewelry made by Etienne Perret of Salon Etienne in Camden, Maine.

The material, which is composed of zirconium oxide in powder form combined with an organic binder, has a very high hardness (8.7 Mohs). Once pressed in molds and sintered to form jewelry, it can be finished with diamond abrasives and set with diamonds.

Like many of Perret’s designs, the Tasha black “gem ceramic” bangle bracelet shown here began as a sketch in one of the leather-bound books he carries everywhere. It’s a departure from earlier models he describes as similar to traditional Chinese jade bracelets. “In this one, I was trying to expand the collection of bracelet forms to be more original, exploring the possibilities of shapes to be worn on the wrist.”

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Etienne Perret Explores with "Gem Ceramic"

When it came time to carve a model, he had to consider the bracelet’s dimensions: It measures just 4 mm thick with an inside diameter of 60 mm. He needed a material durable enough for carving the design and able to survive transit to Asia for manufacture, so he opted for acrylic instead of his usual green wax. “I bought a sheet of 0.25 inch acrylic, cut it out, and then started filling until I had the right shape and size,” he says.

Once the pieces are pressed and sintered, they are shipped back to Perret, where the challenges of working with the material at the bench begin. The ceramic’s hardness requires the use of diamond-tipped tools — and they wear out quickly. Fortunately, the bracelets arrive from overseas already polished. “If I want the polished finish on the Tasha bracelet, I don’t have to do too much in terms of polishing,” says Perret. “But for the matte finish ones, I have to do that all by hand with diamond burs.”

The real task with the Tasha bracelet was setting the 14 diamonds, eight 0.04 carat and six 0.03 carat. Half of the diamonds are on one side of the bracelet and half are on the other. To set the stones, Perret drills a small pilot hole with a diamond drill and then goes back with larger drill bits until he’s brought the hole up to the size he wants. He then uses a tapered bur to put a slight taper on the hole.

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Each stone is set in 18k white gold tubing that measures 4.5 mm long, about 0.5 mm longer than the bracelet is thick. Perret uses a tapered punch to flare one end of the tube, pushes the other end through the hold, and then flares the other side with the punch, locking the tube in place.

The next step in the process is actually easier to execute in gem ceramic than in precious metal, he says. “I can still use a steel file to file the tube setting flush with the bracelet. Gold jewelry would be marred if a steel file rubbed the surface, but the ceramic is unharmed.” Perret then smoothes the ends of the tubing with a rubber wheel before cutting a seat for the diamond with a bur. Once the seat is cut so that the diamond sits flush with the surface, he burnish-sets the stone and does a final cleanup with a rubber wheel.

Even after several years of working with this unique material, “there are things I still don’t have under control,” says Perret. But that’s all part of the challenge — and what makes it so exciting. “As a designer, it’s rare that a new material becomes available to truly explore,” he adds. “I like the fact that it gives me the opportunity to enter fresh territory — to be an innovator.”

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See more of Etienne Perret’s work at his Ganoksin Orchid Gallery