Fashion, economics and social evolution create new definitions for our culture. Some 800 years ago an extended betrothal period was defined and gave rise to the engagement ring. Today the engagement ring is not only a statement of intention but of permanence and value.
The gem stone which encapsulates these qualities is the diamond with its own range of qualities. For the engagement ring this is often a single diamond although it can be more. The design of a diamond ring starts by the choice of the diamond in size, quality and number. The design and making of the ring is a balance of holding the diamond in a manner, which enhances and only seeing the diamond. It is the balance of a picture and the frame in which it is shown.
A round diamond which is set with a delicate full edge or rub over setting achieves this as does 4 peg claws. The metal next to the diamond, particularly when the diamond is of a good colour, looks best if white in colour, and if funds permit, platinum. The current fashion is for less claws. Single stones used to always have 8 claws, the smaller stones 6, but now 4 is the designers choice. Nothing wrong with this minimalistic choice as long as the diamond is secure and safe from damage.
The design or geometry of the ring overcomes these problems when correctly made. It may seem an odd concept but all the small shiny pieces of metal which go to make a piece of jewellery have some form of strength. This is either because of their size or what is connected to them. A round diamond which is set onto a circle of metal to which are attached 4 claws which secure the diamond, has strength. The diamond is safe from accidental damage and wear. It looks tidy and pleasing but the strength is the top ring holding it all together and giving strength without massive pieces of metal being involved. The importance of these concealed strengths is the quality of the ring or piece of jewellery in wear, it dictates how long it will last and whether there is any possibility of damage to the diamond.
Enough of the mechanics of good making, the design of jewellery is not just the process of holding the diamond onto the finger but of enhancing. The setting method, the height above the finger and the shapes involved, are all factors involved in enhancing the diamond
The making of a piece of jewellery can be achieved in several ways. Fully hand made from sheet and wire, the metal being shaped and cut by hand, almost like a blacksmith and, until recently, the way in which all jewellery was made as this could also be used in mass production by the casting process as a replica of the handmade original.
Handmade using certain pre-formed findings is a variation and more cost effective than fully handmade. More recently carved wax and cad/cam has been used as the original for the casting process, either on a one only basis or for repetition. A handmade piece of jewellery can be made several times by making a mould. This involves adding a post or sprue to the original to make a model and placing this in between several layers of rubber. This is vulcanised and carefully using a scalpel the mould opened to release the model. This is then clamped and filled with hot wax. Careful opening of the mould once the wax has solidified produces a wax.
The wax can also be produced by carving a piece of wax using hand tools or from a computer controlled wax deposit from a cad/cam program. The waxes from which ever source are put together by applying a small amount of heat to the sprue and assembling into the shape of a tree. This tree is placed inside a can and carefully prepared refractory material poured in. There is a lot of skill in preparing this refractory material, getting it to set as a solid and then melting out the wax and preheating the vessel in readiness to fill the holes left by the wax with molten metal. Once again it is a skilled process to produce the molten metal and getting it into the vessel. Once cooled off cleaned and cut, you have an item of jewellery, although with a rough surface. As the model/mould process needs the wax to be able to be taken out this places some restriction on the design which may necessitate 2 or more part construction. This casting now needs cleaning up, possibly assembling by soldering and polishing.
The fully handmade and part handmade method involves shaping of the metal, which has been cut to size with a jewellers saw, in various swage blocks. Usually more cutting and, once the pieces have been shaped, buffed and polished before they are assembled with solder. The gold solder is gold and the platinum solder is platinum, the varied contents of the alloys give several melting points to aid construction. The filing, buffing and polishing of all the various types of construction involve small files of different cuts or strengths and a range of buff papers wrapped round wooden sections and other formers.
The polishing is done on a motor with an extractor using various mops and a series of compounds. The remnants are cleaned off with an ultrasonic cleaner. This then goes to the assay office for its standard to be checked and stamped accordingly. It is then set and finished once again on the polishing motor with finer compounds, cleaned and, if white gold, most of the time it is rhodium plated.
The setting of diamonds needs a strong but pliable metal which is white in colour to enhance the colour of the diamond. Originally silver was used but although it was workable for the setting process it was not durable, it did not last. As advancements occurred in refining, the platinum group was split into its separate metals. Platinum, rhodium, osmium, palladium and Iridium. Very similar but slightly different.
Platinum was used for setting of diamonds. Originally as 95% pure with the 5% typically being copper. This very high alloy of Platinum gave the best characteristics for the making and setting of diamond jewellery. Rhodium made what the chemists call a salt which made it a good plating metal. Osmium was used for pens, palladium was used for engraving and often seen as a facing metal on engraved parts of jewellery but not the settings. Iridium for some reason is not used in jewellery but in the semiconductor industry.
Platinum melts at a very high temperature and maintains its lustre or shine. 18ct gold has 18/24 gold the remainder being a mix of metals to give a good metal and colour. 18 white can be made white by adding Silver or Palladium but the colour is not too white so the gold is electro-plated with a deposit of rhodium. Palladium is a better whitener of 18ct white but is still not as white or has the same lustre as platinum.
It is only recently that platinum has been cast. Before this was available the only platinum used in jewellery was as handmade i.e. fabricated by hand processes from the wrought forms of sheet and wire. Induction heating, which is an electric heating process where before gas heating was used, new refractory materials, better quality controls and a market prepared to spend the extra cost needed, have made platinum more available.
The setting process itself is a mixture of tools and procedures to position the diamond below the surface straight and tight and the movement of the metal above the surface to hold the diamond in place. The metal is cut with small hand chisels called gravers which come in a variety of shapes. Small drills which also come in a variety of shapes, small files and the jewellers saw are also used.
This list is not exhaustive as many of the tools are made by the setter from the basic metal blanks which are available. Once the diamond has been let into its final position which is covered by the design and the behaviour of the metal, the metal is pushed over the edge of the diamond to hold it tight and then it is shaped and completed.
The dynamics of metal bending and the ability to make the diamond straight and tight are a skill which is learned by years of experience. The tightness refers to the lack of sideways movement, because if there is any it either will not tighten up when the metal is pushed over or the diamond can become marked or even be damaged. These principles apply to what ever setting style is wanted whether claw set, rub over, channel, grain set or flush set.
Article author: Graham Saunders