Unshrouding the Mystery of Invisibly Set Gemstones

New Colombian Emerald Enhancement

In the late 1920s, Parisian jewelers experimenting with contemporary designs and motifs ushered in what would become known as the art deco style. The shift marked an artistic response to the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris in 1925. The art deco form was one of angular, architectural style featuring bold, rectilinear, or simple curvilinear motifs, with outlines in elementary geometric shapes such as straight lines, zigzags, circles, squares, rectangles, and triangles.

One design in particular would become the period’s icon and remain popular to this day: invisibly set jewelry. It originated from the jeweler’s desire to show only gemstones, hiding the precious metal mountings. Three jewelers claimed to have perfected the breakthrough, yet only Van Cleef & Arpels became synonymous with the style.

Pre-Van Cleef. According to journalist Aimee Lee Ball, in 1929 a relatively unknown Parisian jeweler named Jacques-Albert Algier developed and patented a method of holding a gem in place without bending metal over its crown—no prongs or bezel. He did this by carving a groove in the side of the gem’s pavilion and sliding the gem along rails of precious metal, setting gemstone next to gemstone and effectively masking the metal. It gave him what appeared to be a ribbon of gemstones.

Next to pick up on this technique was Cartier in March 1933. But just why Cartier refrained from using the style in its jewelry line defies an easy answer. Some feel the jewelry giant was simply too busy to include the new design in its already crowded line of deco- and “fruit salad”-style jewelry, mystery clocks, and Egyptian revival objets d’art. Ralph Esmerian, a respected gemstone dealer and jewelry historian in New York, suggests that Cartier was probably not interested in such small-stone set jewelry. Adding insult to injury, the gems had to be notched for invisible setting and therefore could not be used for any other purpose.

Van Cleef & Arpels. Cartier’s up-and-coming competitor on Place Vendôme showed no such reluctance to embrace the new style. Brothers Charles and Julien Arpels founded the firm in 1906 along with their cousin and brother-in-law Alfred Van Cleef. Brother Louis Arpels joined the firm six years later. Julien had an eye for choosing quality gems. Alfred was the accomplished lapidary. Louis and Charles were the salesmen with the charm to lure high-society clientele. This combination of talent was the key to their success.

But it didn’t come quickly. In the mid-1920s, Van Cleef & Arpels (VCA) was still trying to establish itself as a great jewelry house. It was winning high praise for its Egyptian revival jewelry and contemporary designs. But it wasn’t until the 1925 exposition that VCA broke through the recognition barrier, taking home the Grand Prix for a bracelet featuring roses made from rubies and diamonds and accented with leaves of emeralds. It was at this point that Alfred and Julien first witnessed and then perfected the art of invisible setting. In December 1933, following Cartier by nine months, they filed their own patent for a design they called sertimysterieux.

Mystery unveiled. One of the many difficulties in making serti mysterieux was in cutting a precise groove on opposing sides of each gem. “They used crude saw-blades made of silk, coated with diamond powder,” says Victor Herman, chief engineer for Yahal USA, a Los Angeles manufacturer of diamond cutting saws. Many of the gemstones were broken in the process of being grooved. Obviously, this added to the expense, requiring exact duplicates of Burmese rubies and sapphires as well as increasing the manufacturing time. Some of the more important jewelry pieces used hundreds of gemstones and took months of painstaking work.

André Chervin, master jeweler of Carvin-French Jewelers in New York, explains the setting process: “The very first jewelers used what were called ‘T-rails.’ Stones, grooved just under the girdle, were pushed into the rails.” Another method involved resting the gems on a golden grid and then holding them in place by thin flats of gold pushed into the grooves. “They did it one by one,” says Chervin. “It was extremely difficult, much more so than being slid onto rails. Each jewelry design dictated what method was used.”

Of course, each gem had to be not only grooved but also faceted precisely to fit snugly against another for their unique position in the design motif. It was crucial to have a gem cutter working side-by-side with the jeweler.

Serti mysterieux was an immediate success. For two decades VCA designed and sold invisibly set jewelry with abandon. But with the changing tastes and designs of the ’50s, invisibly set jewelry all but disappeared—until the 1980s and ’90s, when the style enjoyed a magical comeback.

The new invisible masters. Leading the invisible-setting renaissance is Robert Bruce Bielka, a former student of engineering and art who began his career as a jeweler in 1971. “When I first got into this, I was working at Cartier in New York, but I kept looking in the window at VCA at the invisibly set jewelry,” he says. Bielka, who was the world’s second Jewelers of America Certified Master Bench Jeweler and who now has his own shop in downtown Manhattan, invented and patented the “Jeweled Mesh for Jewelry,” a new form of invisibly set bracelet. His jeweled mesh uses hexagonally faceted gemstones notched and set into individual hidden fasteners. This allows the bracelet’s gemstones to move independently of each other, undulating with the movement of the wearer.

“To do the invisible setting, I was told that you have to work closely with a lapidary,” says Bielka. “Otherwise, you cannot make the pieces fit.” Not knowing a lapidary that well, he decided it would be easier just to become one himself. “Everyone I talked with knew the principle of [invisible setting], notching the stones, recutting each to fit,” recalls Bielka. For most, however, it’s just too difficult. “They kept saying, ‘You’ve got to be crazy to do it.’ ” Call him crazy, but his work is phenomenal. Bielka knows he has cut out a niche for himself. “Most people today are just not interested in working that hard to make jewelry,” he says.

“Quality, not quantity.” One individual who does share that interest is Gary Agaikyan, owner of Invisible Wave in Los Angeles. Hand-fabricating in platinum and 18k yellow gold, Agaikyan leaves no gap between stones. “You need to take your time to do this right,” says Agaikyan. “I do only quality, not quantity.” Just recently he invisibly set 700 princess-cut diamonds for a Rolex watchband. Also from his workbench came a necklace in which he set 800 princess cuts valued at $250,000.

Another craftsman spearheading the invisible-setting resurgence is Alfredo Aletto, a master jeweler and eldest of the four Aletto Brothers jewelers in Florida. The Aletto family has been making jewelry for four generations. Their great-grandfather was commissioned to create a work for the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower. These days, Alfredo labors an entire year to create just eight to 10 pieces of invisibly set jewelry, the most exquisite of which are auctioned at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. In 1990, Aletto Brothers had Sotheby’s auction an invisibly set sapphire-and-diamond flower brooch with matching earclips. The auction estimate was listed at $125,000-$175,000. The three pieces sold for $320,000, the most ever paid at auction for invisibly set sapphires.

Today, invisible settings are back in strong numbers thanks to new, less-expensive ways of manufacturing. Titanium, ceramic, and laser saws not only make grooving cheaper and faster but also “allow for very close precision tolerances, and at the same time create a superior polish,” says Alex Yahal, owner of Yahal USA.

Knowing where and how deeply to groove is critical, says Herman. The gemstone itself must be cut deeply enough, or the groove placed high enough on the pavilion, in order for the stone to face up without revealing reflections of the groove. Having a groove with superior polish can actually camouflage its reflections. Diamonds that measure too shallow will automatically be rejected. Manufacturers can control these factors with the use of laser measurements, making modern grooving far superior to that of the past. Of course, this also means less breakage, cutting costs.

Different setting techniques. Cutters today can groove hundreds of colored gems or about 50 diamonds in an hour. “We have some cutters who can groove over 60 [diamonds] an hour,” claims Yahal. Technology, says Herman, “is literally changing the face of the industry, being able to mass-produce these pieces. Today, they make it so cheap.”

Purists like Bielka, Agaikyan, and Aletto may prefer to do it the “old-fashioned way,” but others are trying new and faster methods. Take Nili Jewelry Corp. in New York. Nili’s process of invisible setting involves making wax molds, placing the diamonds in the wax, and casting the jewelry with the diamonds in place.

In-place casting is a fairly recent technique and can be done quickly and inexpensively. Yet, while the gems can be placed right next to each other, the drawbacks of in-place casting are numerous. Stones can shift during the replacement of the wax. Only diamond and corundum can withstand the heat of the process. The gems must be clean, otherwise they’ll be burned by the heat. Metal may cast onto the pavilion of the stones, causing them to look dark. And the stones can be cast in gold only. Casting in platinum requires too much heat.

Another easy means of setting diamonds invisibly is for the craftsman to place the diamond on top of the rails and press down until the stone literally snaps into place. Most jewelry manufactured this way will show the diamonds separated with a slight gap to prevent damage to the diamonds.

Here’s how it works. When gems are grooved lower on the pavilion, the stones can fit together more closely. This is useful for the original hand-fabricated methods. Grooving higher up keeps the gems just slightly apart from each other, so that each can be snapped into place without chipping its next-door neighbor.

Most invisibly set jewelry contains diamonds that measure from 1.4 mm up to 3.5 mm, approximately 0.01 ct. up to 0.16 ct. “We consider 1.4 mm to 1.8 mm as small stones,” says Yahal. Diamonds 1.9 mm to 2.5 mm are considered medium, 2.7 mm to 3.5 mm large.

Repairing or sizing invisibly set gemstone jewelry from any era can be extremely difficult. Any pressure on the hand-fabricated metal tracks or cast-metal lattice can weaken or break the stones. If the wearer accidentally breaks or loses a stone, there’s the possibility that the surrounding stones could then slip off the track. Repairing cheaply made pieces likewise can be troublesome, since usually you’re working with metal that’s already fragile.

Selected Manufacturers of Invisibly Set Gemstone Jewelry

In New York: Diamond Mine Jewelers
Robert Bruce Bielka Eccentric Jewelry
House of Baguettes Elba Jewelry Inc. (San Dimas)
Isaac’s Fine Jewelry Elma Gil
Jewelex Emerald Jewelry Inc.
Le Vian Co. Farsi Jewelry Mfg. Co. Inc.
Nili Jewelry Corp. Goldfinger’s Jewelry
Nirvana Diamonds & Fine Jewelry International Diamond Center
  Invisible Wave
In Los Angeles: Justin’s Fine Jewelry Inc.
A&M Diamonds & Jewelry Inc. L.A.J.
Advanced Jewelry Malibu Jewelry Imports
Ambar Diamonds Inc Malakan Diamond Co. (Fresno)
ARZY Fine Jewelry Co. N.F.J. Inc.
B&B Jewelry Mfg Ninacci
BSH Diamond Corp. Pink Diamond
Baguette World Simon G.
  Tops Jewelry


What’s an Original Worth?

Auction sales of invisibly set gemstone jewelry typically feature pieces from Van Cleef & Arpels. One Christie’s auction catalog depicts a ruby-and-diamond floral brooch designed as two invisibly set calibré-cut ruby lilies-of-the-valley with circular-cut diamond sepals on baguette-cut stems with pavé-set leaves, mounted in platinum. The estimated sale price is listed at $30,000.

A Sotheby’s catalog shows an elegant pair of invisibly set ruby-and-diamond pendant-earclips. The design features a leaf-form top of platinum suspending a drop-shaped pendant, invisibly set with numerous calibré-cut rubies, capped by diamonds, set further with 24 baguette and 82 round and single-cut diamonds weighing approximately 5.50 cts. The estimated sale price at auction was placed at $60,000.