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All That Glitters: Precious Gems

Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 3)

Colored gemstones may be faceted or polished to a cabochon. In the past, these stones were also engraved on top in the form of fruits and flowers. In India, such gem cutting began during the Mughal Empire period, 1526 to 1761. The Mughals ruled an area that is now the northern half of India, stretching as far north as the Himalayas, to Burma in the east and Persia in the west. The best known Mughal figure was the seventeenth century ruler Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal. Because of the Mughals' Moslem prohibitions, no representation of human or animal life was permitted in their designs. Instead, they relied on leaves, blossoms and berries to enhance the colored stones they used in their work. These carved gemstones were brought to the West by Jacques Cartier, who traveled to India in 1911. Cartier created a range of contemporary jewelry set with the stones. The most opulent of this group became known as "tutti frutti"--the fruit salad designs that combined carved rubies, sapphires and emeralds in one piece.

Cartier often recut the stones because the Indians preserved as much of the weight of the rough as possible, ignoring significant flaws. The backs, especially, were smoothed out to make the stones more suitable for setting in the fine, precise Cartier designs of the Art Deco period.

Rubies and sapphires are also used in the fascinating technique of invisibly set jewelry. Small stones, perfectly matched in color, are set side by side, row after row, with no metal showing. The stones have no visible means of support because all the setting work is done from behind. Popularized by Van Cleef & Arpels, the technique is exceedingly demanding and is rarely practiced today. One of the few firms working in this style is Aletto Brothers of Boca Raton, Florida. Alfred Aletto, working with his son Albert, the fifth generation of the family in the jewelry business, can make no more than 10 pieces of jewelry per year. Each stone is cut precisely to fit the setting; the secret to invisibly set jewelry is the cutting that cannot be seen--the back of every stone is grooved so that it can be fitted along tiny tracks of platinum wire. Alfred Aletto has raised the already difficult art of invisibly set jewelry to new heights, bringing a special grace and artistry to his pieces.

But even he steers clear of emerald for this particular technique. Having made one piece for a special sale of American jewelry held by Christie's, he says never again. The number ofemeralds broken during the process was just too high. Cutting the back of an emerald almost guarantees that you will run into an inclusion or an internal fracture.

Beyond invisible setting, there are colored stones that are truly invisible, such as the tiny jewels set into your 21-jewel wristwatch. These are likely to be synthetic sapphires, man-made since 1902 for use in bearings, gauges, dies and phonograph needles. Their hardness permits precision in very small sizes, perfect for these hidden uses. Synthetic colored stones are produced to emulate gemstones, made from the same natural materials and subject to techniques that seek to emulate nature. They have found their own market among those who want the color of the real thing but don't have the budget for it. Gem dealer Doug Parker is philosophical about synthetics: "I think there is a need for it; people wear fake furs. There is that desire to have what you can't have." And for those who crave star sapphires, synthetics are produced with stars that are even more regular and distinct than those found in the natural stones. They're too good to be true--and they aren't.

Ettagale Blauer is the author of Contemporary American Jewelry Design (Chapman & Hall, 1991).

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