On the 2nd of December in 1933 the House of Van Cleef & Arpels received a patent for a new method of stone setting. It went down in history as a mystery, or invisible, setting. The document, numbered 764966, is still stored in the archives of the company. The brand was not a pioneer in this field. In October 11, 1904, a similar patent was given to Chaumet, and in March 1933, the eternal competitor, Cartier. However, it was Van Cleef & Arpels who brought the technology to perfection and made it a part of its corporate identity.
Why Cartier refused to work with an invisible setting is a mystery. Most likely, the House was too busy with satisfying the demand for the Tutti-Frutti and Egyptian revival jewelry. And to improve the new technology there was of neither strength, nor time, nor desire.
The trick of the trade
The method of innovative setting was as follows. The stones, selected by their color, tone and saturation, were granulated in a special way, creating two narrow grooves under the projecting girdles. While the cutter achieved the ideal form of minerals (according to legend, each takes at least one and a half hours), the jeweler made a metal frame of the future jewelry piece. The base was a lattice, which could be seen only from the underside of the item.
The cut stones were successively fastened during construction. The grooves obtained during the cutting were inserted into metal “rails” with a thickness of 0.2 mm, so that each mineral took the space allocated to it. As a result, a perfectly smooth canvas of densely packed squares and triangles was formed.
Initially, the “invisible setting” was used exclusively for the production of flat objects, mainly minaudières — the metal prototype of the modern clutch. But on the 31st of May in 1938, the French House received another patent. Through continuous experiments, the company’s jewelers learned how to use the Mystery Set on curved surfaces and volumetric forms.
The improving of invisible setting
With the innovative setting, you could not see any paws that could damage the fabric of the dress, nor the metal rims covering the shine of the stone. The view was only a precious canvas.
The appearance of the completed piece was approximately 70% dependent on the work and skill of the cutter. Each detail was assigned a strictly defined place, and if the stone moved even by 0.1 mm, this led to visible intervals between the elements and caused damage to the appearance of the product.
When cutting, the Arpels brothers used silk threads covered with diamond powder. The process was long and time consuming. They worked mainly with rubies and sapphires, as fragile emeralds had a higher percentage of irrecoverable losses, which led to additional costs.
It is important to note that the Van Cleef & Arpels jewelers never used diamonds in an invisible setting — neither in historical works, nor in modern ones. At first this was not allowed to be made by technology, but later, by pride.
The oblivion and revival
Mystery Set got on until the middle of the century. Van Cleef & Arpels enjoyed the triumph. However, after the 1950s, the fashion and tastes of collectors changed. As a result the invisible setting collided with three decades of oblivion, until the mid-80s — early 90s. The revival of interest was facilitated by the invention of the princess cut, which proved to be ideal for channel setting. Square-shaped diamonds were located side-by-side to each other, not allowing even a tiny distance between the girdles.
The American jeweler, Bez Amber, was one of the first to think about the invisible setting for diamonds. After examining the Van Cleef & Arpels vintage product, he studied the method, and afterwards spent many months searching for the ideal equipment to create the necessary grooves in the diamonds. Most of the cutting machines, though they created small cuts under the girdles, gave ugly optical effects and reflected the gray color of the metal frame. However, in 1988 experiments nevertheless were crowned with success. And Amber Diamonds has released a new line of jewelry.
A bad reputation
Since the process of stone setting was not different from the one told by Van Cleef & Arpels in 1936, Abmer’s patent was refused. The demand for his work was high; many copyists appeared, and the market was overflowed with products of a different dignity. In pursuit of profit, most producers did not seek to bring the manufacturing process to perfection. The quality of the pieces left much to be desired. The stones fell out, and the invisible setting got a bad reputation. To buy such items was simply feared.
The weak side of the medal
Despite the complexity of the work and the seemingly perfected process of minerals holdfast, the invisible setting is not really distinguished by high reliability. One awkward movement, a concussion, or a blow can contribute to the loss of the stone. And if one element falls out, the neighboring ones will easily follow suit.
Repairing such jewelry is problematic. It is not enough just to find the right raw materials and to cut it in the right way. To put the stone in its assigned place, the product itself must first be disassembled, and then reassembled. When faced with a similar task, most jewelers wash their hands of such an affair. Therefore it is extremely important to purchase items from trusted masters who give a lifetime guarantee for the products.
Invisible setting in the 21st century
For more than eighty years, the Mystery Set has remained one of the most impressive jewelry “know-hows” of the 20th century. Moreover, jewelry companies are not tired of developing and improving it. Today Van Cleef & Arpels is by no means the only brand working with this technology — in the last half-century the world knows at least thirty new, approved patents. And, the masters work with stones of completely different shapes — from a circle and square cuts to hexahedron and a marquise ones. Visibly, strong progress.