invisible setting

Van Cleef & Arpels vintage brooch with Mystery (Invisible) set emeralds and diamonds © Nataliya Gartseva for

An invisible setting of precious stones was invented by the French house of Van Cleef & Arpels. A patent for its use was received in December 1933, however, the brand was not a pioneer in this field. Half a year earlier a similar document was issued to Cartier, and the house of Chaumet experimented with a unique technology as early as the end of 1904. Nevertheless, Van Cleef & Arpels became the only one who perfected it and made it a part of a unique style.

Why Cartier refused to work with an invisible setting is a mystery. Most likely, the house was too busy satisfying the demand for the Tutti-Frutti and Egyptian revival jewelry. And there was neither strength, nor time, nor desire to improve new technology.

invisible Mystery setting Van Cleef & Apels

The original patent №2119067 given to Charles Arpels on the 31st of May in 1938 © Van Cleef & Arpels

 The trick of the trade

The method of the innovative setting was simple to understand, but complicated in its execution. The stones, selected by their color, tone and saturation, were granulated in a special way, creating two narrow grooves under the girdles.The cut stones were successively fastened during construction with metal “rails”, which had a thickness of 0.2 mm. Each mineral filled 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 master model of Van Cleef & Arpels Colombe Mystérieuse brooch with Mystery set rubies

The master model of the Van Cleef & Arpels Colombe Mystérieuse brooch © Van Cleef & Arpels

The improving of invisible setting

With the innovative setting, you could not see any paws nor metal rims. 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 process of jewelry drawing © Stenzhorn

The process of jewelry drawing © Stenzhorn

The oblivion and revival

The Mystery Set progressed 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 to the early 90s. The revival of interest was facilitated by the invention of the princess cut, which proved to be ideal for a channel setting. Square-shaped diamonds were located side-by-side, 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 were nevertheless crowned with success. And Amber Diamonds released a new line of jewelry.

Fabergé egg pendant with Invisible setting gemstones

Fabergé egg pendant with Invisible setting gemstones ©

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 overflowing 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 original patent №802267 got by Chaumet on the 11th of October in 1904

The original patent №802267 obtained by Chaumet on the 11th of October in 1904 © Chaumet

The weak side of the medal

Despite the complexity of the work and the seemingly perfected process of minerals holdfasts, the invisible setting is not really distinguished by high reliability. One awkward movement, a knock, 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.

Van Cleef & Arpels vintage brooch with Mystery set rubies and diamonds

Van Cleef & Arpels vintage brooch with Mystery set rubies and diamonds © Nataliya Gartseva for

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 circle and square cuts to hexahedron and  marquise ones. Visibly, there is strong progress.

Van Cleef & Arpels Colombe Mystérieuse brooch with Mystery set rubies and diamonds ©

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