Protective Gem Settings for Rings
All gemstones, from fragile opals to durable diamonds, can benefit from protective gem settings. Learn which jewelry designs are best suited for ring use.
8 Minute Read
Know Your Gemstones
To get the most from your jewelry, familiarize yourself with gemstone wearability factors and the safest cleaning methods. Of course, your gems are most vulnerable when worn. If you're having your ring custom designed, discuss protective gem settings with your jeweler. If you're shopping for commercial jewelry, consider rings with the following types of settings and choose one that's best for you.
Perhaps the most well-known protective setting, bezel settings wrap the gemstone in metal. In contrast, popular prong settings leave the sides of the stone exposed. Only the top surface of a bezel-set stone remains exposed.
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This article is also a part of our Opal Specialist Mini Course, in the unit How to Choose an Opal.
A bezel setting will hold a gem very securely. You're less likely to snag a bezel-set gemstone ring, especially if combined with a smooth band. Since a bezel setting covers most of a gem, it's well-protected from damage. You'll also find bezel-set gems easy to clean, since they have fewer places to trap dirt.
Bezel settings are also versatile stylistically. Some people may like them because they prefer a clean, modern design. However, bezel settings are one of the oldest known ring styles, perfect for a vintage or ancient look.
Bezel settings do have one main drawback. They obscure the sides of the stone, thus reducing the amount of light that strikes or bounces out of the stone. This diminishes the stone's brilliance.
Tension settings consist of two metal bands holding a faceted center stone. This creates a stunning, gravity-defying look, as the gem appears suspended between the bands. Although it looks precariously perched, the stone is actually very snugly secured by grooves lasered into the metal. The stone's girdle slides into the grooves, and the tension of the metal bands holds it in place.
Jewelers can use tension settings on stones of all shapes. Unlike bezel settings, most of the gem remains uncovered. However, jewelers can also extend the bands over the top and bottom of the stone for additional protection. This still allows more brilliance than bezel settings. Tension settings also require less maintenance than prong-set rings. (Jewelers must periodically check prongs for signs of wear or weakness).
Tension-set rings may present some problems. Resizing one is difficult and, therefore, expensive. Covering the girdle of a gem on each side may also make the stone appear smaller, especially if the metal bands are thick. If the ring is struck with great force, the stone could still fall out.
Although similar in appearance to a tension setting, the tension-style setting actually works more like a bezel setting. The stone looks as if it were suspended by metal bands, but a bezel setting at the bottom of the stone actually secures it. This makes tension-style rings easier and less expensive to create than tension-set rings.
The pros and cons of this setting are what you might expect from a compromise between bezel and tension settings. Although more secure than a tension setting, it's less secure than a bezel setting. (Some tension-style rings may use prong settings to secure the stone instead of bezels. These will require more maintenance). The brilliance of a tension-style set gem will also fall somewhere between that of a bezel and tension-set gem.
Channel settings are great for getting small gems into a ring band, especially wedding bands. Jewelers set the stones closely together, fitting them into the grooves of a channel, making them flush with the band. A ring can have channel settings at the top or sides of the band, or both. This setting is also a popular way to accent center stones.
Like bezels, channel settings make great protective gem settings. The metal securely holds the stones in place and shields them from scratches and impacts. Of course, channel-set gems won't have great brilliance, although this matters less with smaller stones. They'll sparkle enough for accents. Channel-set stones won't snag on materials.
Unlike bezel-set jewelry, channel-set jewelry is harder to clean. Dirt can become trapped in the channels. Resizing will also prove difficult and expensive. Should a jeweler accidentally bend the channels, the stones may come loose.
Protective Gem Settings for Cabochons and Soft Materials
All of the above settings, except the bezel setting, are more appropriate for faceted stones. Protective settings for cabochons and soft gem materials, like pearl and opal, rely partly on the ingenuity of their design.
Although easily harmed by heat, chemicals, and hard objects, pearls enjoy great popularity due to their unique, soft glow. If you're considering a pearl for a ring stone, consult our article on pearl engagement rings.
The following protective gem settings can reveal the beauty of your pearl securely on your ring.
The Cage Design
You'll find the cage setting more commonly used for pearl pendants than rings, but it works for both. In pendant designs, the pearl typically rolls around loosely within the protection of a metal cage. In ring designs, jewelers will glue the pearl to the ring and either wrap the cage directly around the pearl or extend it outwards to encircle the pearl like a bubble.
Cage settings entice the viewer to examine the pearl while effectively protecting it from scratches and blows.
The Bowl Design
A bowl design consists of a pearl surrounded by a metal hemisphere or bowl. As a result, the pearl is visible mostly from the top of the ring but not the sides. This setting can vary greatly in appearance, from abstract, modern looks to very ornate, flower-like shapes.
The bowl shields the pearl from blows from the side. If the pearl is flush or sunk into the bowl, its top is also protected from scratches. Although less protective overall than the cage design, the bowl design does offer an unobstructed view of the pearl (at least from the top).
The Arch Design
This design protects the pearl not only with metal but also with the wearer's hand itself! The metal band wraps around the ring finger as well as the top of the pearl. An arch setting will make your ring look like an architectural masterpiece. While not as protective as the cage or bowl, the arch design does reveal more of the pearl.
The main drawback to this design is that it puts the pearl in direct contact with the wearer's finger. If you choose this setting, avoid using sunscreen, perfume, or other chemicals that could potentially harm the pearl on your ring hand. Also, make sure the pearl's surface is smooth enough not to irritate your finger.
Another notoriously fragile gem, opals come in many shapes and sizes. Thus, designers have to get inventive when it comes to creating protective gem settings for these stones. In rings, most opals receive bezel settings. In general, the less domed the opal, the easier it is to protect, since less of the stone protrudes above the setting.
If you're considering an opal for a ring stone, consult our article on opal engagement rings. Furthermore, keep in mind that assembled opal doublets and triplets will give you additional durable and secure options. The protective gem settings below are suitable for both assembled and whole, natural opals.
When designing an opal ring, you can choose whether or not to make the backing of the ring solid. Empty or open backings allow light to play around more when passing through the opal. Some opals may shine red or orange when the light shines through them. Solid or closed backings remove this effect. However, they also help reinforce thinner, more delicate opals, making them less likely to shatter.
Choosing a solid backing doesn't mean you're closing the door on spectacular displays. In fact, a solid black backing can also increase the intensity of an opal's play-of-color effect. However, the color of the ring metal also plays a role here. With a thin opal, white or rose gold may wash out the opal's color. Discuss backing and ring metal color options with your jeweler.
Adding thick, designer prongs to a bezel setting will give an opal more protection from blows and scratches. It also adds some pizzazz to a ring. These prongs don't have to be metal claws. For example, trios of bezel-set diamonds can secure a corner of a square or tear-shaped cabbed opal. Any thick prongs or gems that rise above the opal can provide some protection.
The idea of the raised border is similar to that of the raised prongs. If a border around the opal protrudes slightly above it, the opal will be protected from most blows. This design offers even more protection than raised prongs, although it will also allow less light to reach the stone.
Setting Stones or Metal Leafing Over an Opal
Opals have inspired some unique jewelry designs and protective gem settings. Some designers, such as Paula Crevoshay, will glue an additional stone or add metal leafing right on the center of the opal. This protects the most vulnerable part of the opal and adds visual interest. Other designers have covered opals with thin diamond-and-metal vines — or something with a similar motif — that function like cage settings.
Like opal, amber comes in unusual shapes and sizes. It's also soft and can be damaged easily. Jewelers usually bezel set amber stones in rings with solid backings. As with opals, designers sometimes use metal leafing to cover portions of the amber stone for additional protection.
Phoebe Shang, GG
A gem lover and writer, Phoebe holds a graduate gemologist degree from the Gemological Institute of America and masters in writing from Columbia University. She got her start in gemology translating and editing Colored Stone and Mineral Highlights for a professor based in Shanghai. Whether in LA, Taipei, or New York, Phoebe spends her time searching for gems to design and being lost in good books.
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