Gemstones are the visible face of high jewellery, displaying their natural beauty to dazzling effect. These gems hold intrinsic value, but painstaking techniques and extraordinary craftsmanship give them heightened worth.

Cartier’s Paris workshop is a hotbed of artisanal craftsmanship where gem cutting, glyptics and figurative artworks are exquisitely applied. Such skills are driven by an innovative and creative team, and they are instrumental in audacious high-jewellery collections, says image, style and heritage director Pierre Rainero.

At the forefront of this innovation is the manipulation of platinum, which Cartier began experimenting with at the turn of the 20th century. Platinum is lighter but stronger than gold and gives jewellery more fluidity and greater respect for gemstones, he says. “But there is another challenge that is very much linked to the use of platinum. It’s also the idea that people demand more of their jewellery in terms of solidity because they wear it in different ways,” Rainero says.

Cartier’s manipulation of platinum was in line with changes taking place in the early 20th century when jewellery became more liberated as women advanced in society. “Jewellery was worn in a very peculiar circumstance and in the context where women couldn’t move freely because they were constrained by dresses and corsets and moral considerations,” Rainero says.
“But, very quickly, women liberated themselves and their movement was also liberated. Jewellery then moved differently on their bodies. In terms of construction and craftsmanship, we at Cartier had to reinvent the way we wore and made the pieces.”

Cartier met this challenge with transformable jewellery where a necklace could become a bracelet or a brooch and the complex inner mechanics – a sliding system hidden within a ripple of diamonds that transformed a tiara to a necklace, for example – were supported by the hardiness of platinum.

“It was conceived in such a way that is quite complex, but also it had to be easy and solid. The technical constraints might be invisible,” Rainero says.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ Mystery Set technique has become as iconic as the creations it grips. The manipulation of gold rails to hold gems in a tongue-and groove technique was developed to create an unbroken field of gemstones that forms the heart of the maison’s creations.

These include such famous examples as the 1950 couture Zip necklace inspired by the Duchess of Windsor, where the necklace zipper closes to become a bracelet, to the more recent high jewellery, Seven Seas collection where Mystery Set gems imagine the colours and shapes of the ocean world.

Cartier, Boucheron, Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels are constantly reinterpreting their iconic motifs

Obscuring metalwork behind the diamonds is a particular focus at Nirav Modi, which has developed its own technique for making the “seat” invisible by minimising the amount of metal used in designs.

This technique is displayed in the new Celestial collection of earrings, pendants and rings where a single solitaire appears to float in a cluster of diamonds. The brand has also developed three-patented diamond cuts using technology, such as the endless cut. The resulting calibrated curves of the diamonds are used in the brand’s enigma setting in a continuous flow that eliminates the need for clamps or claws.

Piaget has been manipulating gold since the 1960s. Methods such as twisting, hammering and decorative techniques have become the cornerstone of its artisanal craftsmanship and are given a distinctive edge in its Métiers d’Art jewellery, says jewellery and marketing director Jean-Bernard Forot.

“At a time where all jewellers were working on platinum and precious stones, Piaget created a new style using crafted gold and colour and a new way of wearing jewellery, inventing manchettes and sautoirs,” Forot says.

At its workshops in Geneva, Piaget’s most experienced jewellers pass down their knowledge to the craftsmen and women of tomorrow, anchoring its heritage in today’s ideas where there is growing appreciation for what lies behind such dazzling creations. Examples include the twisted gold cuff from last year’s Mediterranean Garden collection, where a single gold wire twisted on itself in a method that evolved from Piaget’s workshops.

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Piaget is harnessing the expertise of outside artisans, collaborating with master feather artist Nelly Saunier to bring feather marquetry to its Secrets & Lights collection. The cuff bracelet, or manchette, combines goldsmith and gem setting with a feathered birdflower that mimics the famous Venetian masks worn at balls. A cushion emerald and a constellation of sapphires and diamonds nest on a flurry of turquoise feathers in a marquetry pattern, creating a striking effect. “It was something never done before and we have made it on one of our most iconic pieces, our manchettes,” Forot says.

Such displays bring a richness and variety to jewellery in exciting combinations that celebrate the diversity of skills and the possibilities that old and new can bring.

Glyptics, also known as gem carving, was a form of decoration in ancient civilisations such as Egypt when it was used to create seals during the earliest forms of letter writing. The process of gem carving has changed little and brings a dramatic visual depth to jewels that cuts cannot achieve. The technique featured prominently in Cartier’s artdeco period and the maison returned to it again in its highjewellery Etourdissant collection. 

Graff has also turned to glyptics, using historic carved emeralds, tourmaline and rubellites. The gems form the basis of a collection that includes a diamond necklace with a carved rubellite. A flower in full bloom harnesses its character in full, giving conviction to Graff’s muse that certain stones may indeed be more beautiful when carved.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Cutting Edge

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