A Mystery Revealed: The Art and Innovation of Van Cleef and Arpels
For centuries, the arts of precious metal jewelry creation and lapidary (hard stone carving) have formed a harmonious bond. Mankind’s fascination with gemstones has been inextricably linked to advances in precious metal manipulation. Concurrent with the evolution of rudimentary goldsmithing processes, such as lost wax casting, early precious metal artisans were using gemstone cabochons to adorn their jewelry creations. Over the centuries, the artisan’s abilities have become refined, in conjunction with the evolution of jewelry-making technologies, allowing for great advances in the art of gem cutting and jewelry production.  One of these such advances is a variation of the channel setting technique, a practice perfected and patented by the legendary Paris atelier Van Cleef and Arpels in the early twentieth century.  Called mystère, or mystery setting, the effect is a visually unbroken field of gemstones that appear to float on top of the supporting metal.

Patented in 1933, the mystery setting process innovated by Van Cleef and Arpels begins with the art of lapidary. Gemstones, such as diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, are carefully selected for matching color and calibrated to exacting standards, custom cut to fit the flowing forms of the jewelry metal that will support them. Each stone is prepared with utmost precision and contains imperceptible grooves across the pavilion below the girdle of the gemstone. It is this delicate and meticulous cut that is crucial to creating the illusion of the seamless surface of the mystery setting.

While the gemstones appear to be set with no visible mounting (hence, the trade term "invisible setting"), the complex processes in the supporting metal beneath the gemstone contradict the effortless appearance. The gem selecting, sorting, and cutting process is every bit as exacting as the metal working. Hundreds of small gems will cover a piece of jewelry that must be prepared to fit each individual stone perfectly. A grid-like structure follows the curves and contours of the gemstones, while a tongue and groove technique secures the gems from the sides.

The mystery setting technique must be performed under magnification. Microscopes are used in this technique, as the slightest slip of the hand can render severe consequences. The surfaces used in the mystery setting are often domed and curved, which can cause the stones to encroach upon each other. The rails of the grid must be closely inspected and careful measurements of the stones are taken to ensure conformity. Stones are placed on top of the rails of the grid and assessments are made. The first cut of the channel is made with a specially modified burr so that the opening of the channels measure one hundredth of a millimeter less than the distance between the parallel grooves on the pavilion of the gemstones. Setting the gems is done from the interior of the piece, working from the inside to the outer walls.

Further preparation is needed to adjust the tops of the rails. A square graver is used to hone the 90-degree angle needed to achieve the mystery effect. It is imperative that this cut is precise, rendered exactly straight or the stones will not sit at an even height. The 90-degree cut is then softened slightly with a round graver to allow for expansion of the metal into the grooves. The stones are placed on top and “pre-set” to allow for visual inspection. Minute adjustments can be made at this time so that the stones will snap into place.

Work progresses slowly to the outer rails, which are channeled using a modified hart bur. Stones are frequently checked along the way, carefully moved into place, and secured with a downward tapping motion using a soft wooden dowel and a chasing hammer. The delicate tapping on the table of the gemstone creates force on the flared rails beneath, causing the metal to expand slightly and fill the grooves in the pavilions of the gemstones, locking each one into place. The perimeter of the frame is completely obscured by the gemstones, while each gem is secured by metal that cannot be seen. Each stone is checked for security and to ensure that the stones do not overlap or touch in any way.

The appearance of the mystery setting induces wonderment. The effect of a seamless field of colorful gemstones undulating and curving delights the eye.  Because of its appeal, this setting technique is imitated frequently using only diamonds, since diamonds are capable of withstanding incredibly high temperature. Grooved diamonds are cast in place using traditional lost wax methods. The wax fills the grooves and is exchanged for precious metal during the casting process. This process mimics the appearance of the mystery setting.

As technical advances in jewelry progress, one can only imagine what innovations lie ahead. In designs where imagination, fantasy, and nature combine to achieve the effortless appearance that only a technical marvel can achieve, the only limit is inspiration itself.  It has been nearly 80 years since the debut of the Van Cleef and Arpels technique known as mystère; however, the enchantment that these jewels evoke is no mystery.
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