Published November 26, 2003
All That Glitters

Sheer perfection
CORINNE KERK looks at the craftsmanship that goes into jewellery-making

A PIECE of jewellery is only as good as its workmanship. But what does workmanship mean, and how can one tell good from bad?

Painstaking assembly: A Piaget employee puts together a Fountain ring in sapphires, diamonds and white gold. The finished product, $57,880

According to William Lam of Canary Diamond Company, there are two main ways of making jewellery. The first is by way of mass production, where a master craftsman creates the first piece which is then cast so that copies can be made, explains Mr Lam, who has some 35 years of jewellery design experience behind him. This method involves minimum workmanship.

So when one talks of good craftsmanship, it applies mainly to individually designed and handmade pieces. He estimates that in Singapore, no more than 30 per cent of jewellery are handmade, with the latter costing at least 30 per cent more. Handmade jewellery is available mostly at smaller, boutique-type jewellers.

'With mass production, the product is consistent but it lacks character and you can't say it's a unique piece. Some customers don't mind it because they pay less, and there's nothing wrong with that,' he says. 'However, if you have an unusual stone and it's handmade, then it's a really unique piece of jewellery.'

The gold used in mass produced pieces may also be weaker. This is because when gold is melted down and poured into the mould, there may be bubbles trapped when it cools and hardens. 'The piece of jewellery won't be so durable,' he warns. But when it comes to handmade pieces, the gold is hammered to remove all the air bubbles.

Immaculate workmanship

In mass-produced pieces, some parts of the jewellery may not be so perfectly executed because the mould loses its shape after being duplicated many times, says Mr Lam. In contrast, the jewellery made in the 17th and 18th centuries by master craftsmen are still very valuable today because of the immaculate workmanship that cannot be replicated.

'These are unique pieces of work which the craftsmen made with inspiration,' explains Mr Lam. 'And it's not just about how the gems are set, but how the whole piece turns out.' Collectors will bid for such jewellery at auctions since 'like a Van Gogh painting, they can be copied, but will not have the same spirit as the original'.

Until as recently as the 1970s, most workers were trained in every aspect of the craft, from designing to setting to polishing, says Mr Lam. 'One person handled the same piece from start to finish.' But because that is a slow, painstaking process that requires years of training, few such handcrafted pieces are made today. Instead, work is divided up for greater efficiency - one person makes the piece, another sets the stones and a third polishes it, he explains.

A well-made piece should have a secure setting and not be too flimsy. But that does not mean the work isn't finely finished. 'The setting for jewelled watches, for instance, is so fine, you can hardly see the gold,' says Mr Lam. This high level of workmanship is expected because diamond-studded watches fetch very high prices. 'So the setters must spend a lot of time to produce top workmanship. And that's why they are always paid the most. For very high-end jewellery, gem-setting should be of the same standard as those seen in watches.'

If the workmanship is poor, the gold holding the gems will be uneven and may affect the appearance of the piece.

Turn the jewellery over to see that the back is as well-finished as the front. Also, check that the jewels don't catch on your clothes.

At Bvlgari, which is well-known for flawless finishing, good workmanship boils down to a high level of technical skills. 'As far as Bvlgari is concerned, each product is created and examined according to strict quality control criteria,' says a spokesman. 'From the best materials, to the perfect setting and a clean finish, both in the front and reverse of each piece, every aspect of a Bvlgari product testifies to its unique craftsmanship.' Even a small imperfection will not pass the quality control check, he said.

At Chopard, the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity. 'Good workmanship is based on meticulousness and precision,' says Chopard's vice-president and creative director Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele. This means the jewellery must be well-designed, well-proportioned and precisely finished.

Piaget achieves good workmanship by keeping skilled workers with long years of in-house experience. 'For instance, you need four years of diamond-setting experience before being given the authority to set baguette-cut diamonds,' says Jean-Bernard Forot, Piaget International's jewellery marketing manager.

Says Alain Bernard, managing director of Cartier Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia: 'Good workmanship is a mixture of old skills and experience, with a perfect choice of materials. Teamwork is also very important, because jewellery-making involves designers, setters, cutters and so on, with many different jobs and skills.' One also has to look at the quality and size of the stones used, he says. 'The originality and taste of the designer is, of course, very important. But because everyone can find good stones now and can find or copy good designs, the quality of the setting is very important, especially when you mix different materials.'

In addition, you should know the origins of a piece of jewellery - such as where the stones came from and who designed and made it, he notes.

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