The Art of Micro Pavé
The term "micro pavé” refers to a technique of setting small diamonds or colored stones (melee) in multiple rows over the entire surface of a jewelry piece with a precision that is only possible using high magnification.
Some variations of the term are: microscopic pavé, mini-pavé, micro-set. Micro pavé is a type of regular (macro) pavé but not every type of pavé would qualify as "micro." The French word PAVÉ (pronounced Pah-vay) refers to the intricately placed pieces of cobblestone that comprise many European roadways.
Pavé vs. Micro Pavé
The main difference between micro pavé and pavé is that the stones used in micro pavé are smaller and are set using a different technique.Unlike regular pavé, where stone sizes can vary in order to fill the space, micro pavé achieves that same result by using stones of a uniform size that are offset from row to row, creating a honeycomb-like pattern.
Pavé and micro pavé come in a variety of setting styles. Two main types are: Royal Pavé and Four Bead Pavé. Royal pavé utilizes a common bead to hold three adjacent stones in a honeycomb pattern. Each bead has to be relatively large in order to overlap all three stones. A total of six beads hold each stone in place. In a four-bead setting there are four beads solely dedicated to each stone, and the beads are smaller.
Even though six beads seem to be logically more secure than four, they are not. This is because each of the six beads is holding three stones at the same time. Therefore, the holding strength of each bead is only one-third of a single, dedicated bead. While Royal pavé is not considered inferior to the four-bead pavé version, we have seen more stones lost from Royal pavé. This indicates its higher vulnerability during wear. It appears that the crucial factor is the skill of the setter.
Royal pavé is more difficult to set and is less forgiving. The potential loss of a stone from a misplaced, weak or poorly shaped bead is more likely. Four bead micro pavé allows the diamonds to be seen without too much metal getting in the way. Each stone is recognizable even from a distance, and the rows are densely packed parallel lines hugging the curvature of the surface. Micro pavé’s main essence is in the pattern it creates.Some key points for distinguishing and identifying micro pavé are:
- The sizes of the stones are very uniform.
- Stone sizes usually do not exceed 1.4 mm.
- The surface tends to be curved. Rows of stones are tilted at an angle of 60 degrees or more to each other. Sometimes micro pavé rows are set at acute angles.
- There are no walls or separations between the rows of stones. Rows are interlocked with each other in a honeycomb pattern. Rows are always in a straight line or in a circle, almost never a wave.
- Stones are set densely together with very small beads arranged in perfect rows.
The honeycomb pattern is completely uniform and unbroken. Variations in the width of a jewelry piece are compensated by adding more rows of stones, not by changing the setting pattern or stone sizes. At least two rows of stones are used. Stones are embedded into solid metal - they are not exposed from the back through an opening.
Here to stay
Due to its popularity for the past several years, it appears that micro pavé is more than a passing fad. Despite lower prices due to bargain priced imports and lowered prestige due to its widespread use, micropavé is still in demand. Consumers are better educated and have an easier time separating cheap, poorly crafted imports from high-end quality work. Therefore, they are willing to pay the premium for the US based labor.
Internet shopping produced a whole class of people comfortable with buying a loose stone as the main stone for their jewelry and having it custom set, bypassing retailers and going directly to the jeweler who is making the piece. In this kind of arrangement the quality of micro pavé is not in doubt and people are willing to pay for the quality and stunning look afforded to us by technical advances in cutting tiny diamonds and human ingenuity in discovering ways to set them.
Symmetry and precision
Micro pavé requires an absolute symmetry of all components: beads of metal holding each stone; precise undercutting that gives stones the appearance of floating above the surface; arches in the sides of the rows; consistent spacing and positioning of the stones with their tables leveled; and, of course, each stone's cut and proportions.
The pattern on well-executed micro pavé is almost three-dimensional. It resembles a velvet or suede fabric changing the appearance of the texture when light is striking it from a different angle. Micro pavé diamonds are not accent stones in the traditional sense. They are a type of surface decoration - a mosaic of diamonds that conceal the underlying metal.
Micro pavé is akin to an interior designer that would use ceramic tiles to hide a plain or unappealing wall. In fine diamond jewelry, an exposed metal surface is very undesirable. Using micro pavé is one of the most popular techniques employed to hide the metal and transform the appearance of a piece. Micro pavé illuminates the surface of jewelry, making it appear thinner and more delicate. This is why micro pavé is often used even on surfaces that are not directly visible from the top.
The sizes of stones used in micro pavé settings are usually measured in fractions of millimeters - the measurement representing the diameter of a stone, not its carat size. This is because the stones are so small that even highly accurate electronic scales refuse to register the weight of just one stone. The smallest stones we have ever encountered were 0.40 mm in diameter. These stones are extremely scarce and are priced by each stone and not by weight. The most commonly used sizes for micro pavé range from 0.7 to 1.2 mm.
A good microscope is an essential tool when setting micro pavé. Other magnifiers or head-worn visors do not allow a setter the ability to see his work well. Even the types used in micro-surgery are not good enough for this work. They tend to be too heavy for the extended periods of time that a micro pavé setter must keep his head still, and the field of view is rather small at high magnifications.
Setters that attempt to set micro pavé without a microscope usually fail or produce unappealing results that can look like a freshly plowed field with stones sunk randomly between cuts and clumps of metal bead. Finally, poorly cut stones can cause the surface to look bumpy and uneven. Dark nailhead (a stone with a very deep pavilion) stones create an appearance of a missing stone and shallow "fisheye" stones look hazy or broken. When a jeweler uses a mix of odd cuts, the result is always disappointing to say the least.
Stones used in micro pavé are usually of very high quality for several reasons. First, the stones are so small that they naturally do not contain any inclusions. Second, the difference in cost between high and low quality stones is relatively small because of the very light weight. Savings by using low quality stones will be miniscule in comparison with the cost of labor involved in setting these stones. In fact, the cost of labor is usually three or four times that of the stones themselves; and for a good reason - very few setters are capable or interested in doing this tedious work.
It is rare to find someone with the talent and patience required to produce a smooth, evenly spaced surface that feels silky yet is durable.
Single cut vs. Full cut
Typically each stone used in micro pavé is a “full cut” diamond, which means that it has the same 58 facets that you would count on any ideal cut round brilliant. However, full cut diamonds are not the best to use in micro pavé.
The very best diamonds to use in micro pavé are “single cut” diamonds because they have far fewer facets (17 facets) . Larger facets on a single cut diamond are proportionally bigger and tend to return distinct flashes of light. High quality single cuts are mainly used in expensive watches to decorate the dials and mark the hours. But single cuts are very scarce, not to mention expensive, with the luxury watch industry consuming almost all of the production.
We use single cut diamonds only for the most exclusive pieces or when a customer specifically requests them. Sometimes it takes weeks for certain sizes of single cuts to be delivered from Europe. From an artist’s point of view, it is definitely worth the money and effort to go with single cuts instead of full cuts. Most retailers would rather impress their customers with the tale of how each tiny stone has all 58 facets just like the larger ones. (This is because the majority of them are simply ignorant on the issue or must go out of their way to obtain single cuts).
Although it’s a good sales approach, you simply cannot get the same rich look from full cut melee that you can get from single cut. Micro pavé became available when the technology of cutting very small stones by machines was developed in the mid-1970’s. Shortly after, cutters in Europe (Belgium in particular) were able to cut ideally proportioned stones in microscopic sizes. Early micro pavé was a new and time-consuming technique that only a few master setters could execute properly. Therefore, only a few very exclusive micro pavé pieces were produced.
Micro pavé was first employed to highlight the immense value of certain important gems placed in settings. Later, when automatic cutting machines advanced to the point that large quantities were commercially produced, supplies of smaller and smaller diamonds appeared on the market. What once was very exclusive and prohibitively expensive became a common form of surface decoration in a variety of fine jewelry.
Setters increasingly became familiar with this new setting technology as public demand grew for micro pavé. Today micro pavé is so widespread that it’s now available in a variety of qualities. Large factories in Asia use cheap labor to churn out massive quantities of micro pavé jewelry. By cutting corners on a few important steps in the setting process they are able to produce micro pavé that somewhat resembles the well-made version to a layman’s eye. However, these pieces never stand up well to close scrutiny or daily wear and tear. Some telltale signs of poorly made micro pavé are:
- roughness to the touch;
- unevenness of texture and clarity;
- ill-defined rows and patterns;
- misshapen beads;
- too much metal covering the stones.
"Elegance is not dependent on money. Of the four things I have mentioned above, the most important of all is care. Care in choosing your clothes. Care in wearing them. Care in keeping them."
Micro pavé should be cared for exactly the same way as any other fine piece of jewelry. A little lukewarm water, a drop of dishwashing liquid and a soft toothbrush – it’s all you need to keep it clean. However, stones set with small beads in a soft metal such as platinum (gold as well) can be prone to an occasional lost stone.
Nevertheless, even the most meticulously crafted micro pavé pieces are susceptible to stone loss simply because metal is susceptible to wear and tear. Yet, this does not cause stones to pop out suddenly.Stones can fall out for some of the following reasons:
- Direct hit against something hard. However, the blow has to come from a certain angle so it would move a few beads away from a stone, leaving it unsecured. It does not happen very often. Most hits come directly from the top and even though they flatten the beads, spreading the metal wider, this wouldn’t cause a stone to become loose. The stones can actually protect the surface like a miniature (and very hard) armor. In this sense the micro pavé will actually make the piece last longer by shielding the soft metal under its diamond skin.
- Part of the piece bends (sometimes so slightly that it is visible only to an expert). This will cause some beads to shift away from the stones in a certain area, where they would become dislodged from their seats. This damage often causes a loss of a few adjacent stones and is the most difficult to repair.
The dilemma of any setter is always to balance the proportion between the sizes of the beads with the size of the stones. The stones themselves are small, and obviously the beads are even smaller. Leave the beads larger and the micro pavé looks dull because too much metal is covering the stones giving the pavé a metallic look. There is no pattern - clumps of metal blend in with stones making it hard to distinguish each individual stone from a distance.
On the flip side, if the beads are made too small, they can become weakened, are prone to move, and eventually can lose their grip on a stone. Even after the piece is successfully set, the final procedure of polishing might throw the fragile balance off. By applying too much pressure to a certain spot, a bead holding the stone in place might be weakened or thinned out. Likewise, not applying enough pressure will cause the micro pavé to be left too rough and potentially catch on fabric.
If a polisher does his job well, the micro pavé will be smooth, silky and shiny. The quality of micro pavé should be judged by the overall look and craftsmanship of the piece, not by the unfortunate occurrence of a lost stone .When a micro pavé piece is being worn daily, or is subjected to hard wear, losing a stone or two is almost inevitable.
Any qualified jeweler could replace a stone without any trouble. Usually the repair takes 10-15 minutes. The stones themselves have relatively little value; the cost of labor required to set them costs significantly more. Most micro pavé pieces are subject to a lost stone either soon after delivery or after many years of daily wear. If you think about it, the average micro pavé ring has an excess of 200 stones; it's just statistically probable that a stone will go missing sooner or later.
No responsible jeweler will guarantee that none of the stones will fall out eventually. Most retailers try to sidestep the issue because they do not want to lose a sale over your concerns about lost stones. Afterwards they will tell you the same thing. It is inevitable and there is no need to get upset. High quality micro pavé can be repaired many times with excellent results. In loving hands a ring will look brand new for decades.