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Sawdust in bezels

There are a few things that exasperate me as much as finding sawdust
inside a bezel while doing a repair.

Personally, I think is is a lousy trick to pull on a customer and any
jeweler who will work on it.

What I like least is explaining to a person that they lost their stone
or it is rattling loose in the bezel because the sawdust rotted out,
especially when they tell me that it was custom made or made by a
’designer’. I cannot find a good reason to defend the practice of
using it or any other organic material as ‘filler’.

Silver or gold wire (as the piece requies ) step bezel is the only
thing which, in my mind, keeps faith with the customer and keeps
jewelers out of court should the buyer feel they were cheated by poor
quality crafting.

J Northstar, When I started silver smithing about 15 years ago I
asked the same question. Expert fabricators used sawdust because
natural turqouise cabs often had very irregular backs or were very
thin. Most stabilized goods were backed with a layer of devcon so
sometimes saw dust was not necessary. This carried over to most
smiths as a way to make all their cabs level and match the depth of
the bezels. More carry over occurs when ever a cab is too thin for
the bezel. I have seen just about every type of stone buffered with
saw dust. Wether or not you agree with it most sterling silver and
turqouise jewelry is made this way.

Gerry Galarneau

At the risk of offending anyone, the reasons in the southwestern
United states for sawdust use in bezel settings is pretty logical.
It’s readily available, inexpensive, and compressible to a certain
extent. Plus it is easy, and it requires no bending, fitting, or

It is a low tech solution, not that there is the least thing wrong
with that. To perpetuate it’s use, however, is hard to see the logic
of when there are other more readily available materials which are
far superior and much more practical. Would you still set a pearl
with Lac or resin instead of an epoxy, just because it might have
been set that way at an earlier time? Like all considerations, if it
has no special significance or is not of sentimental value to the
customer to have their stone backed with sawdust, one’s professional
discretion would dictate selecting a more suitable material. There
have been numerous excellent substitutes mentioned in this thread

Worked as a siversmith outside Grand Canyon for a number of years.
Collected quite a bit of Native American Pieces. Been worn for over
30 years. Stones are still tight, and you guessed it. Cabs are
backed with sawdust.

Gerry Galarneau is right… tradition in the southwest, availability,
and convenience have made it pretty much standard practice. I have
opened bezels on rings that are 40 or 50 years old, and unless the
jewelry was subjected to a lot of moisture (ie. belonged to someone
who swam or washed dishes with the ring on) I have found the sawdust
to remain pretty much intact.

I have found some pretty strange things as well… horse hair,
feathers, sand, cardboard, newspaper, rubber, and what looked like
charcoal dust…

As he says, with modern materials to choose from - you can eliminate
any problems inherent in organic materials decomposing. Spun glass
fibers, bead blasting beads, nylon and other plastic sheets cut to the
size of the cab, the “new” thermoplastic sold by Frei-Borel (for
stones that can take 150 degrees), crushed metal foils (which can be
used as Cellini did - to alter or “enhance” color on transparent
cabs, and the list goes on…

Most of the epoxies can be thickened and used for this purpose as
well - the problem being that they are not as convenient, and may not
make it easy to remove the stone at a later date. I suppose that you
could “paint” the bottom of the cab with a release agent… but if
you have to replace the stone with one that does not fit the
impression, you gotta remove the epoxy.

Personally, if the the stone, the job price, and time allow - I
prefer to solder in a seat for the stone - but I have used almost all
of the above list at one time or another…

Brian P. Marshall
Stockton Jewelry Arts School
Stockton, CA, USA

I feel the need to respond to jnorthstar, because I feel his/ her
barb was directed at a post I made last week. First, I feel that the
most important thing on the Orchid forum, is that we who are
experienced metalsmiths, should never get in the habit of saying that
there is only one correct way to perform a certain operation. I have
found that students, left to thier own devices, will often come up
with a solution that is better than one that I would have thought of
and I always, in some way, learn from them. I didn’t learn the
"sawdust" trick in school. I learned to set stones with an uneven
bottom by making an inner bezel on which the contour of the bottom of
the stone is scribed and cut to suit, and is fit inside the inner
bezel. If I was a goldsmith for the royal court and had all my
expenses and salary paid, I’d do this every time. Unfortunately, my
customers really don’t want to pay for the extra four hours or so of
labor it takes to do that painstaking operation. They just want the
stones to look flawlessly bezel set, be tight, and not fall out. I,
like many of you, I imagine, learned about the “sawdust” (which is
actually more durable ground corncobs in most cases) the hard way. My
first year on the bench after I got out of college, I was arrogantly
trying to size a silver and turquoise ring without taking the stone
out and using “Kool Jewel”. Well, you guessed it, the "sawdust"
caught fire and burned the stone up. So I learned to ADJUST. Now when
I see a southwestern piece that is set with turquoise or red coral, I
ASSUME that the piece is backed in “sawdust”. I always keep some on
my bench to reset these stones.

Using the ground corncob is now my preferred method of setting for
uneven backed stones, although I cut most of my own cabs and don’t
run into the uneven ones too often, except an occasional boulder opal.
The reason I like this method, is the corncob seems to have a
springing action. Once the stone is set and burnished into place, the
"sawdust" is compressed and tries to push back up, further tightening
the stone.

The stones I have seen fall out using this method are usually set
with scalloped bezel wire (which I never use) and the “sawdust” often
excapes through the holes. I have never seen it disintegrate, even on
the historical pieces I have repaired. If a stone falls out of one of
my pieces, I am at high risk for loosing a customer, so I will go
through great lenghts as a designer to make sure this doesn’t happen,
even if it means using “sawdust” or the dreaded epoxy.

Wendy Newman

I had hoped this thread would die a quick death but… I have to
throw in my $.02 … IMHO sawdust is never necessary. This practice
is poor craftsmanship in all cases. It is not that hard to flatten
the back of a stone even if you don’t have lapidary equipment. If you
do, you have no excuse. If you want a tall set, build in a step, or,
if the stone is very weirdly shaped, then take the time to build a
special setting. The customer will notice the extra care and
attention to detail. Sawdust settings are one of the reasons why
"Native" style sterling jewelry has a somewhat questionable
reputation for durability… for what it’s worth, Mark Thomas Ruby
SunSpirit Designs

Michael, I read your post with great interest. I am in the SouthWest,
San Diego county to be more specific. A Native American Jewelry lover
and collector for many years.

I do silver work myself, the sawdust has never bothered me, nor has
any of the jewelry I wear shown any signs of deteriorating or smelly

I read all the suggested alternate methods. Let me ask/say this. When
using a stone that may be thin or easily shattered, is it not better
to have a buffering material such as sawdust behind it?

Yes a wire to act as a step inside does level the stone, but if it is
accidentally bumped, isn’t the stone a bit more protected with a
pliable, flexible and cushioning layer of sawdust?

Some friends are now using soft plastic such as that found in the
covers of margarine spread bowls. That too has some give, as does cut
outs of styrofoam cups.

Thanks to all for the generous outpouring of helpful suggestions.

Wendy, I have to agree with you 100%.I cut my teeth on bezel setting
cabs using sawdust all through the seventies.Never had any problems
and the old cowboy I apprenticed under at the time had been doing it
himself for 20 years.Many of the res. jewelry and pawn pieces (and
some of those were very old) that I have repaired have had sawdust or
corncob behind them with no ill effects.Heck many of the needlepoint
pawn pieces I have seen don’t even have the bezel seam soldered and
they still have the saw dust or corncob behind them after years of
wearing them.I have even seen a couple rings with large stones that
had broken records behind them.The time factor is also important if
you have a shop set up on the res and you are paying twenty people to
put together rings all day you are not going to have them cutting out
backing by hand when you can pop some sawdust or corncob in the bezel
and set the stone in no time.If you are making gallery pieces and you
have the time to do it you might.I work mainly in gold and platinum
now and don’t get to set very many cabs any more but when I do I have
my little jar of sawdust at hand.I have to also say that barbs for
using sawdust or whatever are ridiculous.Best J Morley Coyote Ridge

I was taught, and still practice, the art of making a stepped bezel.
The inner ring is filed to fit the underside of the cabochon and allow
it to sit at 90 degrees to the perpendicular. This is soldered into a
tight fit outer bezel. It’s time consuming for a cheap stone but if
you are working with a 10ct star sapphire it’s worth the effort as you
keep the ct weight of the stone. After a while it gets easy.

Hi Jerry- Lzrrd here- Loved your work as the “Beaver.” The only
repair I do is on precious opal. The ones that need to be resurfaced
invariably have some sort of organic “buffer” behind the stone. The
ones that are shattered and need to be treated to a long drawn out
process to hide the cracks and maybe save the stone do not have a
buffer and are backed only by solid metal. I have found folded
matchbooks, but usually it is hardwood sawdust. A quick flaming and it
is gone. I then reset the same way, with a good quality, screened
hardwood sawdust. It is not to make the owner think the stone is
taller, it is to keep it from being shattered by the same impacts that
scratch and dull the surface over the years. I do not know about other
types of stones because as I say opal is my business, but I do not see
a problem here. Do you find it to be icky?

Without sounding like a know it all Mr. Ruby,I think it would do you
well to learn of the success story that began about 1850-1870- and
continues on to this date,of the indigenous peoples of the southwest
and the jewelry made there. The American people buy it in great
quantities while visiting there,and it is sold by such people as David
Saity’s of New York.The people of Japan and Germany are buying it in
such quantities that it is hard for some jewelers to meet the demand.I
am not Navajo,Zuni,Hopi,or Pueblo,but Chickasaw,and learned from my
Navajo brothers.I stick to tradition in most all ways,including using
ground up corn cob.Our jewelry constitutes a multi-million dollars a
year business,something not to be made light of. With that said, I
wish you success and happiness in your endevors, respectfully, John
Barton, Images By JJ Fort Worth/Dallas where it is
hot and has been 54 days without rain and almost 40 days over one

   I have to also say that barbs for using sawdust or whatever are

Unfortunately the ridiculous barbs against the use of non precious
materials in jewellery can often come from sources that can seriously
damage your reputation. Although independent appraisers are less
likely to be rude and insulting, many in-store appraisers will not be
so generous. It is easy to wave red flags at an appraiser, a
completely closed back with no view of the underside of the stone
prevents any measurements from being taken, eliminating the
possibility of estimating the weight and value of the stones. It also
provides the suspicion that there is something to hide. Do you think
a customer is likely to return to a merchant after discovering the
replacement value is estimated considerably less than the price they

There is a classification for merchandise so manufactured and it is
not fine jewellery. The sad part is that in many cases a little extra
time and care could have made a huge increase in the value. Of course
this is all quite academic if we are talking about jewellery that is
barely worth the cost of an appraisal certificate, in this case it
is quite acceptable to use as much plastic, sawdust and glue as you

I am a stone cutter, not a jeweller nor an appraiser and I hope my
opinion doesn’t sound condescending but it seems to me that anyone
performing questionable practises are just throwing money away,
especially when all of these practises can be avoided with a few bux
spent at your local lapidary.


Dear Teresa,

This is only my opinion as a professional with over 25 years at the
bench, and I don’t wish to offend or alienate anyone who has other
methods or approaches. If you set a stone such as the example you
have described with sawdust (or even Styrofoam) as a backing
material, you are almost insuring that when that stone is struck in
normal wearing, it will break.

My consideration would be to strengthen the stone if it is very thin
or inherently weak as opposed to merely cushioning it. One easy
method would be creating an epoxy type backing directly adhered to
the stone, (not the bezel), so the stone can still be removed in the
future if necessary. A simple way would be to wrap the stone with tape
(for instance) and invert, mix and apply your epoxy material to the
back, let it cure. If need be you can then adjust the height of the
stone without too much trouble, and at least there is less likelihood
of breaking it during the setting process, in addition to it holding
up better under normal wear.

If I may please be indulged and forgiven for one more comment; I have
been shown and taught and witnessed numerous techniques which were
wrong, and/or incorrect approaches in many situations over the years.
The way I distinguish myself as a professional is to always be
mindful of learning a more correct method, or choosing a better way of
doing things whenever possible. This is my just understanding of
professional behavior in any vocation. I hope this view is not a
mistaken one

Thanks to all of you for your patience with my posts.

Michael David Sturlin, jewelry artist @Michael_Sturlin

Michael Sturlin Studio, Scottsdale Arizona USA

Hmmmm?? Adding epoxy to back of opal to increase strength? Might not
this now be considered a composite that would need to be disclosed to
the customer?? Just a thought.

OK, here’s my .03 worth—I have two beautiful bracelets set with
chunks of turquoise sitting in my jewelry box, both missing stones,
and, underneath the stones, yep–sawdust. Now I have to find someone
to match and replace the stones—any volunteers??? Seriously, if
someone would care to fix this for me, please contact me privately.
Regards to all, Sandy

Anthony, I have long appreciated and enjoyed your quite literate
posts. I have also been able to travel widely, and have purchased much
jewelry by the hand of the people.

I cannot imagine any “appraiser” down grading Native American Silver
Smithing due to “non-precious” materials used to cushion the stone.

The Fine Gold Jewelry I have bought from $35.00 per ounce on up to the
highs, and now down to the $280.00 range bring me exactly the weight
of the gold at today’s rates. Stones are not considered at all. My
Native American Jewelry increases at a steady rate, is far above what
I originally paid, sawdust or not.

I have great value Cabachon Rubies set in a closed back, I have lesser
value Moonstones set in such a manner as to introduce a play of light.

The heavy Thai Baht Chains I bought at $425.00 per ounce, are now
valued at $280.00 per ounce. They are still just as beautiful, just
not as valuable.

I believe we all can appreciate the efforts of others, put downs are
of no value at all.


You’re mistaken on several points. The fact that the back is closed
does not indicate anything to hide; it provides a stronger setting.
All the color that one sees is from light entering the table and
exiting the table. In most cases an open back indicates that the
manufactor wants to save metal and therefore money. With diamonds
being an exception: an open back is necessary to clean the stone
which has a propensity to attract body oils and other greases. In most
cases that have been discussed in this thread the stones mentioned
have been turquoise or opal. In the majority of cases like this the
stone is not valued outside the piece in which it is set, unlike
diamond, sapphire, or ruby. In an appraisal, the value of the piece is
the most questionable part of the report. After all it’s an auction
market: what would one pay for such a piece? If, say, the piece
contains an opal how much experience does the appraiser have with
opal? If it’s turquoise can this person distinguish between
Cerrillos, Morenci, Battle Mountain, etc. This is where much of the
value lies in a piece. As for appraisers sometimes the appraiser
charges according to the valuation (unethical) as opposed to a flat
fee. My wife is a GG gemologist and when someone asks for an appraisal
she tells them that price or value is almost impossible to determine
or the range of value is so broad as to be almost useless. The
description of the piece is the easy part. Also in-store appraisers
have a vested interest. They are, after all, employed by someone
whose interest is to sell jewelry.

I know I’ve mailed in on this before but I’ve been following the
arguments raging here about sawdust and other such materials and I
find I have some strong feelings about this!

In the “crafts” world it’s not cheating. Stones cost only a few cents
and there’s usually not enough precious metal to worry about. The
total cost of the unit is likely to be less than $10. It was where
many of us started and it’s a noble area of endeavor.

For an artists/goldsmith se, you start to spend fifty or more hours
on a piece, your stone price rises to $100 or more, the article become
much more valuable and shortcuts just aren’t worth it anymore. You’re
hopefully making something that will last two or three hundred years.
A few extra minutes hardly seem relevant.

It will take perhaps half an hour to make a double bezel here the
inner edge has been filed to fit the base of the stone and allow it to
sit level. This is then soldered into the outer one allowing the stone
to sit parallel to the base and making it very easy to set. There’s
then little or no strain on the stone - very important with cab

So, to put it in a nutshell, if you’re working at the bottom end of
the financial market, making jewels that costs a few dollars and are
meant to last a couple of years I think its a sensible away to work.
It saves time and therefore money. If you want to work as an
artist/goldsmith and your materials are intrinsically valuable or have
been made valuable by the work you’ve put in then you should, I
believe, make a workmanlike job of it.

Tony Konrath Gold and Stone

Hmmmm…I thought that someone had cleared this whole subject up
earlier. For the uninitiated, Sawdust in bezels was a traditional
Native American method of jewelry making. I have repaired
pieces…(the silver snapped from use mind you)…that are over 50 or
more years old. Many times, I have pried the intact stones out of
their very secure settings, only to find the original sawdust still
extant. I thought that it was pretty neat. The Turquoise is very
fragile if unstabilized…and almost none of it is anymore. The
sawdust was used as both a filler, to raise the stone, and as a
cushion to protect the chalky stone. I’ve seen very few broken
turquoise set in sawdust over the years, and lots of cracked stones
set with other methods.

I don’t believe that this un-european setting method was meant to
consciously cheat anyone. It is just a work method and esthetic,
different, than is commonly held “correct” by the bright shiny
diamond crowd. Most of these artisans merely used the materials at
hand, and in their low-tech epoxy-free world, one of those materials
was sawdust. Ever been on a reservation? No computers, and no TV in
many places. Many floors in many homes are still dirt. Stamps are
still made of old nails, and the people do amazing things with the
materials at hand. Something to remember when we’re sitting smugly
behind our Fordham Flexshafts, fiddling with our vacuum casters. It
would probably astound at least one or two of us to know that many of
these methodologically ethnic American pieces command vast prices
not based on either the color, cut, clarity or carat of any of the
stones that are used in any of the pieces.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, (ICK! Who thought
that one up??…), there is more than one correct way to make
valuable jewelry. Thank goodness…otherwise, we’d all be relegated to
making and buying tripe in the ever so ubiquitous Home Shopping Club
paradigm. Just my two cents…again…not that anyone ever asks

Lisa, (in the hot, flea-ridden, Santa Monica Mountains that I love)
Topanga, CA USA