Genesis of Gem Sets: Stephen M. Avery Shares the Origin Story of His Clever Colored Stone Compositions

By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

Stephen M. Avery’s lapidary niche of colored gemstone sets was born just a few years into his fledgling cutting business, and it ended up being a path that paired well with his creative leanings.

Avery founded his eponymous business in 1980 after training as a Diamond cutter at the American School of Diamond Cutting in Gardnerville, Nevada. He quickly tired of cutting 58-facet colorless rocks and craved a more creative path, one that was abundant in colored gemstones.

“The quality of cutting color in the 1980s was nowhere near what it is now,” he says. “I was taught high-quality polishing of Diamonds, but that wasn’t done in color.”

So he made the switch to color, aiming to elevate the largely commercial-quality cutting of the day. He experimented and taught himself to cut color on a higher level, seeking out fine-quality rough of any variety—the starting point of beautiful gemstones.

One day in the mid-1980s while laying out parcels of rough on a table, he started pairing preforms whose shapes—not the colors—could mesh well.

“I don’t actually choose rough material for the color combinations,” he says. “When you’re purchasing rough, your choices are limited. I buy the best quality of material I can and then design.”

While inspecting the stones, he noticed two particularly well-fitting pieces in different colors that, when adjacent, reminded him of bicolors. Intrigued, he cut them to conform together and sold them quickly. That sale paved the way for additional complementary rough pieces to be transformed into finished sets of two or three nested gems.

Not surprisingly, color did eventually play a role. At the onset of the gem set idea, wife Trudy Avery talked with her mate about how colors can sometimes improve others, making a gem pair or trio a prettier option than a solo stone.

“In some combinations, you do enhance the value of a color by pairing it with others, making each piece better than it would be on its own,” she says.

A juicy gem set that’s available now: two varieties of rubellite Tourmaline (7.33 ctw. and 2.93 ctw.) with an 11.73 ct. Tanzanite, $25,800 keystone 
A juicy gem set that’s available now: two varieties of rubellite Tourmaline (7.33 ct. and 2.93 ct.) with an 11.73 ct. Tanzanite, $25,800 keystone
Gem Sets Take Shape

Encouraged by the interest, often from high-end jewelry designers, Avery stepped up efforts, producing some complicated compositions.

One of his earliest sets was a Tanzanite and Garnet couple—two rectangular cuts that together made a square.

“They were opposed bar cuts, with facets on the pavilion in one direction and facets on the crown at 90 degrees that created a checkerboard effect,” he says. “All my sets are cut to be set together.”

Though that’s certainly not how all are used. Some jewelry designers break them apart, and quite a few have ended up in AGTA Spectrum & Cutting Edge AwardsTM—some even more than once. A pair of indicolite Tourmalines that took 1st place in Pairs & Suites in the 2018 competition were purchased and set into an award-winning pair of earrings three years later.

“That’s the exciting and fun part—designers can really get creative,” says Avery.

Though Avery worked with materials like Amethyst and Garnet in his early years, he now works with a lot of Tourmaline, Garnet (still), Tanzanite, Zircon, and Aquamarine and other Beryls. Most of his gems are from Nigeria and East Africa. Not much comes from Brazil. “They tend to like cutting their own material,” says Avery.

Today, about 60% of Avery’s inventory comprises gem sets, with the remainder being pairs or single gems. “Ten years ago, gem sets were maybe 20% of my inventory, so they’ve become a major part of my business,” he says.

The sets Avery likes the most are the ones where designers simply embellish the silhouettes and colors he’s created. “I remember one red and blue set where a designer used melee to accentuate the colors and really bring out what I started with.”

The reception the sets get speaks to their specialness. “I’ve kept track of the awards over the years, and my gemstones have been featured in over 32 pieces of award-winning jewelry,” he says. “I would say at least eight of those were gem sets.”

A Morganite and Tanzanite gem set in production
A Morganite and Tanzanite gem set in production
Patience & Presentations

Making sets requires an open mind and a lot of patience. Avery tries not to commit to a particular shape when first handling the rough, letting pieces find each other in due time.

“I’ll have material that goes together in a week and sometimes I’ll wait many years to complete a set,” he says. “Sometimes I need to lose extra rough to complete a set, but if I have materials that are a good value, then I don’t worry too much about losing the weight.”

At press time, Avery had been sitting on a matching Tanzanite pair for two and a half years, waiting for the ideal mates to surface. This spring, he found some Morganite that fit his need. He’s just finished sawing and shaping them, and they’re ready now for a final polish.

The longest period it took to complete a gem set was about four years. The set featured a spessartite Garnet and an indicolite Tourmaline. “The spessartite was just gorgeous, 12 carats, flat on one side, and I wanted another gem that would elongate it,” Avery recalls. He sourced the 14 ct. Tourmaline, creating a Garnet nucleus and an indicolite tail.

Given how devoted Avery is to gem sets, he’s developed a few series. Wings, Sticks, Comets, and Wind (fans) have taken shape. The Wings series is a take on the three-stone ring, with a large center stone flanked by two complementary gems. The Stick series features tapered shapes, and many designers use these as the body of insects in designs. Sets in the Comet series feature multicolor pieces that resemble those atmospheric entities, and designs in Wind are fan shapes.

Avery’s fave set to date, made in 2018, a Wing set featuring golden Tourmalines (6.22 ctw.) and an Aquamarine (5.14 ctw.)
Avery’s fave set to date, made in 2018, a Wing set featuring golden Tourmalines (6.22 ctw.) and an Aquamarine (5.14 ctw.)

One of his all-time favorites is a Wing set with an Aquamarine flanked by golden Tourmalines. Today, he’s experimenting with more freeform shapes.

“The color sets have given me a creative outlet that makes it very exciting to go to work every day,” Avery adds.

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