How to learn professional stone setting - Part 3: The 3 Essential Ingredients

learning Jan 11, 2023

The rule of the 3 Ts is the most important concept of learning to set. This post explores the all-important 3 Ts in detail, including how to use this concept at a very practical level.

If you want to be doing professional setting that matches the standard of your fabrication, you need to get three things right. I call these "The 3 Ts":

  1. The right Tools
  2. The right Training
  3. Enough quality practice Time

Every single frustration, difficulty or wasted hour is caused by a deficiency in one or more of these three areas. And I just want to make it clear, when I say "Time" I'm not just talking about the amount of time, but the quality and structure of that time as well.

"The rule of the 3 Ts is the most important concept of learning to set."


Consider these examples:

  • If you buy some tools and do a setting course, but never practise, you'll forget most of what you learned before you get a chance to apply it.
  • If you read a setting book and spend weeks practising, but your gravers aren't sharpened correctly, you'll slip regularly and never get the right results.
  • If you invest in a power-assist machine but only learn to set from YouTube, you'll be missing many of the most important principles you need to benefit from the machine.

In each of these examples one of the essential ingredients is missing, making your progress painfully slow. If you want professional skills in a viable timeframe, there’s no question - it’s all three or its nothing.

Let’s take a closer look at these three vital ingredients.



It’s impossible to set stones without tools, and if you’re reading this you’re probably a jeweller or setter who has plenty of tools already. While it’s true that you can do great work with very basic tools, if you want to achieve the trifecta of being neat, fast and adaptable, your tools will need some attention. 

There are three parts to this: Having the right tools, in the right combination, prepared and maintained in the right way.


The right tools

Let’s tackle the big question straight away: “Do I need a microscope?”

My answer is “no, but it definitely helps”.

If you’re only setting centre stones and you can see what you’re doing, there’s no need to change. Adding a scope to your bench can do wonders for your eyesight, posture and the quality of your work, but it also brings some challenges (which I’ll be discussing in an upcoming article).



If you’re planning to get serious about small-stone work, I would recommend budgeting for a microscope, power-assist graver and preferably a suitable ball vise as well. This is a significant investment but a worthwhile one if you have the workload. Not only will this equipment help you work faster, you’ll also learn faster. Despite my traditional background, I don’t teach hand-push bead setting any more because I think it’s no longer a viable pathway for beginners in the trade. I use the analogy “you don’t need to learn to ride a horse before you learn to drive a car.”

There are many other tools needed for good setting, and some of them are not expensive at all – I’ve had many students tell me that a particular burnisher or graver I’ve shown them is a complete game-changer for them, and often it was made from an old bur. Knowing which tools to buy or make for your purposes is essential.

If you're unsure about which tools you'll need, I strongly advise investing in your training first. Using the tools recommended by your instructor reduces the likelihood of buying equipment that isn't compatible with the methods being taught.


Combining your Tools

Unfortunately, some tools just don’t get along.

If you’re using a standard GRS Benchmate on your jewellers bench, you might be disappointed to realise that this doesn’t work well under a microscope. Every time you tilt the Benchmate forward or backward, the work you’re doing tips out of your field of view, especially when you’re zoomed in. There are some awkward workarounds, but most people just avoid zooming their microscope in very far – which defeats the purpose of having one! (Note: The QCX model of Benchmate does enable work centering.)


When using a microscope with this GRS Benchmate, the work moves out of view whenever it's tipped forward or backward, even at low zoom. Note that the Benchmate QCX model doesn't have this particular problem.


Suppose you then replace your Benchmate with a small ball vise like the GRS microblock. You can slide the vise around on a shelf to keep it centred under the microscope – but now you can’t push your gravers without the vise tipping and the tool hitting your hand! It turns out the small ball vises are only supposed to be used with power-assist gravers…

Wasn’t it meant to be simpler than this?

Persistent people will always find clever ways to make various tools work together, but when the goal is to be doing professional work as soon as possible, I suggest looking at what’s popular with other successful setters and following in their footsteps. My website has some free guides to help you with this.


Preparing your tools

Even the best tools won’t work if they’re not prepared and maintained in the right way.

I use a 60° V-graver for bright cutting my beadwork, but if I take a brand new graver out of the packet and try to get the same result, it won’t work, no matter how hard I try. It needs to be shaped and polished with the right face and heel angles for it to work properly. Otherwise, it would be like learning to drive a car with two flat tires and the handbrake on, and nobody telling me there was a problem!


Two 60 degree V gravers. The one on the left is straight from the supplier, and the one on the right is prepared for use.


The same goes for optical tools. Many people don’t have their scopes set up properly (hint: read the manual and check your dioptres).

You need to have the right tools, prepared and maintained in the right way, to be able to set stones effectively.



Having proper training ensures that your effort doesn’t go to waste. Yes, it’s possible to work it all out by yourself, but it’s incredibly slow, even if you’re very clever! Most students will make more progress in a week of lessons than they would in a year of working it out by themselves.

 Having detailed and properly structured information is far more effective than a scattered, piecemeal approach.


There are many resources you can use to learn good setting. Some options are:

A formal or informal apprenticeship.

This is the best method if your teacher is skilled, but it’s not feasible (or necessary) for most trade jewellers.

Free online content

Much of this is sufficient for hobbyists. Demonstrations of professional work can inspire new ideas and techniques, but they usually lack the structure and context needed for students to replicate the results.


These are often overlooked, and can provide a lot of information for a very low price. Some can be bought very cheaply as e-books. Robert R. Wooding and Alan Revere have some great books that are well worth the very modest cost.

Paid videos

These can be lifetime purchase or monthly subscription. Usually the more expensive videos, such as those by Blaine Lewis, are a better choice for developing high-end skills. You can get a lot of good information, but usually no feedback or assistance. Some video producers also have practice mounts and stones for sale.

Specialist courses

These are designed by experienced setters to give you the best trade-relevant skills as quickly as possible. These will include the right practice mounts and stones, and may be taught in a classroom or in an online format. Students can ask questions and have their work assessed. There will usually be a higher upfront cost but a quicker return on investment as long as the content is relevant.

As a general rule, investing more in your training reduces the time it takes to start doing paid work.


Specialist classes, whether in-person or online, often accelerate your progress and save you money in the long term. 


Whichever form of training you choose, make sure the content is credible (check online reviews and the quality of the instructor’s work) and relevant for what you want to achieve. Decorative practice plates are an excellent exercise for fundamentals and graver control, but relevant training also needs to address the real-life setting problems that you’ll face. What if the stones aren’t calibrated? What if the bezel is in the way of the graver when bright cutting? What if a stone breaks? Getting answers to these types of practical questions will make your daily work much easier.


Time on the bench

Nobody has ever become a decent stone setter without putting in the time. However, it’s easy to think about the amount of time but not the quality of time - and there’s good news here!

By structuring your practice time properly, you can significantly reduce how long it takes to make improvements.

Some of the best ways to improve the quality of your practice time are:

  • Focus on a single, repeatable exercise. Repeatable practice is the key to refinement, so it’s important to reduce the variables early on. Imagine learning to drive a car if someone kept moving the controls around and swapping the pedals!
  • Arrange the correct practice materials in advance.
  • Consciously evaluate your work every time and troubleshoot any problems. This step takes a few minutes but can save you hours. (I’ll have a separate post about this soon).
  • Refer back to your training materials (notes, books, videos) regularly to make sure you’re not overlooking anything. Having a mentor or instructor is invaluable if you have any problems.
  • Motivate yourself. Set small intermediate goals and celebrate small achievements.
  • Create the environment you learn best in. Remove distractions and hold yourself accountable. Having a partner or group with similar goals can help.

Let's look at a few of these things in more detail.


Practice Materials

 Having the right practice materials is essential in the early stages of learning


Having the right practice materials is essential for doing effective practice in the early stages of learning.

  • Cubic zirconias (CZs) are the most widely used practice stones and can be sourced in many shapes and sizes. The cut quality of CZs are indicated from A (poor) to AAAAAA (6A, excellent). I’ve found that round brilliant cut CZs are usually acceptable from 3A upward, whereas fancy cut shapes below 4A are quite poor. CZs almost always have thicker girdles than diamonds, so students need to understand how to seat them differently.
  • Beadwork can be practised on brass or copper plates, although bronze is a more suitable hardness if you can get it in small enough quantities.
  • Split-claw, shared-claw and fishtail settings can be practised on squared edges of practice plates if the stone size is correct for the plate thickness.
  • Bezels and prong setting practice needs cast mounts. I don’t recommend fabricating all your own practice mounts, or doing your early practice on trade work. Students will develop their skills best with predictable, repeatable practice mounts and stones, where they can make mistakes and immediately apply the lessons learned on another identical setting. It’s also best if your mounts are made specifically for the exercise being taught.


Plan, Implement, Evaluate

One of the biggest factors in how quickly a person improves at setting is how well they learn from experience. The old saying goes, “Whenever you lose the battle, don’t lose the lesson”, and even if the last exercise worked out well for you, it’d be a miracle if there wasn’t a fault to be found. While practice will make your work better over time, taking a few extra minutes to examine your work and learn from mistakes can save you years of slow progress down the track. One model for this is the PIE method: You make a plan, you implement it, you evaluate it, and the insights you get help you form the plan for next time. I’ve been using this method regularly since I first heard of it a decade ago, and it’s repaid me over and over again.

Taking the time to properly evaluate the results of each practice piece will save you a lot of time later.


Taking the time to consciously evaluate the results of each job will cost you minutes but save you hours!


Make the Jump

There are two types of practice: time spent on practice materials, and time spent on work that can be sold. By planning a transition from one to the other you can save a lot of time and make much more progress – in fact, this can be the difference between achieving your goal or not.

Using the methods above on your chosen setting style, you should be able get repeatable results within days or weeks, depending on the type of work and how many hours you’re able to allocate. At this stage it’s time to make the jump to some real work. It's important to be selective with this - choose your real jobs carefully and take your time. More tips on which types of jobs are best to start on are in Part 1 of this series - "Jump the Gap".  


Stay Balanced

It’s very common for people to invest too much into some of the 3 Ts and not enough into others. Sometimes this can work – you can do a bit less training if you’re prepared to spend more time working things out by yourself, for example – but as a general rule, investing in all 3 Ts as evenly as possible is the surest way to get results quickly. Diving straight into one of these areas and neglecting the other two is almost guaranteed to fail.


The wrap-up

I hope the three articles in this series have given you some insights into what’s involved in learning professional stonesetting. If you’re interested in learning these skills you can save a lot of time and frustration by planning ahead, and if you’re already skilled at setting you may be able to use the 3 Ts approach to troubleshoot any weak areas you have.

Let’s quickly recap.

To develop your skills to a professional standard, you need to jump the gap from learning to earning as quickly as you can. Do this by carefully defining your specific goals, and making sure you have the tools, training and practice time available to make rapid progress.

Despite the large quantity of mass-produced jewellery on the market, an increasing number of customers are looking for unique and special pieces, and are willing to pay for quality they can see. The crispness of your setting work is one of the most visible differentiators in this niche, and with modern tools and better online resources, there's never been a better time for bench jewellers to learn top-quality stonesetting. 

Part 1

Part 2

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This is the last of our 3-part series on how to learn professional stonesetting. By subscribing to our mailing list below, you'll hear about new posts as soon as they're available!



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