Melee: Building Blocks of Contemporary Design

Photograph of gold ring shaped like a leaf with many melee stones set in various areas.
Melee can be used to ornament a wide variety of contours and shapes, as on this extraordinary ring. Courtesy of JYE's International

An important element of the gem and jewellery industry, melee can create a modern look and elegant design patterns. Designers need to know about it, and so do professionals all along the value chain.
GIA defines melee (pronounced meh-lee) as small diamonds and gemstones weighing less than 1/5 carat (ct), but size ranges vary from country to country and from one segment of the trade to another. Melee are often cut into a round shape, but some are available in a variety of shapes: emerald, princess, radiant, marquise and more. New design and manufacturing technology is enabling more ornate and complicated jewellery that is in high demand.

Photograph of instruments used to help
Dealers may use sieves such as these to sort melee into different sizes.

The more diamonds in a piece of jewellery, the more sparkle it has. Due to their small size, melee diamonds are inexpensive when compared to larger diamond centre stones, so they are often generously used in engagement ring designs to add brightness and scintillation.
Melee are often used to enhance nearby stones and to make decorative patterns. They are also used to add sparkle to bracelets, necklaces, earrings, watches and other types of jewellery.

Melee colour grades are usually not very detailed: “Face up white” (D-H colours) and “Top light browns” (M-O colours) are examples. Clarity grades are described similarly, using terms such as “Eye clean” for no visible inclusions to the naked eye. Jewellery manufacturers then strive to match the colour of the centre stone to the colour of the melee.

Image of white gold bracelet featuring hundreds of melee.
There are approximately 9.50 ct of melee (791 round diamonds) in this 18K white gold bracelet. If the melee were not carefully matched for color, the bracelet would lose much of its elegant beauty. Courtesy of Uneek

Melee diamonds are produced in large quantities in factories that use the latest diamond-cutting equipment. High-tech machines have reduced the amount of labour required and improved the quality of the finished product, but cutting and sorting melee is still a labour intensive business. The city of Surat in India is an important manufacturing hub for diamonds, including melee which are faceted, sorted and sold in parcels of 100 carats or more to jewellery manufacturers (parcels can contain over 400 melee stones). A single piece of jewellery can include dozens or even hundreds of melee stones. 
Just like larger carat diamonds, the ability to detect simulants and synthetic (lab-grown) melee diamonds is important to the trade. In the past few years, companies have introduced automated systems like GIA’s Melee Analysis Service, which cost-effectively analyses and sorts natural diamond melee from synthetic.
Melee in Jewellery Design

Creative jewellery designers are using tiny pieces of melee to make a big statement. They’re incorporating it to add scintillation to engagement rings, and to create a realistic or whimsical look in large, organic curved surfaces (coloured gems are often used as melee).

Photograph of a blue benitoite ring.
The gradations of color in this ring was accomplished by cutting benitoite into melee. Courtesy of the Columbia Gem House Inc.

In engagement rings, matching the colour of melee to the colour of the centre stone is important. When it does match, the results can be breathtaking. A halo made of melee can make the centre stone appear larger. Decorative patterns of melee can create visual interest. But if the melee is darker or lighter than the centre stone it’s likely to create an unattractive appearance.

Image of engagement ring showing a single diamond surrounded by a halo of melee diamonds.
Melee used to create a halo can add additional sparkle and make the center stone appear larger. This platinum engagement ring features a 1 ct center stone with 0.5 total carat weight of melee in the halo and shank. Courtesy of Blue Nile.

When working with melee in jewellery design, it’s important to understand the difference between “carat weight” and “total carat weight”, because diamond weight is a driving factor in determining price. Total carat weight, often abbreviated (tcw) in the jewellery industry, is used to describe the combined weight of all the diamonds in a piece of jewellery that only contains diamonds. The description carat weight (ct) only applies to an individual stone, for instance, the centre stone. A ring with many small diamonds with a 2.50 tcw can cost significantly less than a solitaire engagement ring with a single diamond weighing 2.50 ct.
Common Setting Styles for Melee

  • Bead and Bright: Small beads hold the stones in place in this popular style of bead setting. The bead setting is surrounded by a bright-cut wall that helps to reflect light into the diamond.
  • Channel: This is a technique where single or multiple stones are secured between two opposing walls with channel supports below. This setting does not have beads or prongs to secure the stone.
  • Pavé: Another bead-style setting, pavé is setting stones in three or more rows with hand-raised beads that hold them in place.
  • Prong: Metal supports secure a gemstone and are part of a setting. Prong settings show more of the gemstone by using less metal than other setting styles.
Four images of rings featuring set melee and CAD renderings.
Melee Design and Engineering Challenges

Using melee requires striking a balance between design and engineering. For example, placing melee in every available location on a brooch may impress customers, but if the piece is not designed for this type of application it may not be durable.
Also, setting styles such as pavé, bead and channel require the removal of metal from jewellery. However, removing too much metal from an improperly engineered piece can result in structural weakness and failure during daily wear.

GIA Quality Assurance Benchmarks (QABs™) are criteria for evaluating the design, engineering and manufacture of jewellery and are taught in the GIA Jewelry Design & Technology and Graduate Jeweler diploma programmes. Here are some best practices you can use when working with melee:

  • Melee stones that vary in size (even by 0.20 millimetres (mm)) may be noticeable to a customer. Selecting similar-sized diamonds is important if uniformity is part of the design.
  • All prong tips should be in solid contact with the gem’s crown so that there are no gaps between the prong and the stone. Prong tips that are not flush can snag on clothes, scratch skin and break.
  • For pavé or bead and bright setting, use at least a 0.50 mm border to ensure structural integrity.
  • For channel-set stones, build 1.00 mm walls on either side of the stones. Then bearings can be cut into the channel walls, so that approximately 10% of the diamond is in contact with the setting.
  • Gold, silver and platinum have different properties. Make sure that the unique metallurgical properties of the metal you are using are accounted for when setting melee.
Diagrams showing quality assurance benchmarks related to bead-setting diamonds.
GIA Quality Assurance Benchmarks highlight workmanship of semi-finished and finished jewelry. Learn how to evaluate the quality of a bead-set diamonds in the shank of a platinum ring. GIA.edu/QAB

GIA QAB™, which were developed with support and feedback from the jewellery industry, provide an objective method for evaluating the quality of semi- or fully finished jewellery by comparing it against acknowledged criteria, and show how to set melee properly. 
Challenges aside, setting melee can be very lucrative, and comes with relatively low liability for potential loss due to breakage. For professionals in other parts of the trade, melee has an importance far greater than its size. So knowing about it is essential.