October 2023 7 Min Read

An Introduction to Gem-Setting with Pierre Salanitro

By Kwan Ann Tan

Pierre Salanitro’s journey to becoming the watchmaking industry’s most sought-after expert in gem-setting is an unusual one. Initially working as a banker, he made a swift career change to becoming a professional gem-setter and has grown his business from just himself to a team of nearly 230.

Salanitro’s clients are as illustrious as they are numerous, counting Patek Philippe, Hublot, Tiffany & Co., and Audemars Piguet and others among their ranks. Salanitro’s relationship to Patek Philippe is especially noteworthy, as the watchmaking giant owns a stake in Salanitro SA, while Thierry Stern is a close friend.

But Salanitro’s vision is not limited to watches, as in 2022 he launched a new label under his name, “S by Salanitro”, which produces works of art that include jewellery, objects, games, and art – anything but watches.

A Collected Man: How did you break into the gem-setting industry, and what initially drew you to this craft?

Pierre Salanitro: It all started 36 years ago when I entered the banking sector, and I didn’t know what to do, to be honest. This was Switzerland, when I finished my studies, I could choose between the bank, chocolate, or watches. I didn’t know anything about watches at this time, and I was very young of course, so I decided to enter the bank business.

But very quickly, I realised that I didn’t like banking, and that it wasn’t going to be my career, it was too virtual, you don’t physically do anything. It was too impersonal for me – there was no space for creativity, innovation, or anything else that really excites me. I have ideas 24 hours a day and I really enjoy creating.

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The craft of gem-setting is one rarely discussed within the watch world, although it’s a long-standing art.

One day I went to join a friend of mine, and we met his father, who was a gem-setter. He had a very small atelier, and when my friend was speaking with his father, I was watching the gem setters at work, and I had a real revelation about this job. I immediately realised that this was what I wanted to do and that there were lots of creative possibilities for me to develop my career.

I asked if he would hire me, and he said “Okay, first of all we have to check if you can do this job.” So I started learning under him every day for about nine, ten months, every morning from 5am to 8am at his atelier, then from 8am to 5pm I worked at the bank, and finally from 5pm to 9 or 10pm, I went back to the atelier to continue learning. This went on for nine or ten months, and after that he told me that I was ready to change careers. That was the beginning of my story.

ACM: Before this, did you have any background in craft, or creating things like these?

PS: Not really. I didn’t know anything about the watch business, and I didn’t know anything about gem setting either. Like many others at that age, I had no interest in setting stones, or about gem-set watches. If you asked me back then how we can fix stones on watches, the first thing I probably would have had in mind is fixing it on with glue, not with all this work.

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Various types of semi-precious and precious stones, before being cut and after.

Could you describe the process of creating a gem-set watch with a client?

First of all, when a client asks us to develop a jewellery watch, we have to define a number of parameters together: whether it is based on an existing model of the brand or a new watch; which movement is to be used in order to determine the thickness and diameter of the watch; whether the watch is to be produced in quantities or in very small series, or even as a single piece; what is the target price range; what material and colour is desired (gold, platinum, silver, steel, titanium, aluminium, etc.); what finishes are used (mirror polished, satin, sandblasted, decorated, engraved, etc.).

From there, we can begin our creative work and imagine which stones to use (round, baguette, shaped, etc.) as well as the type(s) of settings (grain, snow, baguette, rail, invisible, etc.) and the colour of the stones.

We propose several ideas and approaches to our customer, who chooses the one(s) that best corresponds to the brand and its target market.

Once the design has been chosen, we begin work on building the watch in our technical office, producing all the technical drawings, with all the dimensions, tolerances and constraints associated with the watch.

A gem-setter adjusting the setting and placing the stone within the watch case – this is an example of an invisible setting style.

All the stones are also drawn and dimensioned so that the cutting plans can be given to the lapidary for cutting and so that they can be adjusted to perfection on the watch that we will make. The file of technical drawings is given to the client for checking and final approval, together with a price quotation for the work to be carried out and an estimated delivery date. Once the file has been validated by the client, the production phase can begin.

It's a long process before we get to the actual setting of the gems. But if we don’t do all this beforehand, it’s impossible to create a gem-set watch in the best way, and it takes a long time to create a gem-set watch.

Are there any gem-setting techniques that are unique to Salanitro SA?

There are many different setting techniques, whether for round, rectangular or different shaped stones.

The main ones are bead setting, snow setting, rail-mounted baguette setting, invisible baguette setting, clous de Paris setting, claw setting, raised bead setting and many more, but those are the ones we use the most.

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Salanitro has worked with over 80 clients over the years, encompassing a significant part of the watchmaking industry.

We always try to find new techniques, or if it’s not techniques, new ways of stone cutting, to make it a little bit different. We're currently developing a few new techniques, but I won't say more about them for the moment.

What’s the most difficult part of creating one of these watches?

If we follow the process detailed above, going step by step, and the customer knows exactly what they want to do, the process is usually quite straightforward. But sometimes the client doesn’t know exactly what they want, and they try to find a new way, or suggest a new model, which will take much more time. This is because we will have to meet many more times to discuss the watch, and each part is very hard to realise.

In terms of gem-setting, it depends on which kind of setting we choose to do. If we’re talking about snow setting, this is one of the most complicated settings for round stones. If we’re talking about baguette stones, the hardest to do is the invisible setting, and not many gem-setters know how to do this. With high jewellery watches, each piece is a piece of art.

In addition to gem-setting, the Salanitro SA manufacture also makes cases, bracelets, and other watch parts. Why did you decide to integrate all these aspects into your business?

Very quickly on arriving in this industry, I realised that we had to be very diversified, both in terms of our client portfolio – so as not to be dependent on a single brand or group – in terms of the services we offered. This was so we could have the widest possible range to offer our customers (the brands) and to become the only supplier to offer a complete service, from design to the finished product, all produced entirely in our in-house workshops. I understood very quickly if I had everything in-house, I would grow much faster than everybody, and this would become a big asset.

Integrating the creation of other watch parts into the business has given Salanitro a significant edge in the industry, as well as allowing for more control over the entire process.

Today, all the most prestigious brands and groups prefer to have just one contact capable of doing everything, and it’s important to have the know-how to carry out many skills. To this day, we are still the only company to have integrated all the skills required to make a jewellery watch in-house, without subcontracting one or more operations. It's not for nothing that we've been leaders in our field for many years, and that most of the most prestigious brands and groups have placed their trust in us.

Over the course of your career, you’ve worked with many prestigious brands, such as Patek Philippe, Hublot, Tiffany & Co., Audemars Piguet, and others. How did these collaborations begin, and is it difficult to switch between the different styles that each company requires?

We've built this up gradually over time and with a lot, a lot of hard work, but we've always had one main guiding principle that takes precedence over all the others: the irreproachable quality of the work entrusted to us.

When I first started the company, quality was the first thing we had to focus on. Not the delivery time, not the price, but quality. I talk about it all the time with my team, and if we have to delay delivery to the customer by a few days, then we have to, in order to ensure quality.

Sorting and sizing stones for each setting.

Working with so many prestigious brands makes our work extremely varied and interesting, because they all have their own constraints, ideas and different market positioning. Regardless of the price of the watch, we maintain the same quality for a 5000CHF watch as we would for a 1,000,000CHF watch.

It's also enabled me to surround myself with the best in our field, and I'm extremely proud to be able to say that I have the best teams in the world working alongside me, and it's a real pleasure to come into the office every morning. They deserve as much credit as I do, because I could never have built all this on my own. I'm just the conductor!

How did you begin working with these brands?

When I decided to build my own company, I had worked for two years. I tried to work with bigger brands, but I was young, and it didn’t work out. The market back then was also different. Gem-setting was only done on gold or platinum watches. You hardly saw gem-setting on steel or aluminium watches, or all these kinds of materials.

Read An Introduction to Gem-Setting with Pierre Salanitro | Read A Collected Man Interviews, Collector's Guide , Blog

A gem-set bezel being polished.

It was a very long process, and at first, I was working for a small jewellery shop in Switzerland, learning all the techniques for jewellery – which is not exactly the same as for watches – just to survive. But I never stopped sending requests in to watch brands. After two years, I got my first call from a brand, and they told me they needed one more gem-setter because they had more orders, and they wanted to give me a chance to start.

This customer was Piaget, and it was the beginning of everything. Very soon after, for the same reason, I started working with Patek Philippe and Rolex, and this was really important for me and my company, because everything became easier. When I tried to get new customers… well, when you are working with Patek Philippe and Rolex, that means you are top quality, in terms of services and everything else, so finding new customers wasn’t hard.

You were personally working on each watch yourself at from the very beginning?

Yes, of course. I was doing this job for 15 to 20 years, working in the atelier. I was teaching younger apprentices the craft. Because I started from scratch at the very beginning, I know exactly what to do, what aspects are difficult, which parts are challenging. I know what to do because I have been through all this before myself.

An artisan creating the settings for gems on a watch bezel, and a glimpse of the planned design for the final piece.

You mentioned that in the early days only gold and platinum watches were being gem-set, and now more metals are available – why so?

When we started almost 25 years ago, we started with steel watches and diamonds. Before that, this was impossible, because you can’t set gems on steel by hand, the material is too strong. Then the market and technology made it possible to use CNC machines to engrave the metal, with special drills. Then after that, we have to finish it by hand. Thanks to technology, we can work with steel, titanium, and other strong metals. But even with machines, it only makes sense if you are making large quantities of watches, not small numbers, because otherwise the process becomes too expensive. You also have to create special programs and diagrams for the machine, bringing in engineers which have specialised knowledge of the metals.

Is the market for high jewellery watches growing?

In the 33 years I've been in business since I set up my company, there has been a phenomenal evolution in gem-set watches, which became considerably more democratic with the arrival of steel watches set with precious stones around 25 years ago.

Since then, the trend has continued. The same applies to high jewellery watches and unique pieces. The world is changing, and there are more and more wealthy people who want to be able to treat themselves to a dream, to happiness, and to be proud to wear a gem-set watch.

Read An Introduction to Gem-Setting with Pierre Salanitro | Read A Collected Man Interviews, Collector's Guide , Blog

“Working with so many prestigious brands makes our work extremely varied and interesting, because they all have their own constraints, ideas and different market positioning.”

Gender is no longer a factor, as we have received many requests for high jewellery watches for men, while younger people are also interested in these kinds of watches. Whether it's a mass-produced watch or a unique piece. Demand is growing all the time, and far more than can be produced at present because of a lack of skilled labour.

Let’s talk about S by Salanitro, the side of your business exclusively focused on art. Why did you decide to start this project?

It started because while working with watches, I needed somewhere to let out my creativity and everything in my mind. First of all, S by Salanitro is about creativity and ultra-exclusivity. It’s been a privilege to create my dreams and by following my emotions. S by Salanitro knows no limits. I will only release 3 or 4 new collections of works per year and these will be oriented to the highest possible level of craftsmanship.

Read An Introduction to Gem-Setting with Pierre Salanitro | Read A Collected Man Interviews, Collector's Guide , Blog
Read An Introduction to Gem-Setting with Pierre Salanitro | Read A Collected Man Interviews, Collector's Guide , Blog

A mask inspired by the Mesoamerican Malinaltepec mask, titled ‘Le Guerrier’.

S by Salanitro is aimed at demanding customers who are looking for special objects that are not available on the market, a work that only they will have. Demand is extremely high and every week I receive a large number of special requests from all over the world. I also rely on a network of the best and most prestigious partners: in the United Arab Emirates with Seddiqi Group, Singapore with The Hour Glass Group, Qatar with Al Majeed Group, Saudi Arabia with Attar Group, and others that are currently being selected.

What inspires your work?

Everything inspires me, all the time. There isn’t really a limit. When I’m travelling for work, when I’m on holiday, when I visit an exhibition, I always get new ideas. Before the end of this year, I will launch a new line – which will hopefully be something that no one has ever seen before.

Our thanks to Pierre Salanitro for sharing his inspirations with us and giving us a look into his workshop.
Photography by Jana Anhalt.