Shapes in design are never seen alone. They are always seen in relationship to the shapes or the area around them. This is because, at its simplest level, the mind sees everything as either/or. It puts whatever it sees into one of two general categories: this/that, friend/foe, dark/light, good/bad, edible/inedible, important/unimportant, and so on.
As a result, when we look at a collection of shapes, our minds chose one shape or group of shapes as the subject (or figure) of the composition. Everything else is relegated to the background (or ground). The subject of the work is often called the “positive” shape, while other shapes are often called “negative” shapes.
It’s easy to figure out if a shape is positive or negative, figure or ground, if it is realistic. Human, animal, or fantasy figures are almost always interpreted as subject of the work. But in abstract or non-representational works, such as most jewelry, it may be a matter of relative size, location, orientation that tells the viewer which shape is the subject (figure) and which is the background. Unique to jewelry, monetary value will point to the most important object in the piece.
In a brooch set with a large tablet of lapis surrounded by small diamonds and pearls, size determines that the lapis is the subject. The value of a large diamond, whether set alone or with smaller gemstones, obviously makes it the subject of a piece of jewelry. However, if the relative area of metal in a work plus the nature of the texture is overwhelmingly larger, it may be difficult to decide if a small diamond is the subject of the piece or simply there to emphasize the surface. Some makers deliberately choose to use this kind of ambiguity in their work to make people think.
Things start to get complicated when using groups of small shapes which can work together as one large shape. A swathe of pavé-set diamonds or colored gemstones, for example, creates a block of brilliance or color from a number of small shapes. In a work created with found objects, the subject might not be any one of the objects, but the shape of image or pattern composed by those objects.
Artists who use multiple panels or sections in a piece of jewelry have to deal with the figure/ground relationship within each section as well as the relationships within between the panels.