Gemmology Artist Interview
In April 2020 I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Susan Hartwig of Ellysia Gems. She has an excellent website where she spotlights gemcutters, jewellers and other folks who work with gems and jewellery. The interviews she conducts provide a wonderful insight into what we do and the passion we have for our trade and craft. In the original draft of my interview that I responded with I probably went a little overboard and provided too much information and detail. Susan did a wonderful job of editting that down to a more manageable size and you can read the abridged interview here.
What I wanted to do on this page is to share the original unabridged interview that I replied with to her questions. It is my hope that it provides a little extra insight into why I feel drawn to working with gems, the passion I have for it and hopefully explain some aspects of the gemcutter's art and my philosophy and approach ot it. Gemcutting is a very unusual trade and many people are not aware that there is such a thing and that it is very different to what a jeweller does.
In the beginning...
Faceting gems started for me as a hobby back in 2008. In my "past life" I spent 20 years as computer programmer/systems designer/database architect and towards the end of that period I was on a 4/3 day week so I had some time to spare. I had always been interested in gemstones even as a kid. Some of my earliest memories are of being in the bush around my home town of Bowen in North Queensland with my father scrambling over large granite boulders looking for crystals. I can still remember the scent and sounds of the bush, the feel of the granite beneath my hands and the small sharp crystals I would find. Another time there was a creek and at the mouth of creek on the bank were huge boulders of conglomerate and we would find jasper, agate and petrified wood.
I decided to buy a new faceting machine from the late Laurie Hall who had been hand making these beautifully engineered machines since the 1960's. There is a certain pleasure to be had which comes from using such a wonderfully handmade machine. I also purchased a book by the late Jeff Graham - Learn How to Facet the Right Way - which walked one through cutting five gems, some rough stones, and off I went.
At the time there were no lapidary clubs in my area so I essentially had to teach myself through trial, error and persistence. When I had questions or encountered problems I would go onto one of the lapidary/gemmology forums and overnight would have numerous replies and solutions to try. The forums and the members on it were incredibly helpful and generous with their knowledge. It was my first encounter with the wider lapidary community. Drawing upon my computer skills I created my website "Bespoke Gems" and began selling a few of my cut gemstones to folks around the world.
By 2008 I came to realise that for a while I had been feeling tired and exhausted from my 20 years of computer IT work and was becoming more then a little jaded by it all. I was on a very good wicket, six digit pay check, four day week but the work was getting less and less of the stuff I enjoyed and more and more of the stuff I didn't. I would look around during the day and see people that had been there a lot longer than I and no one looked happy. Everyone was miserable and I don't think many truly enjoyed what they were doing anymore. It was like some essential juice had been drained from them and I could see my fate laid out before me if I continued down this path. So I had a choice to make, either put my head down and accept my fate or do something about it and make a change. Much easier said than done. Computer programming was all that I had ever known, I had no other skills I could call upon. But as fortune would have it, I spied a small advertisement in a gem magazine that called for someone to help out in a little gemshop in Far North Queensland over the winter (June, July, August) for three months. They needed someone to assist with taking visitors out to the gemfields for fossicking tours and to do some faceting for them.
I leapt at it! I called them straight away and arranged to go see them first for a quick visit. I liked what I saw and they offered me the job. It was in a small town of 60 people called Mt Surprise on the winter tourist trail up to the Gulf, literally in the middle of nowhere. Now I just had to go back to the city and convince my boss for the time off. I went back and asked my boss for three months off. He came back a day later and said "no", they couldn't give me the time. I could have one month and that was it. I was expecting this and had already made my decision so I said in that case, I will simply have to quit. That took him by surprise and I still remember him blinking in shock. The next few months were a whirlwind of excitement, nerves, anticipation and anxious thoughts of "what am I doing throwing all this away, are you mad!". I'm sure you can imagine. I bought a blue kombi (as one does) packed up all my chattels into storage, bundled my faceting machine into my van, threw in a few clothes and off I went. I was 38 years old. Those three months ended up turning into five years. I would spend the winter on the gemfields working in the gemshop, going out in my spared time wandering the hills and dry creek beds fossicking for topaz and aquamarine in some of the most spectacular outback landscape you could ever hope to experience and then faceting what I would find and trying to sell the odd gem on my website.
That was truly an outback adventure and propelled me in a totally new and unexpected direction. In the summer I would return to my hometown on the coast, rent a small place for six months and just cut gems every day. But it must be said that all this came at a price and sacrifice. I really had to be very careful with my finances and during the five winters on the gemfields I literally had to live in a tin shed - it was hot during the day, cold at night and very very basic. There were many trying times, a lot of doubts and a more then as few long dark nights of the soul. I look upon these five years as my "apprenticeship" where I learnt to cut gems, find stones, build a website and sell gems. I had to learn how to be self-sufficient financially as I no longer had a regular weekly paycheck and slowly build everything up from scratch. It was hard and still is but I am ever so incredibly grateful and fortunate to have been given this opportunity to walk down a new path. It's a rare thing. Those pivotal moments in life where one is at a crossroad, they are so precious, so profound, so few. Seize them, especially if they fill you with the fear of the unknown, and you will know the rewards and satisfaction of that which is hard won.
Inspirations and Influences
Over the years I have found and draw inspiration from a myriad of diverse sources. For example, from a journey through Morocco in my mid-thirties I discovered a passion for geometry and it's sacred aspects. Think of those incredible colourful geometric tile works that cover the walls and buildings and the shear amount of thought, time and labour to produce them in an age before modern computers and machinery. The knowledge and understanding that had to be present. Gemstone designs are a three dimensional embodiment of these two dimensional patterns.
I am inspired by reading and looking at the works of other artists and masters in the lapidary fields, past and present. People like the Munsteiners, Drehers and Dalan Hargrave. The works that they produce transcend the mundane into the ephemeral realms of high art and beauty. They fill me with an awe and wonder. Knowing personally how much time, skill and risk-taking it takes to create such wonderful lapidary art, I have nothing but the utmost respect and appreciation for their craft. Long have I gazed at their works and wondered how they produced their masterpieces. Trying to feel how their hands may have held the stone, which tools and techniques were employed, figuring out the sequence of cuts, wondering how they got that perfect polish or that dreamy frosted finish.
Of late I have also been drawn to certain aspects of Japanese aesthetics and crafts. In 2019 I travelled around Japan and it was astounding being in a country that had such a rich culture and respect for the craftspeople and the handmade. The respect they had for their craftsmen and women and the objects they created was deep and real and not something I had fully appreciated or encountered. I am particularly drawn to the Japanese netsuke carvings and inro containers, and I love looking at these seeing the detail and skill that has gone into these small beautiful sculptures. I'm constantly amazed at how the artist has managed to convey a sense of movement or a captured a moment in time, at their skill and eye to be able to visualise the finished figures. I love looking at the curves, folds and flows and I think about how I would do it and which tools I would use. I should also mention Instagram. There are many genuinely talented people creating some truly stunning things. It is inspiring to see this and helps me feel connected to a broader, indeed global, community of like-minded creative souls.
This and more feeds into the influences that inspire and drive the sort of work I am delving into. The precision faceting of gems has laid an excellent foundation for me, allowing me to develop my lapidary skills to a point where I am ready to expand and explore a more artist expression with gems. I am a very creative person at heart and there is this great creative wellspring within wanting to find expression in the physical and I have chosen gems to be the medium for that.
How did you learn what you do?
Embarking on skilling up in a new area is a great challenge. Imagine going back to university at the age of 40 or 50 to learn and earn a new degree and all that would entail, not least of which is simply finding the time and finances to do it. It has been a slow process over the last several years of bringing together the equipment required, the tools and knowledge that needed to start carving and engraving gemstones. This field of lapidary is a lot more niche and esoteric then I initially realised and it has not been easy to find that information and those tools. I quickly realised that I had to hand make a lot of the tools myself as they could not be purchased anywhere and that in itself was and continues to be not an easy exercise.
There is no one place that you can go to get everything you need like you can with faceting, you have to source a bit from here, some from there, experiment a little, look some more, travel half way around the world to visit a master of the craft and spend a week in their workshop absorbing everything you can. Many are the things you have to figure things out yourself and a lot that must be done before you can even begin to carve your first piece properly, in much the same way that an athlete just train, prepare and qualify before they can even get to the starting line of the main event.
All of this takes a significant investment in time, effort, money and persistence. You have to really want it. You have to try and eke out some time in your regular work schedule of gemcutting to experiment, to play with and explore these new skills and that I have found is very hard to do. Carving gemstones requires a very different set of skills and techniques then is employed with faceting. Certainly there are overlaps but where faceting is very "yang" with straight lines, crisp sharp edges and points, flat surfaces, precise angles and index wheel settings, with bright flashing facet patterns and bursts of light, carving is more "yin" with gentle flowing curves and grooves, the hands working the tools and stones very differently, the way light and colour washes around the inner space of the stone, the glow and movement softer, subtler. The two methods - faceting and carving - have very different energies and I am very much enjoying this new vista that is opening up before me.
Is there any aspect of your craft that you are particularly mindful of?
One thing that should be kept in mind when working with gemstones and the lapidary art is that this is an art of "unmaking". It's something that one should approach with a great deal of respect and reverence for. You see, that stone which the lapidary holds in is hands is already, in certain way, perfect. It is ancient, created through processes deep and mysterious and has weathered all manner of natural forces and experiences to end up right there on the workbench. It may have tumbled about in a creek for thousands of years to become a smooth waterworn pebble, or sat upon the surface of the ground and seen innumerable cycles of days and nights and seasons, or perhaps only recently been removed from the dark earth to see the light of day for the first time still sharp and fresh in it's crystal form. This stone is already beautiful, solid, an embodiment of colour incarnate, it's crystallite structure intact. I have in my personal collection a piece of crystal clear quartz from the Kimberley region of North Australia which has been date around 1.8 billion years! That is around a third of the age of the earth and is something that demands respect. I will never cut that piece of quartz.
In order for the lapidary to fashion a gem they must unmake a part of the stone. Material must ground away never again to be a stone, those bits of colour and crystal lost forever. Once it is removed it cannot be put back on or re-smelted like gold can. It's a strange thing to think about and no doubt not something much consideration is given to in our market driven, profit driven world we live in today. But it is something that I am quite mindful of and it informs and influences how I approach my craft, how I handle and shape each and every stone I touch. I want to honour the inherent beauty and nature of each stone to the best of my ability and skill. We are ourselves forces of nature and just as wind and water will shape a stone, so too do we but what nature does over eons we do in moments. So we must be careful what we do and try to do it as well as we can to bring out the best in the gem.
Do you have a favorite stone?
If I had to name a gemstone that I am particularly fond of, it would have to be topaz, both the silvery white and the natural blue topaz of O'Briens Creek in Far North Queensland. This is the gemstone that is found on the gemfields outside of Mt Surprise where I began this journey. The outback landscape of this region is ancient pink granite country, rough, rugged and remote, harsh and dry but beautiful beyond words. Many were the days where I was by myself out in the landscape digging a dirty big hole, moving tons of dirt and rock with naught but my trusty shovel and crowbar. It was a little bit of magic every time I found a topaz and over time I developed a bond with this beautiful gemstone. Topaz has a wonderful brightness about it that isn't found in other gems except perhaps some of the fancy coloured garnets (another favorite). I love the silvery appearance and the blues have that lovely hue that reminds one of icebergs. Topaz is also always cool to the touch, put a piece next to your cheek and you'll see.
During the winters, the campground on the gemfields would fill with the "grey nomads" from down south escaping the cold. Almost overnight a little village would gather on the fields and every morning at the crack of dawn, off they would adventure out into the hills to dig their topaz. Come early afternoon once the heat began to bite, back they'd come, have a shower and settle in for the afternoon with a cold drink to swap stories and show each other the topaz they'd found that day. They were a funny bunch and quite cagey about where they would dig, like a fisherman not wanting to divulge their favourite fishing spot. Everyone would always be chasing the "blues", those delicately hued topaz that might be one in a hundred. If you found a good blue, you had a good day.
I have cut a lot of topaz and these gems never cease to satisfy and bring a smile. They are always bright and beautiful and you can get quite a large gem with topaz. It is one of those confident unassuming gemstones of the mineral kingdom often overlooked, that doesn't need to boast or seek the limelight as it knows just how beautiful it is. These topaz tie me strongly to a very special time and place in my life. The things that I saw while chasing this wonderful gem will always stay with me - discovering hidden valleys lined with prehistoric cycad plants, flocks of hundreds and hundreds of red-tailed black cockatoos flying overhead or feeding on the ground, cheeky bowerbirds and their decorated bowers, a wet season when all the dry creeks filled up to become amazing freshwater swimming holes and all the life that bloomed for a short time, the people that I met and the stories they told, and countless other moments.
Are there challenges?
Like every chosen profession, gemcutting has it's challenges. First and foremost is the persistence, dedication and self-motivation that is demanded of oneself, every day you have to reach deep. There are much easier ways to earn a living. Cutting and selling gems is not an easy gig and not for the faint hearted. For me it is a calling. I don't know how else to put it and if you go into it thinking you'll make a lot of money then you are going into it for the wrong reasons. You have to sacrifice a lot and you come to understand that it can't all be about the money. It's hard not getting caught in that trap like I see many others in the lapidary and jewellery trade getting snared by. It's about something else that bit by bit, is slowly revealed, like curtains drawing apart. I catch a glimpse of it every now and then, a moment of deepening understanding but then like a quicksilver fish in a pond it slips away out of my grasp. It's about the self and discovering what is within you and your relationship to the greater natural world and the creative spirit. It's about finding out just want it is you really want to do and create.
If I had to name two of the main challenges that I encounter daily in my practice they would be that of time management and education. In regards to time management, when running your own small business you have to literally do everything yourself! Everything! Nothing gets done unless I do it as I have no staff that I can delegate to. I have to do all the myriad daily chores like answer emails, messages, phone calls, maintain inventory and job lists, photograph gemstones and upload stock to my website, do up - send out - chase up invoices, package gems to send out, do the post office run, take appointments with clients wanting to come in and purchase gems or have something cut, plan what gems I'm going to cut or carve and in the middle of all this find some time to actually sit at the bench and do the cutting and carving. This barely scratches the surface of what I do every day. Everything has to be done once and done well. I don't have the luxury to going back over things and fixing up mistakes and if I didn't have that computer IT background I don't know how in the world I could keep on top of everything. Time is one of my most precious assets.
The other challenge is educating folks on just what is involved with producing a fine gemstone and this is especially true when it comes to the jewellery trade and jewellers. I provide a range of lapidary services such as repairing and repolishing old worn and damaged gems and I have found that by and large, the majority of folks don't fully appreciate the time, effort and skill that goes into what is done. The trade in particular can be quite frustrating to work with especially when they want things done cheap and quick. Some jewellers that I have been working with over the years and developed a relationship with have come to understand what is involved and why I charge what I do, but many others just don't get it. In some cases they may have been using another gemcutter who has been charging the same price for things since the 1970s but that gemcutter has retired and they expect you to do the job for the same price. That's always an interesting conversation.
There is also a surprising lack of awareness around what makes a good gem in regards to the technical aspects such as, "windows" and "fish-eyes", good meetpoints, polishing and designs. Not all gems are cut equal. Because many jewellers and folks have only been exposed to the standard run-of-the-mill commercial cut stones, the concept of precision cut and carved gems is new to them and they need to re-evaluate certain expectations such as that the fact that they can't expect to pay ebay prices for these gems. In many cases precision cut gems just don't fit their business model. This is a whole discussion in itself so let's leave that for another day.
Working with gems is something that I am incredibly blessed and fortunate to be able to do. I shudder to think what might have been had I not seen that ad and went for that job in the little gemshop, or had I not been brave enough to quit my well-paying computer job. It doesn't bare thinking upon. I hope this gives you a little insight into what I do and why I do it.
Thank you for the opportunity to share.
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