Meet Glenn Lehrer - Gemstone Artist

| 20 min read

Glenn Lehrer is an internationally renowned gemstone artist and is also a regular visitor to Gemporia. Every time he visits he brings with him an air of anticipation and excitement as he tells us about new concepts he is developing in his San Francisco workshop and gives us insight into his one-off bespoke cut gems. We thought it would be a good idea to sit down and ask Glenn to give us his story on how he got started on his journey to become the gem artist he is today.

Glenn, how did this all start?

I was studying art at college but I was completely uninspired, completely unstimulated and so I dropped out. I was 19 years old and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life but it didn’t worry me. I was an artist and I was inspired by the renaissance period and I wanted to see it - y’know? I just flat out decided that I wanted to go to Europe to see the history of art. I wanted to see Florence, Venice and Rome.

I was an artist and I was inspired by the renaissance period and I wanted to see it - y’know? I just flat out decided that I wanted to go to Europe to see the history of art.

So at 19 you just got on a plane alone to Europe?

Yeah, it was scary but it made me feel alive. I had never been outside America before, I’d barely been out of my state and so I was pumped full of adrenaline and a huge sense of wonder, I packed a bag and I just went. I’m a hands on kind of guy. When I learn, I learn by seeing and absorbing things in a real visceral environment. I wanted to touch the history of time, we don’t have that history in the States, I wanted to see and experience it. When I travelled all around Italy this is when I felt totally inspired by life.

Was it just Italy that you travelled around?

No, I did the whole of Europe, so Italy, Spain, France and then I got to Ancient Greece and it was a real eye opener. To see those ruins and to walk on paths that people have been walking on for 4000 years was amazing to me. All in all this travelling around Europe was around 6 months and I still had no idea what I wanted to do.

After this 6 months did you go back to the USA?

No, from Ancient Greece I made my way to Istanbul. You know when they say, “Istanbul is right on the border between the West and the East?” Well let me tell you, I could really feel and taste something different. I could feel that the people here saw the world completely differently to how I was raised and that intrigued me. That’s when I heard my inner self telling me, “Keep going East young man.” Istanbul just felt like a real passageway into a different culture and this was the adventure I was looking for. I felt like I was outside my comfort zone and this challenged me, so I kept going East and crossed into Iran and eventually I ended up in Afghanistan. This was 1973 when it was safe to travel to these beautiful places. Afghanistan felt so raw and so tribal it was like I had gone back in time to a place that could have existed centuries ago. Instantly I felt a connection, I felt at home, I can’t quite explain it. Something inside me awoke, I felt like I had been asleep for 19 years and suddenly I had woken up.

So did you stay in Afghanistan?

Well, like I said, I was constantly going East and I was drawn to India. There was something about the ancient culture of more than 10,000 years. I had studied comparative religions at school and I was intrigued by the Hindu and Buddhist belief systems and the way they made sense of the world. I’m not religious at all but something about that transcendental way of life appealed to me and I wanted to understand it. This is where I ended up living – in India for two years.

Wow, so you left America when you were 19. When did you return?

I was 22 or 23, so I say to people my university degree was traveling the world and learning about foreign far-away cultures. So I ended up living in a tiny monastery in southern India and I lived in this remote rainforest, pretty much off the grid and that’s where I absorbed and lived like a monk for 2 years. I tell everybody, when all my buddies were off to the bar at 21 (because of the legal age in America), I crossed over into India on my birthday at 21, I didn’t step into a bar, I stepped into a different way of life, a different culture. To this day, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, it has been the core in my belief and lifestyle that I still hold dear to this day. I’ve integrated what I’ve learnt from the East back into my Western life which of course has influenced my work.

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So I got back to America completely changed – I left a boy and came back a man. My brother was living in San Francisco at the time. My older brother and I were very close, which is unusual. I mean most older brothers wouldn’t dream of letting their younger brother cramp their style, but my brother always let me tag along. So I went to live with my brother in San Francisco and we lived in Haight-Ashbury which was like hippy central at that time. We would surf together up and down the coast which is my other great love.

At some point over that long summer he handed me a piece of cut Quartz crystal, which had been polished into a very unusual shape, kind of a long obelisk globe. Whether you believe in all of this or not, I genuinely felt a visceral vibration go up my arm and hit me in my heart.

Literally? A vibration up your arm?

Yeah literally… literally I felt it go up my arm and bam into my heart. Maybe it was all those years meditating, maybe I was super sensitive, but I remember that feeling to this day. So I said to my brother “What is this?” Remember I wasn’t interested in gems, I wasn’t interested in jewellery, I had no background in it, my family was not at all into jewellery, there was no pre-introduction into this, it was something about that moment that ignited in me and I was like, “Oh my god what is this?” And so I asked my brother and he replied, “Well this is a cut Quartz piece of crystal.” I said, “Where can I learn to do this?” And he said, “I don’t know, you go and figure it out.”

I set about finding a teacher to help me learn how to work with this material. I was, and still am, an artist and I wanted a new canvas. At this time in the US there was absolutely no tradition of gem cutting or carving whatsoever. I knew I could join a mineral club and learn how to facet a stone to textbook standards but that didn’t interest me, I knew I could cut a cabochon but that again didn’t interest me. I wanted to carve, I wanted to take this exotic material and transform it into art, like I would have done with clay. So in the process of going out and buying some equipment of my own, I was working as a dish washer because that’s all I felt like I was capable of doing when I came back to the West. People go to school and learn how to do this in Europe on a curriculum passed down over generations but there was nothing like that in the US. It really was an exotic craft and not knowing where I could do that, I just thought I’d figure it out on my own. So I took my tax return money from my dish washing job and bought lapidary equipment and started carving. I didn’t even think I could make a living doing this, it was more a passion. Then I realised I was doing things no one had ever seen in America so after 10 years of refinement and developing my carving skills, I thought I’d better understand the material and the medium I was working in and whether it’s a Garnet or a Quartz.

I re-enrolled back into college and chose minerology and geology and thought I would gain a degree in minerology. I was under the assumption I would never make a living cutting gems – there’s no such thing in America – so I thought maybe I could be a minerology professor or a field geologist or work in a lab and carve stones as a hobby.

Mind you when I was in school, I barely passed algebra and didn’t take a single science class in my whole life so I had no science background whatsoever. Now, though, I had a burning passion and desire to learn as much as I could because of my fascination with these minerals. All of a sudden I found myself almost getting a perfect grade in higher math and calculus, excelling in chemistry and just becoming a straight A student. It was the first art medium that required a very strong scientific approach and background so it was like all of a sudden I had to actually understand the science of something to produce my art.

Then, half way through college (which I was loving and excelling at), someone said to me, “Well, have you heard of the GIA?” I asked “What’s that?” and got the reply, “The school where you get your gemology degree.” Minerology was a very vast science of all the minerals and within minerology existed this study of gemology. So I went down to the GIA – the Gemological Institute of America – which was two miles from where my mother lived.

Was this after finishing your college course?

No, I dropped out again! So then this is where I earned my gemology degree and this is where it all started. I could finally see an industry here and I knew that even if I couldn’t make a living cutting stones, I could work as a gemologist or an appraiser or work in a jewellery store and still have my passion of cutting stones - still not thinking I could earn a living doing that.

Then I kept hearing about this place… Idar- Oberstein in Germany.

This was something that had a huge impact on you wasn’t it?

The discovery of Idar-Oberstein? Oh my god yeah! This place was like the holy grail of gem cutters. It was the birthplace of the finest cutting techniques. It had over 500 years of tradition and was shrouded in secrecy. All I knew is this was where the best cut stones in the world came from.

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I never forgot about it and I couldn’t really find out too much about it. I graduated from the GIA and ended up selling encyclopaedias, literally a door-to-door encyclopaedia salesman and would still hone my craft at night. I started to make a living cutting stones for people, high-end designers who were drawn to uniquely cut stones and were amazed that I was self-taught.

Some years later my wife and I decided to vacation in Europe and of course Idar- Oberstein was one of the places we had planned to go. So eventually we pulled into this tiny town and I didn’t know a soul. We found a beautiful B&B and that night, whilst we sat down to dinner, I showed the owner some of my work and she was amazed. She went on to tell me that she had a friend who might like to see my work. His name was Bernard Becker and he was a fourth generation cameo engraver and carver. His great grandfather had carved for Fabergé, he could sit down and open up a Fabergé book and point out individual pieces and identify which pieces his family had done.

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I first knocked on the door and this huge heavy door creaked open. I timidly said, “I’m an American gem carver and the lady at the B&B said I should come meet you.” A hand slipped out of the door and snatched some of my work. Then I heard, “You did this?” I replied yes and he asked me where I learnt it. I told him I was self-taught and then he shouted, “Impossible!”

A hand slipped out of the door and snatched some of my work. Then I heard, “You did this?” I replied yes and he asked me where I learnt it. I told him I was self-taught and then he shouted, “Impossible!”

This work was so outside the German mind of what could be done at the time because everything there is in the guild tradition of apprenticeships where you go to school for eight years to master it, before you are given your meisterbrief (similar to your thesis on a PhD), where that one piece is graded by all of the masters before you reach the grade of a true master. Meisterbrief translates roughly as master diploma.

Then his demeanour changed and his English language seemed to be a little more fluent all of a sudden and he invited me to go and work in his studio. I was thinking, “Really?” because everything I’d been told about Idar-Oberstein said that there were strictly no outsiders allowed in the studio. So we chatted a little bit and I told him that I wasn’t around for long and would be returning to the States and he insisted I gave him my address so we could arrange to meet up.

I assumed he was being polite and I didn’t expect to hear from him again. When I got home, he kept faxing me and sending me letters saying, “Come visit me, come work in my workshop, show me how to do what you did!”

This was too good an invitation for me to turn down and so after talking it over with my wife I replied, “I’m coming.”

For the next five years I would go back and study with him and I would buy equipment that had been refined over centuries. Eventually all of the equipment in my workshop was German, and I still use that equipment today because it’s the best. I later found out that in those days I was the only outsider that was ever allowed into the Idar-Oberstein workshops and school of cutting, most people had never even seen it. I worked with a few other masters too, so much so that I co-created with a lot of them, they were keen to learn things outside of the box. I was teaching the masters and they were sharing their skills with me. It was mutually beneficial. I became famous in the village, everyone would hear on the grapevine that I’d arrived and would say, “Herr Lehrer is back in the village” and I would receive phone calls at the B&B from other masters wanting me to go and work with them. All of a sudden I was the kid everyone wanted to hang out with, so I spent some time with Erwin Pauly. He’s the top cameo carver ever to come out of Idar-Oberstein and he studied under Richard Hahn. He was the man who resurrected cameo engraving after WWII.

There were a lot of Jewish people who worked in Idar and when the war came they were all rustled up and were sent to work camps to carve the war medals for the generals. By the time I went to Idar there were no Jewish people left, literally the whole industry was decimated after the war. Richard was the one man that built it all back after 1948 and I arrived in 1986. Erwin was one of his first students and he took classical cameo carving and portraits to a new level and in a new direction. He did Art Nouveau and was the first real gem artist in Idar.

His son Hans and I really hit it off, we were the same age and his wife and my wife became really close. We would travel Europe together and eventually myself and Hans started to properly co-create together. I was the first foreigner to co-create with a German master, again breaking the mould. Everyone else had the door shut on them and I had open access. That was rare. So of all the gemstone artists in America I’m probably the only one who had any real classical Idar training.

When did you come up with your TorusCut and where does that fit into your journey?

Well I had always wanted to set a stone within a stone and I had tried to do this early on – not the Torus but the idea. No one had ever done this and I just thought a circle within a circle was the most prevalent form in nature and I wanted capture this. I always observed though that putting a hole in a round brilliant makes it reflect badly and just kills the fire and brilliance.

I had crudely produced a stone within a stone in the 1980s but it just didn’t have the life, colour and brilliance that I had envisaged and so I kept refining this cut for well over a decade.

It was 1995 and a designer came to me and wanted me to carve a stone on a curve. It was an Amethyst, and I realised that when I carved on a curve the stone lost its life and sparkle. I felt it was lifeless, so I asked if I could cut a pavilion on the bottom, which brought back the brilliance and the colour.

So I was cutting a pavilion on the curve, and then I had a light bulb moment, like, “Oh my god, that’s it!” If you were to take a long baguette and bend it around in a circle and complete the circle, you have a brilliant stone on the curve and now I’ve got a hole in the middle, and that hole is not killing the brilliance… There it is. BOOM.

So it was this desire of setting a stone within a stone and this jeweller asking me to do this one element (which was not a TorusRing) that helped with the conception of this idea. Then I spent months figuring out how to set a stone in the centre and eventually the Torus was born.

And you patented the design?

A friend of mine said, “Y’know my brother-in-law is a patent attorney, you could probably get a patent on this.”

And I was like – seriously?

He insisted he was serious.

I decided to meet him. He saw it and said, “I think this is patentable.” I still couldn’t believe it… “Really?” He told me that the element to a patent is it has to be completely novel and unique within the industry in which you function and the process has to be completely novel and unique to the current processing of that industry.

Based on the round brilliant, my process was completely unique and novel, as is the end result – the finished cut.

We researched every library to see if there were any gemstones that were in any way close to the Torus and there was nothing. There was only one other US patent that had been granted for a coloured gemstone cut and I was granted the second.

I probably wouldn’t do it again because you have to reveal your secrets - not the full process but you have to tell them the process and then you get exclusivity. It’s been 20 years now so that patent is now public domain, but I really don’t care. After 20 years I’m still the only guy who has ever produced it.

Steve Bennett said to me, “You can’t really separate the product from the brand, or the brand from the product. So the Lehrer brand and the TorusRing are synonymous, highly ingrained, so that when someone sees it they say, “Oh, that’s a Lehrer.”

So what happened after you had secured the patent? Did you sell to big retailers?

The funniest thing is when I first created it, I though the industry would go crazy and say, “Oh, that’s the most amazing thing.” I had visions of every woman owning one.

The jewellery industry, I realised, is highly conservative. Buyers for big jewellery household names would pass up because by nature the things they buy are expensive and rare so they don’t like to take risks.

They were telling me it was the most amazing cut they had ever seen and discussed the possibility of creating one-off pieces of jewellery around it for special collections but I was insisting, “Hey, I think every woman would like this” and they would shoot me down and sternly say, “No.” So no one got to see it for decades. enter image description here I was winning all of these accolades in the industry and all of the big brand jewellery houses loved it but they acted like the gate keepers to the market and I couldn’t get through. So no women could ever know about it, and I think that’s the amazing thing about Steve, he gives his customers the choice to say if they like it or not. He takes risks if he believes in something. If it wasn’t for Steve, no one would have had the chance to own the TorusRing, it would have only been reserved for the high-end collections and I would only produce around five or maybe ten a year. Steve doesn’t speak for his customers, he lets them make their own minds up.

This leads us on to how you and Steve met...

We met in 2010 in Brazil, it was a big important event that consisted of a tour of the world famous coloured gemstone mines including Cruzeiro, Rio Grande du Sol and the Minas Gerais state.

The beauty of it was I found myself on Steve’s table on the first night, with all of his family, and neither of us had any idea who the other was. Steve had to leave early in the evening because his daughter Lili was very young back then and needed to go to sleep. I noticed that one of the women had left a ring behind so I picked it up and thought I would return it to Steve when I saw him again.

The next day I saw Steve and asked him if anyone had lost a ring and he told me his wife had. I opened up my hand and there it was. He later told me that that made a big impression on him.

The next day Steve got up and walked to sit next to me for the journey and he admitted he had researched me and asked if he could pick my brain because he was writing a book and was struggling with the lapidary section. This book later turned out to be the first edition of his gemstone encyclopaedia – The Lure.

Then he spent the whole day quizzing me on my story and he just listened. Then he noticed the TorusRing I had on and he was mesmerised. He said, “Do you think we could create a line?” I told him there is no way I could cut enough TorusRing gems for his audience and he said not to worry because he worked with the best workshops. I said, “Who owns this workshop because I know India” and Steve said, “My buddy is Manuj Goyal”, and I couldn’t believe it. I had been introduced to Manuj three years earlier by Yianni Melas… it was the GIA connection. We all went there. Manuj had reminded me that I had given some lectures there to around 400 students and Manuj was a student in the crowd and he had always said, “One day I want to create something special with Glenn Lehrer.” Manuj now owns and runs the finest state of the art manufacturing centre in all of India, probably in the world. So I was delighted and I said, “Sure, let’s give it a go!” Steve shared my vision of giving every woman the opportunity to own a TorusRing.

Christmas 2011 was the first show on TV and it was where my dream and Steve’s vision finally came to fruition. This belief in my skills gave me the inspiration to evolve my work and the QuasarCut made its debut in 2015. Earlier this year we launched the KaleidosCut – all of this being testament to Steve’s values and our partnership.

Explore Glenn's incredible creations here.