A person who cuts and polishes gemstones is known as a Lapidarist. Lapidary is one of the most skilful jobs in the creation of fine jewellery. I have personally had one of the very best attempt to teach me how to facet gemstones. After days of endless concentration and studying, I decided that it was a skill that could not be taught, unless you had a natural flair for it. I believe it is similar to art or music. Sure, you can go to art classes or take guitar lessons, but unless you already have a modicum of natural ability, you are never going to be top of your class. When it comes to cutting gemstones, I am definitely tone deaf!
There are many tasks involved with cutting a gemstone and even before they begin, the Lapidarist must decide the best orientation of the gem - in other words, at what angle the gem should be cut out of the rough to best show its colour, and to maximise any optical effects. There are five main steps that we go through when we cut gemstones. Each one is vitally important and an error at any stage can either dramatically reduce the final carat weight of the stone or in some instances destroy it completely.
The most underestimated step is the very first one. This is known as the gemstone orientation step. Here very knowledgeable gemstone experts will make the decision of which part of the rough stone will ultimately finish up being the table facet. If a mistake is made at this point, there is every chance that the gemstones brilliance and fire will not be maximised. As you were probably taught if you ever did woodwork or metal work at school, at this stage it is crucial to measure twice and cut once!
To actually make the first cut. Often this is done by the same person who makes the vital decision on orientation, but in other cutting houses this is a separate task. A saw with Diamond tips is used to cut rough material into the required number of pieces.
The gemstone is then ground on a lap (horizontal wheel) to get an outline shape.
A paste is used to grind the gem into a pre-formed shape, which is often done in several steps with finer and finer pastes being used at each stage. The paste is often is often made of small, tiny pieces of Diamond.
After being cut and ground to the right shape, the gem is then polished to a mirror- like finish. To apply the finish, extremely fine grades of Diamond dusts are normally used.
Ancient artefacts show that Lapidary started in approximately 3000BC (Bronze Age) where early techniques of sawing, drilling, faceting and polishing were used to facet gems. However, bruting (a technique using one mineral to shape another by striking it) dates back as far as one million years ago, making Lapidary one of the oldest skills on the planet!
Today, Lapidary has become widely accepted as one of the most challenging forms of art on the planet. Unlike an artist who paints, the Lapidarist’s raw materials already possess great value: one mistake could render them worthless. The Lapidarist, alongside trying to create his masterpiece, must also be mindful of carat weight; the finished item will derive its value not purely from its visual appearance, but also from its size.
To recognise the achievements of this profession, there are now several highly profiled global competitions such as the “Cutting Edge Awards” and in Germany (still one of the largest gem cutting centres in the world) there is the highly acclaimed “German Award for Jewellery and Precious Stones”.