We are surrounded by gemstones ALL of the time. Gemstones are often seen as a sign of wealth, passion, or prestige in the modern day culture. They are used in gifts, ornaments, fashion, and more which give value to gems. They garnish the human body to help one display their beauty and personality. Certain gemstones are often referred to as a woman's best friend and some covet these gems.
So if there are so many gemstones around the world set into jewelry and so many people who love to wear them, you might begin to wonder how they are cut? Who cuts them? How do lapidary cutters make a rough gemstone look pretty?
In this article we are going to discuss how gemstones are cut, who cuts them, the science behind it, and how you could start.
The Rough Gemstone
All of the cut gemstones you see began in the ground, rough and dirty. Someone or something dug it out of the ground and collected it. Mining operations happen all around the world! You might even be surprised to find a few near you. Once the gemstone is collected, it will be cleaned up and inspected for flaws, cracks, or any other dings that would devalue the stone. Once the stone passed inspection, it would be placed with similar gems and then it would wait to be cut. Miners themselves usually do not cut the gemstones since they are busy running their mining operation. Therefore, they send the stones off to be cut.
Who Cuts a Gemstone?
People who cut gemstones are called by a few different names, however the title "Lapidary Artist" can be used for anyone who cuts rock, gemstone, or minerals. Depending on what the particular gemstone cutter does will decide his professional name.
For instance, if someone facets a gemstone, they will be considered a Facetor. Someone who inlays gemstones will be called an Inlayer. Other names that describe Lapidary Artists are Tumbler, Cabber, Carver, and Intaglio Artist. Each one of these names signify a type of gemstone cutting method. Each method is different and creates a different finished product. We will discuss in detail some of these different types of cutting further in the article.
Lapidary Artists are found everywhere in the world. Brazil, China, Germany, and the United States are all hotspots for lapidary artists. Cheaper production cutting is done in China and Vietnam, whereas custom high-end cutting can be found in Germany and the USA.
How are They Cut?
As mentioned before, gemstones are cut in a variety of different methods. However, they all use similar tools that all apply the same concept. Gemstones are cut by using a tool or material that is harder than the gemstone, and grinding away portions of the stone until the shape of the gemstone is appealing. After that they go in a series of grits in order to polish the gemstone and remove all the scratches from the surface.
So what types of tools are harder than a gemstone? Lapidary artists use two specific materials when cutting a gemstone because of their hardness and durability. The two materials are silicon carbide and diamond, which are both above a 9.5 on the Moh's hardness scale. Both of these materials are extremely hard, dense, and cut other gemstones extremely well because of their chemical and physical structure. So tools like diamond burs
, diamond wheels
, and silicon carbide paper
are utilized when cutting gems.
Now we will go further into detail about each of these different types of cutting. These are the most popular forms of cutting and more than likely you see these types of cutting everyday.
Faceting is a form of gemstone cutting where a pattern of small flat faces are ground into the gemstone in order to capture light, increase its brilliance, and captivate the human eye.
Faceting is one of the most meticulous forms of cutting, however also the most popular. Faceted gemstones are what you find in many rings, it's how diamonds are most often cut, and it gives the gemstone the most sparkle and brilliance out of all gemstone cutting methods.
Faceting is done on a machine. The machine has a spinning disc in which the stone is cut. The disc has been covered with diamond grit
so that the user can grind the gemstone to shape. The diamond disc is called a Faceting Lap
. A Faceting Lap can go from very coarse for grinding portions of the stone away, to very fine for polishing.
A Facetor will utilize all of the grits while faceting a gemstone in order to reach a polish. Other than some faceting laps, the only other tool necessary for faceting gemstones is a faceting machine
. Faceting Machines range in price from about $500-5500. So there is a wide variety of prices and precision for faceting machines.
Faceting is a tedious type of cutting because once you have ground the faces into your gemstones, you will go through the series of grits repeating the same movements and motions, eventually resulting in a polish. That usually goes on for about 2-6 hours before the stone is complete. (The speed in which the stone can be cut is determined by the cutters experience and knowledge.)
If you are good at tedious work by being meticulous, you like to focus, and you enjoy angles and numbers, then faceting might be for you! It incompasses many different skills that get refined and perfected as you learn the skill.
Cabbing a gemstone is the most popular form of gemstone cutting within the hobbyist lapidary community. Cabbing a gemstone is very easy once you learn how and it is an extremely delightful way to display a stones beauty. The stones pictured above on top of this article are called cabochons. They are domed shaped with a flat back, which allows for easy setting in jewelry.
Cabbing is done on a cabbing machine
. A cabbing machine usually has 2-6 wheels that are coated with diamond grit
. The wheels spin at a high speed on a rotating shaft with water being fed onto the wheel. As the wheels spin people will shape, sand, and polish a gemstone through a designated series of grits. Different techniques and tools are used throughout the process in order to make a perfect cabochon. Many youtube videos have been made explaining the process. We suggest checking them out if you have more questions. We also carry a Cabochon cutting handbook
that goes in depth with the process.
Carving is completely opposite of faceting. Faceting is very precise, angular, and mathematical, whereas carving is much more free form, imaginative, and custom. Carving gemstone can utilize similar tools to faceting however, for the most part, they use a different arsenal of equipment. Most carvers use cabbing wheels
and burs to cut gemstone rather than a faceting lap. Cabbing wheels are big cylindrical wheels coated with diamond to allow the gemstone cutter to shape and carve a gemstone.
Once they are satisfied with what they have done on a cabbing wheel they will go in with a diamond bur
and begin to deepen, sharpen, and detail their cuts. A large variety of burs can be used while carving. In order to cut the right shapes, make the right lines and cut the right curves, you need a large amount of small tools that can fit into a dremel.
Most of the burs used while cutting will be locked into a dremel or a fixed arbor. Both of these pieces of equipment turn the bur at a high speed which allows the carver to cut away portions of the gemstone.
Tumble polishing a gemstone is done by imitating natural polishing methods done in Mother Nature. For example, you can find naturally polished stones on a river bed because they were waterwarn and polished as they went down the stream or river. They rubbed against other stones, got pushed around in sand, and floated with the water. Tumbling does the same process, however faster and more efficiently.
People who tumble use a tumbling machine
. They throw rough gemstones into a barrel that goes in the machine with silicon carbide powder and water. The machine slowly turns the barrel which slowly turns the stones inside. The stones slowly fall and rub against the coarse silicon carbide grit, which slowly smooths the stone. Once the first stage of silicon carbide is finished they will go through 2-5 more stages until it is polished.
Tumbling is the least expensive way to cut and polish gemstones. It is extremely fun with kids and can leave adults amazed.
How Could I Start Cutting Gemstones?
Cutting gemstones is not difficult. It can be done by anyone, by any age as long as they have the right tools and knowledge. Choosing how you want to begin is the most important. For young ones, tumbling is a fantastic place to start. It teaches people the steps it takes to polish a gemstone and does not require a ton of skill or experience to get a great finished product. You can find an inexpensive tumbler at a local hobby store like Harbor Freight, or you can check out the tumblers
we have here at Cutting Edge Supply. The tumblers we carry are a little more heavy duty and will last a lot longer than one you find at a hobby store. However, either one will work great to start, then you can decide further on what machine will work best for you once you decide that you like tumbling.
For people who want something more hands-on then tumbling, we suggest trying to cabochon or carve gemstones. It will require a little more equipment than tumbling, however it is the next step in mastering the art of gemstone cutting. You will need a flat lap
, or a cabbing machine
to begin. Most of the time when you purchase one of these machines everything that you need in order to cut, comes with the machine. If you have questions about a particular machine, feel free to contact us before you purchase.
Finally, for the more experienced cutters, or for the people who want to jump straight to the hard stuff, we suggest trying out faceting. Faceting will require the most focus and has the steepest learning curve, however once mastered it is like riding a bike. The possibilities are endless with faceting and it can present a wonderful challenge to the human mind. In order to begin, you will need a faceting machine
and some laps
. If you would like to begin faceting, check out our article "What do You Need to Begin Faceting?"
This will teach you everything you need to know before faceting.
In Conclusion, gemstone are cut by using a series of grits that get finer and finer until they reach a polish. The grits used must be harder than the gemstone itself, much like Diamond Powder or Silicon Carbide Grit. Machines like Tumblers, Flex Shafts, Faceting Machines, Flat Laps, and Cabbing Machines are all utilized while cutting a gemstone.
In order to start you need to decide which method of cutting you would like to start with, then getting the necessary equipment in order to accomplish that method. On our website we have more articles explaining in detail how to start in each one of these methods. Check out the section called Lapidary Library to find more!