A Gneiss Change: New trends in Scottish Lapidary

January 18, 2020
by Lesley Andrews

On a recent visit overseas, Richard and I travelled around the Scottish coast, including the Highlands and Islands. I found that nothing had changed weather-wise in the country of my birth – rain in the west, and wind in the east – but that new varieties of ornaments and jewellery are now available country-wide. The factors driving these changes are the increased number of potential buyers (tourist numbers have rocketed; on top of this there are now many on-line orders), and the increasing rarity of many of the traditional Scottish gemstones.

Carved or polished rocks are now popular with buyers, as they are cheaper than gemstones or crystals. Chunkier jewellery is the fashion, as are stones carved and set in Celtic or traditional mountings. The most popular stones in the Highlands are granites, marbles and gneiss (pronounced “nice”). Agates and jasper are still available further south, and these are also popular, although the more colourful agates are increasingly hard to find.

This article describes the increase in popular demand for gneiss. Gneiss pebbles were always a great find on the beach – I still have some that I picked up as a child.


Gneiss beach pebbles

Gneiss slab containing quartz, feldspar, quartz, epidote and ferromags

Gneiss is a banded or folded metamorphic rock. The material used in most of the creations described here is Lewisian gneiss from the Outer Hebrides - these are the oldest rocks in Scotland, and their mineralogy is complex. White and pink bands are granitic and consist of quartz and feldspar, darker bands are schistose and contain mica, pyroxene and amphibole. Pockets of marble are included in some areas, and veins of green epidote add to the colourful appearance of the rock. The type locality is the Isle of Lewis where the beauty of these rocks has been appreciated for years. The Calanish stone circle was built from carefully-selected gneiss pieces during the Stone Age.

Geological map of the Highlands. The pink areas in the northwest are mainly gneiss

Gneiss outcrop in Harris. Note the folding and banding 

The use of smaller gneiss pieces in jewellery has crept in to the shops over the years, but the real gneiss success story started in the Isle of Harris, an area of rocky outcrop, lochs and peat bogs, scattered with hardy blackface sheep.

At first chunky pendants were introduced to wear with the world-famous Harris Tweed, the main product of the island. This rough woollen fabric is hand-woven in traditional designs from coarse wool produced from local sheep. The gneiss is “sculpted, drilled and polished” as a croft industry and was started by just one couple. Products now include the pendants with simulated leather thongs, key rings with copper bands, earrings set in sterling silver and even light pulls on natural twine! These are now available in shops all over Scotland, and in all the tourist information outlets.

Gneiss pendants against a backdrop of Harris Tweed


View of an area in South Harris

The venture is doubly successful because there is so much material available – not just the Isle of Harris, but virtually the entire Outer Hebrides, consist of gneiss. This allows selection of colours and textures for the production of customised jewellery.

Some idea of the history and the variety of gneiss products from Harris can be found at the “Gneiss Things” website www.gneiss-things.com

Photographs taken by Lesley Andrews.

Map provided by the Trustees of National Museums Scotland.



November 24, 2019
Duncan Miller

A few years ago, faceting friends of mine in Durban bought some green gem quality material sold as epidote or possibly peridot. It was nice clear green, and some pieces of rough still adhered to a matrix, "dug out of the ground right in front" of the vendor from Moçambique. The cutting and polishing was easy, apparently working like tanzanite. But the surface of the polished stone degraded quite rapidly, developing hazy spots, so samples were sent to me for identification.

The ...

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October 25, 2019

Duncan Miller

Polishing soft gem materials, Mohs’s hardness 5 and less, and facets near the cleavage of some harder materials can be very difficult with commonly used polishing laps. Some years ago, Gearloose Lapidary (www.gearloose.co) introduced the Lightside™ lap, intended specifically for polishing soft materials. It is a ‘reduced-friction’ composite lap, used with diamond or oxide slurry to produce flat facets without significant edge rounding. It is described as a ‘durable, p...

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September 25, 2019

Duncan Miller

Reproduced by courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Every year, the International Mineralogical Association approves the names of many newly discovered minerals (http://nrmima.nrm.se//recentmin.htm). The requirements are stringent, involving analytical descriptions of both the chemistry and physical structure of any candidate new mineral. Most of these are microscropic and not display-worthy. But every now and then, a new mineral is discovered that not only ...

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Madagascar - the Road to Hell-Ville

September 25, 2019

Mandy Freeman

With a sense of excitement and anticipation of the mineral treasures Madagascar offers, we boarded Air Madagascar on 1st July this year (okay, 4 hours late, but at least on the same day). Our trip was part rock-hunting (obligatory in the Freeman household), and part island-holiday. Boy, were we in for a surprise…

We arrived in Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar where our adventures in a hired 4x4 with driver began. Tana, as it is known, has several stone markets where you...

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My New Toy

August 25, 2019

by Duncan Miller

A few months ago I bought an Imahashi faceting machine, Faceting Unit Model FAC-8C, the earlier of two models. This one dates from 1970, co-incident with when I started faceting. Sometime during the 1970s my father owned one briefly, but I took no notice of it then. Now it intrigued me, because it is a platform machine, unlike the more familiar mast machines. Platform machines have several attractive features. You can lift the entire handpiece free of the machine to inspect th...

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Return to Tubussis reveals Surprise

August 25, 2019

by Mandy Freeman

During one of the excursions arranged at the 2019 Gemboree, a group of enthusiasts decided to split from the main convoy to return to Tubussis to spend a little more time looking at what this tiny village has to offer. The Green Dragon Mine is located near to Tubussis, and the area is known for good quality demantoid or green garnets. One of the vendors had laid out tables, which due to time constraints, the convoy missed on the first visit, and some very nice aquamarine spe...

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Rocking the Richtersveld 2019

August 25, 2019

‘Oh, oh, oh,
matchbox full of diamonds
pocket full of rain
I'm as happy as a hotel in the springtime
when the flowers bloom again’

David Kramer’s song about the Richtersveld starts on the road to Lekkersing: “O ja, vanaand stap ek alleen op die pad na lekka sing.”

It came bubbling into my brain the night we were briefed that we would be on the road to Lekkersing the next morning, deep in the Richtersveld, deep in diamond country, and it all seemed to make a new kind of sense. We w...

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July 24, 2019

By Duncan Miller

How to teach yourself faceting, in three easy steps:

1.      Acquire a faceting machine. https://facetorsguild.com.au/About-Faceting-Machines

2.      Learn to facet. https://www.gemsociety.org/article/lapidary-fundamentals-gemstone-faceting/

3.      Become an expert. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oD6ZlNmtwmM&list=PLFIMjYf_BtnvaVZNQkHJ4ieF-v1fqPgqu&index=2

These are good introductory lessons for those starting out faceting, and perhaps don’t have access to a mentor or ...

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Southern African Lapidary Stones to watch out for: Botswana Agates

June 25, 2019

Willie Visser has had this Botswana agate for a number of years. Recently he decided it was time that he took the plunge to cut it, and he was amazed to find it was the most beautiful agate he had ever owned. He has called it “The Mona Visa”.

By coincidence it is exactly 10 years since he cut open another special agate and found a fish.
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