Duncan Miller

The photograph here is of a magnificent 164,11 ct spodumene (variety kunzite) in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, USA (https://geogallery.si.edu/10002906/spodumene-var-kunzite).

The accompanying text credits the mine at which it was found (in 2010 at the Oceanview Mine in Pala, California), the funds with which it was acquired (Tiffany & Co. Foundation endowment in 2012), and the photographer (Greg Polley). So who cut this stone? This is like acknowledging the art gallery, the picture framer, and the photographer of an artwork, but not mentioning the artist. It is a very odd situation. Why is this? 

Traditionally, gem cutting was a backroom job done by semi-skilled or even skilled workmen and given no more credit that the jobbing artisan goldsmith working for a jewellery emporium. With the advent of precision faceting this really needs to change. The precision faceter no longer churns out coloured jub-jubs with a semi-random patchwork of facets, but works of art that maximise the optical properties of a particular piece of gem rough. This is a highly skilled enterprise, requiring a detailed knowledge of crystallography and familiarity with the other physical properties of gem crystals, laboriously acquired manual dexterity, and often an investment in expensive machinery and consumables. The precision gem cutter is an artist, and the cutter’s name should form part of the pedigree of the stone. 

But for this to happen there would need to be significant changes in the gem industry. Laser engraving a signature on the finished girdle can ‘sign’ a stone to be recorded on grading reports, hopefully enhancing the value. New blockchain technology recently proposed for tracking gemstones from source to consumer (Cartier, L., Ali, S.H. & Krzemnicki, M.S. 2018. Blockchain, chain of custody and trace elements: an overview of tracking and traceability opportunities in the gem industry. The Journal of Gemmology 36: 212–27.) could include a record of the cutter. But self-promotion through publishing photographs of one’s gems, participating in online discussion groups, winning competitions, and maintaining a good website probably remain the most effective ways for gem cutters to achieve recognition for their skills.

This prompts the question ‘What is a gem cutter’s skill worth?’ Obviously this will vary with location but it is fun to make some comparisons. In Cape Town a plumber or electrician may charge around R500 per hour for labour. An experienced copy editor may charge a similar fee. A piano tuner charges R1000 (and the piano doesn’t stay in tune for ever). Very few cutters can produce a precision-cut stone in an hour. Personally, a standard round brilliant in a stone easy to cut would take me at least two hours. I usually set aside at least a day to cut a medium-sized, high value gemstone, say a 2,5 ct emerald like the ones recently pictured in the MinChat newsletter. Some stones have taken me several days, including the planning, cutting, and communication with the customer. 

So, considering the apparent rarity of skilled gem cutters, and the value of exceptional gem rough, don’t be shocked at what you might be quoted for specialised faceting work – after all, without the special cutter, there would be no special gem.