Belinda Morris talks to renowned and much-admired lapidary John Dyer, one of the speakers at the 2016 Gem-A Conference, about the science and art of gem cutting.
Did you train as a gemmologist or gem cutter?
I loved gems and business from an early age. I was also home-schooled and one of my parents’ strategies for teaching me was to purchase books on subjects I was interested in, so they bought books on gems and gemmology for me (Gem Identification Made Easy by Antoinette Matlins and Antonio C. Bonanno was one of the first) and that stoked my interest.
At 16 I wanted to start in the gem business and my dad said he would help me out. One thing led to another and we ended up going to Zambia to buy gemstones. We bought rough gems instead of cut ones to get a better deal and when we brought them back we took them to a cutter to have them cut. He did a really bad job on them and charged us a lot of money for it.
This resulted in us getting mad and buying a faceting machine because, as my father said: “We can do that well, or better, ourselves, and cheaper too!” This all turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it helped us to discover that I love to cut gems. So although the gems we bought on that trip were not super profitable in the end, it started us in the direction of what has now become the focus of our business - high quality and creative gem-cutting.
I never had any formal training. There were no lapidaries interested in teaching near me that I knew of, and as far as gemmology goes I mainly learned from books and practical experience. I would consider myself a far better cutter than gemmologist, but I do have certain practical, applicable gemmological techniques which help me when purchasing rough. Rough is almost easier to ID than cut gems, because you often still have the crystal habit, visible cleavage planes and more inclusions and other factors to help identify a gem and potential treatments it may have undergone.
Does the stone influence your design or do you choose the stone based on a particular cutting style that you want to see?
The shape, colour and clarity of the rough are the main considerations in choosing the cut I am going to do. Usually I buy the best rough I can find and then cut to what I feel is best suited to it. There are times when I don’t buy a piece because I feel the shape and size it could cut would not have good marketable appeal, but other than that I pretty much let the rough dictate to me what it wants to be (that’s within certain limitations of marketability and visual appeal, of course).
That challenge that each gem represents - trying to bring out its maximum potential - is one of the things I most enjoy about cutting. There are so many considerations that go into it and for the most part all those decisions are made on the fly as I saw and preform (pre-shape) the gem for dopping and faceting or carving.
What is your favourite stone to work with and do you have a preferred design for it?
My favourite gem to work with is aquamarine since it comes in reasonably large and clean gems, is easy to polish and has great transparency so it is well suited to a wide variety of different cutting styles. Also, since it isn’t dark, it shows the cut well instead of hiding it like some extra dark gems do.
There are sometimes cutting styles I prefer for specific gems; those with high dispersion (e.g. zircon) do better with flat faceted cuts than with concave facets or carving, since those tend to reduce the dispersion. Other gems with low dispersion I love to cut with concave facets or carving styles since they can increase the brilliance. It’s all part of the decision making process when deciding what to cut a specific piece or rough into.
You use many less well-known gemstones, do you find that this increases the public’s awareness of these stones, highlighting how beautiful they can be?
As far as using ‘less well-known’ gems go I find that the market is much more accepting of a wide range of gems than in the past. TV shopping has introduced many strange gem types to a large public audience and a certain percentage of that public has gone on to learn a lot about gems and become educated and sophisticated buyers. This, coupled with how expensive the ‘traditional’ gems have become, has really opened a wide door to the lesser known gems.
That being said though, most of the gems I cut are still within the parameters of what is familiar to most jewellers - aquamarine, beryl, morganite, citrine, amethyst, ametrine, garnet of all kinds, sapphires, emerald, ruby, peridot, tourmaline (all colours), spinel and zircon make up most of my inventory.
Sometimes I will do a very rare gem, such as bicolour spessartite, phenakite, oligoclase or similar, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
What do you endeavour to reveal in stones?
Essentially what I am looking to reveal is the full potential for beauty that is in each piece of rough. So much labour goes into the searching for and mining of gem rough that I feel it should be cut in a manner that respects its true rarity and uniqueness. But at the same time some sacrifices of size and weight will need to be made for the gem to achieve its maximum beauty. That is the goal that I aim for.
What do you look for when selecting a piece of rough?
When selecting rough I look at the size, shape and clarity of each piece. I also take into account the value of the finished piece because there is a lot of labour involved in our cutting and if the finished value of the gem is too low we will not recoup our labour costs. For that reason there are some pieces of rough that are cool and pretty but I just can’t buy them because they won’t generate a profit.
Do you travel to mines around the world to procure your own rough or do you often buy at shows?
I have travelled to various countries in search of gems. My most valuable gem (my wife) is Brazilian from the state of Paraíba so the search has paid off! However, gems are often found in very small quantities and a trip direct to the mines can be a fruitless affair since there might not be any production for months at a time. This often results in my needing to buy from middlemen of some kind. Over the years we have formed relationships with a number of rough suppliers who bring us a variety of rough, that it would have been very hard to have access to on our own. After all, cutting is a time consuming business and if I spent all my time running about after rough I wouldn’t get much cutting done.
Have you had any major cutting catastrophes?
Major cutting catastrophes are something you like to put out of your mind, but there have been a number of them over the years. There was the kilo of pink tourmaline rough we heated without grinding clean first and broke almost all of it. There was a bixbite (red beryl) from Utah that cost us thousands of that we hoped to get over a carat’s worth of finished cut stone out of it, but it shattered due to internal stress and we ended up with three very small gems from it. There was the imperial topaz that I was carving and got too hot and broke it in half… and many other gems that have broken during carving, or been chipped or something similar. Over 20 plus years of cutting there are a lot of things like that which happen.
Talk us through the process of one of your famous cuts such as the Super Trillion™. What’s the process of cutting a gem in this way? How long does it take to cut some of your most famous designs??
The Super Trillion™ is all flat faceted and is an adaptation of a cut that was explained to me by Chris Remen (now deceased) which over time I tweaked to make a number of improvements to. The result is a semi-traditional looking trillion which I feel is super. Since it has so many facets it is very time-consuming to cut. How long it takes depends completely on the type of material and the size of the gem but it usually takes a day or longer to complete.
A 26.11 ct Citrine Super TrillionTM. Photo by John Dyer
Do you have any advice for people who want to take up lapidary?
To take up lapidary as a hobby, the best thing to do is search for a local lapidary club. Often there will be retired members who will teach cutting for a very reasonable price and this often allows you to avoid the initial relatively high cost of the machinery and supplies. For those who want to make this a profession, I would recommend studying the market to be sure that it is really what they want to do… because it is not the easiest thing to make money at.
You need to be a skilled cutter (something that often takes five years or more to accomplish) and make large investments in raw materials if you are going to sell your own gems. If you don’t sell your own gems, you are going to need to find a niche market for your cutting services and be very fast if you expect to make money because much of the gem trade is used to Asian pricing on gem cutting and that is hard to compete against until you educate your clientele about the difference in look and quality. That means a lot of outreach and marketing is involved.
You’ve won many awards for your work; which means the most to you?
The award that means the most to me is the first place I took recently at the German Award for Jewellery and Precious Stones Idar-Oberstein 2015. This is one of my favourite competitions, but the fact that you have to adhere to a theme makes it more complicated. You might have a perfectly beautiful idea for a gemstone cut, but it must go with the theme to win. The theme in 2015 was ‘Light My Fire’, so I thought that an orange gem would fit well with the idea of fire. With this in mind, I searched through my stock of rough and selected a deep orange citrine, which, once ground clean, was a flame shape. Despite this it was still a challenge to decide what to do with the underside of the gem to make it look like fire. However, an idea came to me to execute a pattern that I had never done or seen before and which required an adaptation of my existing machinery and techniques - the result is a gem with a flame shape, but which also has little flame-shaped internal facets on the back which reflect light individually with varying intensities so that they look like flames shooting upwards as the gem is moved.
Where do you see yourself going with your talent? What’s next for you in the lapidary world?
It might not be super romantic, but I guess what I see is gradually improving what I already do and adding new styles and techniques to that. As a result of this I feel that each year our gems are better cut, more beautiful and more saleable. ■
To view John Dyer's work click here
This article originally appeared in Gems&Jewellery Sept/Oct 2016 / Volume 25 / No. 5 pp. 28-32
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