You can cut gems!

Most people admire gems but it never occurs to them that they could cut them. They assume it is a task for specialists and way beyond the capabilities of ordinary people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The processes are simple and the equipment is simple. It is quiet, mess-free and an ideal home-based activity for those who want a rewarding hobby. In addition you get the satisfaction of making something beautiful which everyone will admire plus a real sense of achievement. This website aims to give you all the information you need.

Here are some important first facts.

  • Gem-cutting is no more expensive or time consuming than wood-turning, pottery or golf.
  • There are about 142 natural gem materials, most can be faceted.
  • There are about 4,500 faceted gem designs ranging from the simple to the complex.
  • All of the gem designs are available in a database you can have on your computer.
  • New designs are being created all the time. You could create new designs.
  • You will only ever find a few of these cuts in jewellers shops.
  • With experience you can cut a small, simple gem in about 4 hours
  • There is an important role for the craft gem-cutter.
  • There is an international community of gem-cutters on the Internet helping each other.
  • You could become a Master Cutter.
  • You could take part in International Gem-Cutting Competitions.
  • You could become a commercial gem-cutter.
  • You could build an amazing collection of valuable and highly desirable rare gems.
  • The UK Facet Cutters’Guild exists to help you to learn and enjoy gem-cutting.

There is nothing especially difficult about faceting. The thing which counts most is the ability to work carefully and precisely and to follow through the steps logically. it is just like any other craft really. There are excellent cutters in their eighties and very young cutters too. Machines are available for both left and right hand use. There are many cutters with some physical handicap or some other disadvantage whose enthusiasm has enabled them to accommodate their particular difficulties.

The Guild demonstrates faceting at many of the Rock, Gem, Mineral, Fossil and Lapidary Fairs which take place all around Britain. A comprehensive calendar of events can be viewed in The Office and this includes information as to which will include a demonstration. It is normally possible at these events to take a turn at the machine under the supervision and instruction of the demonstrator. Even a brief experience imparts a good deal of understanding of the process.

The laps are perfectly safe to touch even when in motion on the machine. The coarsest diamond laps will slowly remove skin if the finger is held on the lap while it rotates and sustained contact could produce a graze which may prove to be sore. The finer laps have very little effect on the fingers. It would require a determined effort to create a sore finger on these. Finger nails will wear more quickly than skin. Jewellery is most likely to be accidentally damaged. Rings and bracelets etc should be removed before working with laps.

  • A machine. This can be either new or second hand. If new it may come with all accessories. If second hand there may be items missing which will need replacing.
  • A set of dops. These are the metal rods which will hold the stone in the machine
  • A 45° dop adaptor also known as a table dop.
  • A set of laps, these are the grinding discs and polishing disks. There are many, many types. You will work out your own preferences. They need to be treated with care and stored in their packs. Buy new if you can, old discs may be contaminated.
  • A directional lamp for close illumination of work.
  • Dopping wax melted into a small container. This is used to fix the rough stone to the dops.
  • A transfer jig for transferring the stone from the pavilion dop to the crown dop.
  • A “Loupe”which is a small magnifying glass. The power should be 10X. Buy the best you can afford to minimize optical distortion. Some people like to use an Optivisor which is like very high power spectacles.
  • You will also need a good supply of mentholated spirits and acetone for cleaning. Squares of chamois leather for wiping the stone while cutting is the best. Kitchen towel for general cleaning purposes.
  • A Trim Saw which is a small thin bladed diamond saw will be very useful for cutting rough to size and shape.
  • A mini gas torch for heating dops with some degree of precision.
  • A carat scale for weighing stones.
  • Measuring calipers for accurately sizing stones.
  • Storage boxes, trays, drawers etc. to keep all the small items in order.

In common with most other crafts like photography, woodturning, pottery etc. some outlay is necessary to get going. The essential item is a machine. These can be picked up as second hand bargains from time to time and usually show a good saving. A new machine can cost between £1,300 and £3,000 but old second hand machines would usually cost between £200 and £750. You will also need some grinding laps in different degrees of grit size and also a polishing lap or laps. You may get some with an old machine but it is best to buy new to be sure they are uncontaminated. This would cost between £60 and £200 depending on number and type. You will need some material to cut. This need not be expensive. Most beginners get their initial experience on pieces of quartz which is inexpensive.

If you buy second hand machine, check the bearings to make sure that any play in the bearings is minimal. Old American machines will probably need to be run from a 110 volt transformer. Run the machine and listen to the bearings. If he machine has not been used for some time they may be dry and need lubrication. A well maintained machine should run pretty quietly. Machines can be either left or right hand. Take advice first as to which hand you will prefer to use to hold the stone while cutting. Most pictures of machines show the water reservoir and the splash pan around the grinding laps. What they don’t show is where the water goes. It drains down a plastic tube behind the machine, so you need an ample bottle or reservoir to catch the watery slurry. Don’t pour this slurry down the sink, the mineral sediment will block your pipes eventually. Pour it on the garden. The machine should normally be equipped with the following

  • A mast
  • A head with one index wheel
  • A water reservoir with drip feed
  • A transfer jig
  • A set of dops
  • A set of Allen keys or spanners
  • A 45 degree adaptor

There are several most useful books and videos. The Guild librarian maintains a loan library available to members at a nominal charge to cover post and packing etc. The principle books are “Gem Cutting” by Sinkankas and “Faceting for Amateurs” by Vargas. Back copies of the Guild’s newsletter are also available and form a comprehensive reference on all matters faceting. The full list is available from the Guild.

Most faceters practicing today started independently from scratch and taught themselves. They began before any support organisation existed. Most did not even know there were other faceters in the country. They did their own research and with the help of books found their own way forward. It is still possible to make one’s own way but it can save a lot of time, mistakes and heartache to have a friend, teacher, mentor or whatever to provide help and advice. The members of the Guild provide this support where it is needed.

No! There are many good faceters who have worked it out for themselves, read the books or just figured it out by trial and error. But you can waste a lot of time and cutting material by doing it that way. Someone to help and guide you will save a lot of hassle and you will make progress very much faster.

Faceting is ideal as a rewarding hobby for the home environment. As long as space can be found to place the machine that is about all the room that is needed. The machines are quiet and mess free so there is not liable to be a great deal of disruption or disturbance. Most faceters do work in their homes although some enjoy the luxury of a workshop.

No, you only need a few feet of bench length. The average machine is less than 2 feet long. Allow a bit of space for things placed either side of it you could get away with 4 or 5 feet. You will need some storage shelving or drawers (or both) to cope with the bits you don’t need all the time.

Whilst there is considerable potential for sales of well cut designer/craftsman stones relatively few cutters have the commercial flair to make a business of it. Those that do have a commercial bent provide a valuable service to the trade. Some have gold or silversmithing skills and make jewellery. Other cutters have different motives. There are those who particularly enjoy cutting for competitions. There a numerous competitions around the world which cutters can enter and hopefully carry off prizes. Some cutters have a passion for a particular type of stone, others want to cut an example of every stone and create a marvellous collection. Some like to cut very large “showstoppers”, others like to cut replicas of the famous gems in history such as the Kohinoor, the Orloff or the Southern Star to make a brave display. Others marry gem cutting with other hobbies such as photography, geology, etc. Others just love cutting gems.

The answer is a very positive yes. In the first place you will be very popular with friends and relations who will expect not to have to pay. Do not expect to get a rapturous welcome from your local jewellers or goldsmiths. They already buy mass produced or native cut stones at very low prices. Of course they are cut to a much lower standard of craftsmanship than your stones but they do not care because their customers do not seem to care. Experience has shown that they expect to pay you a low price too. It is possible to find customers at sensible prices but this comes down to your native talent in finding such customers.

It varies with a number of factors.

  • The bigger the stone the longer it takes. It is the problem that volume increases as the cube of the linear dimension.
  • Harder stones take more work and time than softer ones. Sapphires are hardness 9 (diamond is 10), whereas quartz is hardness 7. The stones useful for finger rings need to be of harder and more durable material. Collector stones such as fluorite or cassiterite may be much softer but bring other problems such as sensitivity to heat or liability to sudden cleavage and therefore need much care which adds to the cutting time.
  • The degree of precision in cutting will affect the time taken. High precision cutting would expect to bring all facets to a perfect meet and to cut the overall dimensions of the stone to an accurate size e.g. to one tenth of a millimeter of stated size.
  • The required degree of perfection of the final polish. It will take time to remove all scratches and blemishes.
  • The design may be complex with lots of facets. The more facets there are, the more time it will take.
  • The coarseness or fineness of the grinding laps will affect the rate at which material is removed. New laps will cut quicker than old and worn ones. If the laps are rotating quickly, they will cut more quickly.
    It can be seen from the above that a very high quality craftsman cut stone will take considerably more time than a simple mass-production or native-cut commercial stone. A number of experienced cutters claim to be able to cut a 5mm standard round brilliant in about 4 hours but the subject of time to complete cuts is a continuing debate amongst cutters.

Membership of UKFCG will put you in contact with many competent cutters who would be most happy to help you learn all about this fascinating craft. You would also have the benefit of Stonechat, the UKFCG newsletter which is published 6 times a year. This contains valuable information and cutting designs each issue. It is well worth getting the back copies of the newsletter to gain access to an ever increasing body of knowledge. It is also possible to make contact with other cutters via local mineral and lapidary clubs.

The world of gem cutting divides into two parts, those who cut diamonds and those who cut coloured stones. Diamond cutting is quite specialist. Coloured stone cutters have the best of it though because they have such a wonderful variety of stones to work on, ranging from emeralds, sapphires, tourmaline, topaz etc. all the way through to very rare, exotic and beautiful stones, far rarer than diamond, such as Taafeite, Benitoite, etc. Also the coloured stone cutters have over 4,000 cut designs available to them whilst the diamond cutters confine themselves to a relatively few designs.

All of the machines available on the market at present are of excellent quality and are engineered with precision by people who know about gemcutting. It comes down to personal preference and the depth of the pocket. Although cutters tend to favour the machine they start with or learn on, experience has shown that equally good result can be obtained from most machines. Many cutters say that the important bit in accurate cutting is the cutter, not the machine.

There are many makes of machine from all over the world. Most however come from the USA. Gemcutting for everyman is pre-eminent in the USA. Most of the makers are long established and are continually revising and improving their machines so that many of their older models may be obtained second hand. There are some used machines available by companies who have now ceased trading so that spares are not easily available. Addresses and contact details may be found in the Supplier Directory in the Library.

Alpha Taurus USA
American Facetor USA
Facetron USA
Diamante USA
Edus Germany
Facette USA
Graves USA
Hughes Australia
Imahashi Japan
Prismatic USA
Raytech Shaw USA
UltraTec USA

Some cutters know very little about gemmology without it affecting their enjoyment of cutting. However, a knowledge of gemmology and gem design greatly enhances the enjoyment which can be derived from cutting gem and other crystals. Experience has shown that as people get more involved in the pleasures of cutting, they are motivated to study the relevant aspects of gemmology more deeply.