Once upon a short time ago, all faceted and cabbed gemstones displayed traditional shapes specific to each discipline. Most faceted stones featured a round brilliant cut or some variation. Most cabochons featured domed geometric shapes, either ovals, squares, or circles. But along came some enterprising lapidaries who not only started combining faceting and cabbing techniques but also added peculiar conceits to gems, such as channels, tunnels, plateaus, steps, and dish effects. These innovations, known as fantasy cutting, caught on in the gem cutting world. Now, many modern lapidaries are pushing the envelope with unique cutting styles and effects.
fantasy gem designs - Bernd Munsteiner

German gem cutter Bernd Munsteiner really got fantasy gem designs started. His unique, visually pleasing geometric creations helped fantasy cuts gain acceptance. Yellow gold ring with an amethyst cut by Bernd Munsteiner. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and Dr. Fischer Fine Art Auctions.

Cutting Fantasy Gem Designs

How do you cut these severely geometric Munsteiner or fantasy cuts? Well, it’s actually easier than traditional faceting or cabbing. Here’s the basic process.

Select and Shape Your Gem Material

It’s better to cut softer materials, because many of the intricate patterns in fantasy cutting can be difficult to pre-polish and polish. Shape it by hand on a coarse wheel or lap. (Coarse means never more than 180 grit).

After cutting the broad, flat facets and lines of the shape, and before adding the exquisite channels and other embellishments, many gem cutters proceed directly to pre-polish and then polish. This half-step gives you an attractive finished stone appearance, but it may appear somewhat plain.

True a Silicon Carbide Wheel

silicon carbide wheelOnce you achieve the basic shape, true a silicon carbide wheel’s edges with a diamond dresser tool. This will ensure you can cut sharp right angles. These are vital for cutting channels and other optical conceits for fantasy cutting.

Once you’ve shaped the stone and trued your wheel, you’re ready to start fantasy cutting.

Impart Artistic Elements to the Stone

You’ll add conceits or embellishments to the top and bottom surfaces of the stone. These artistic elements can include some of the following:

  • ”V” shaped channels cut singularly or in series along with convex and concave curves
  • Flat areas or “plateaus”
  • Stepped flats (also called “rice paddies”)
  • Round and circular optical indentions (called “optical dishes” by famed New England gem cutter Michael Dyber)
  • Folding and flowing curtain-like patterns (like those of Texas gem cutter Larry Woods)

In short, the embellishments consist of whatever you can imagine.

Dyber and Woods - fantasy gem designs

These imaginatively cut gems by Dyber and Woods vividly display the range and creativity lapidaries can achieve by combining faceting and cabbing methods.

Most of these elements are cut on the sharp or uniquely dressed edges of the silicon carbide wheel. Although diamond wheels are superb for fast roughing and finishing, they’re near useless for channeling and plateauing. Why is that? Simply because you can’t dress diamond wheels, and most of them have no side edges to work with.

This is where lapidaries begin applying their true creative skills. When cutting and/or channeling the gem on the squared, dressed edge of a silicon carbide wheel, they can create a deep channel with 45º sides in a single, continuous motion. If they were to cut the channel through a series of addresses to the wheel, that would introduce “planing,” which is virtually impossible to polish later. Of course, lapidaries can cut multiple channels, often parallel, but each one is cut in a single, continuous motion.

Finish or Frost

Finally, you’ll apply a fine finish to all the cut edges. However, you might decide to leave some surfaces unpolished or “frosted.” This will create surface contrast. The frosted areas will stand out against the more reflective surfaces. This technique works best with quartz, which frosts easily.

Gem cutters usually do the refining, pre-polishing, and polishing with small wheels, sanders, polish bearing sticks, etc.

fantasy gem designs - sky blue topaz

Fantasy cut Swiss Blue topaz by Brett Kosnar, 15.10 cts. Photo courtesy of liveauctioneers.com and Jasper52.

Fantasy Gem Designs vs Traditional Optics

What’s behind fantasy cutting’s apparent indifference to traditional optics, this shift in emphasis from internal to external dramatization? Fantasy cutting tries to maximize the enhancement of surface reflections, scintillation (also known as “twinkle”), texture properties, and surface light play to bring visual interest to gemstones in new and different shapes. 

Traditional optics in faceting emphasizes brilliance or brightness, the return of white light from the gemstone to the viewer. However, brilliance’s impact varies inversely with distance. A gemstone’s brightness virtually disappears when you view it from more than two feet away. On the other hand, you can recognize shape and light variations from up to ten feet away. That’s the unavoidable truth behind the fantasy cutter’s visually pleasing embellishments. You can see and appreciate a Munsteiner-style gemstone from a much greater distance than the brilliance of a traditionally faceted gemstone.

fantasy cut quartz

Brazilian quartz, octagonal cut with a star carving by Tom Munsteiner, 10.03 cts. © The Gem Trader. Used with permission.

Fantasy Cutting vs Traditional Cutting

I could say more about fantasy cutting techniques, but it’s really not necessary at this point. Simply cut a shape, apply embellishments to the surface, and polish the whole thing. You’ll have a finished fantasy cut stone.

More likely than not, the gemstone will never leave your hands while you’re working. With good reason, many gem cutters do fantasy cutting without dopping (attaching the gem to a stick with wax or glue to hold more securely). Your fingertips give you greater and more precise control of a stone than the dop.

The equipment cost is also minimal. It’s easier to shape and refine the stone with small diamond abrasive tools, wheels, etc. Indeed, some gifted lapidaries use inexpensive lathes to make their own cutting tools out of wood, plastic, buttons, metal dowels, etc.

Gem Carving Differs from Fantasy Cutting

Keep in mind that fantasy cutting is an extension of advanced cabochon cutting. Gem carving and sculpting represents a completely different discipline. Many excellent carvers and sculptors create magnificent gemstone creations, often using lapidary optical tactics. However, these aren’t fantasy cuts.

Further Reading

To learn more about the lapidary arts, read about these other techniques.

Here are some Frequently Asked Questions about Gem Cutting.