An Introduction to the Lapidary Arts


Step 1: Introduction to Gemology

Lesson 12

Summary
Lapidary is the art of working in stone. However, the word usually refers to the creation of small objects from gem materials (not large objects like Michelangelo’s statues). There are four basic lapidary arts: tumbling, cabbing, faceting, and carving.
Reading time: 4 min 38 sec
lapidary arts - gem animal carvings
All of these animal figures were carved from gem materials. How many can you identify? (Those familiar with the Gem Society gem listings might recognize the hippo). For the answers, visit “Gem Animals.” Photo by Adrian Pingstone. Public Domain.

Other lapidary techniques include combining gem materials to create inlays and assembled gemstones as well as suiseki rock artistry. In this guide, we’ll introduce the four basic fields. You can learn more about each of these lapidary arts in the Fundamentals of Lapidary series.

Tumbling

The simplest form of lapidary, gemstone tumbling requires minimal equipment. You put rough gem material into a tumbler, a revolving barrel with abrasives. Progressively finer abrasives are used until the gem obtains a polish. This process closely resembles what happens to rocks in a stream or on the beach. However, tumbling produces much higher polish levels.

Ideal for children and a great family pastime, it’s a great way to work stones collected on family vacations or rock hunting. Plus, the results are sensational! You can also purchase inexpensive settings and turn tumbled stones into jewelry pieces. They make wonderful homemade gifts.

lapidary arts - tumbling rocks
“Tumbling Rocks” by steviep187. Licensed under CC By-ND 2.0.

Cabbing

Cabbing or cabochon cutting is probably the most common form of lapidary arts. Cabochons or “cabs” are gems cut with a flat bottom and a curved or domed top. If you’ve seen opal or turquoise jewelry, you’ve probably seen cabs.

lapidary arts - turquoise cabochon
“Big Teardrop Turquoise Necklace” by Amelia Isa. Licensed under CC By-ND 2.0.

Cabbing can be profitable. Depending on the gem material you use, cabochons can have significant resale value. Thus, cabbing can make a very rewarding hobby, especially if you cut gems you find yourself. However, cabbing machines do cost more than tumblers. While cabochon cutting is more complex than tumbling, you can become proficient with a little practice. A word of warning: cabbing can be highly addictive!

lapidary arts - cabochon
“Gembones” are dinosaur bones that have fossilized into minerals such as chalcedony and opal. Some of these unusual pieces make excellent material for cabochons. “Pyrite Dinosaur Bone Cab,” orange-red gembone with pyrite, by Jessa and Mark Anderson. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

Faceting

Of all the lapidary arts, gem faceting has the greatest profit potential. If you can imagine a diamond in a typical engagement ring, you’re likely visualizing a faceted gem. Geometrically arranged, flat surfaces typically cover the surface of such a diamond. Each of these flat surfaces is called a facet.

Faceting should bring out the brilliance of a gem. The bottom facets reflect the light entering the stone and return it to the viewer. (Don’t confuse brilliance with dispersion or “fire,” the multicolored flashes you see coming out of diamonds and some other gems).

lapidary arts - faceted diamond
A faceted diamond displays its characteristic dispersion. Photo by James St. John. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

Faceters facet gems on faceting machines. You can find many different kinds for sale. Whether you want to facet gems for fun or profit, prepare to make a significant investment in equipment. When faceting, more so than the other lapidary arts, your equipment quality will affect both your results and your enjoyment.

There are also many kinds of faceters. Faceting is an art, but you don’t need some esoteric “artistic sense” to engage in it. Machinists, engineers, and those with a knack for math often excel at faceting. Many faceters are semi-professionals. They sell enough gems to support their hobby or supplement their income. For those interested in collecting or investing in gems, faceting is by far the most practical lapidary art to learn. The wholesale price of the finished piece almost always exceeds the cost of rough gem material and labor.

Although you can become skilled at faceting with minimal experience, you’ll never run out of new challenges.

lapidary arts - faceted quartz egg
“Highly Faceted Quartz Egg,” from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Credit: Dane A. Penland. Public.Resource.Org. Licensed under CC By 2.0.

Carving

Carving is the most challenging of the lapidary arts. There are very few recognized experts in the field. To succeed at gem carving, you do need a distinctive artistic sense and a thorough understanding of lapidary principles. More so than wood or metal, gem material presents definite limits to what you can carve.

There are several types of gem carving. One of the best known forms is cameo. Gem carvers usually cut them from sea shells or agates. However, almost any material may work. Cabochons are often carved, too. If the design is cut into the top of a cab, it’s called an intaglio or relief carving. If the design is carved on the back, it’s a reverse intaglio. Some carvings aren’t designed to be used in jewelry. Carvers cut these stand-alone carvings simply for their beauty.

lapidary arts - carving
Since ancient times, gem carvers have created highly prized cameos and intaglios. “Intaglio of a Roman Soldier in Hematite,” with hematite cabochons, by greyloch. Licensed under CC By-SA 2.0.

About the author
Donald Clark, CSM IMG
Donald Clark, CSM founded the International Gem Society in 1998. Donald started in the gem and jewelry industry in 1976. He received his formal gemology training from the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) and the American Society of Gemcutters (ASG). The letters "CSM" after his name stood for Certified Supreme Master Gemcutter, a designation of Wykoff's ASG which has often been referred to as the doctorate of gem cutting. The American Society of Gemcutters only had 54 people reach this level. Along with dozens of articles for leading trade magazines, Donald authored the book "Modern Faceting, the Easy Way."
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