Blue green Moissanite in Bumblebee Design - Jim BudayBlue green Moissanite in Bumblebee Design - Jim Buday

An Interview with Lapidarist Jim Buday

Expert lapidarist Jim Buday shares how he learned to cut gems and created his Reddit subgroup. Read about his new faceting videos on IGS.

18 Minute Read

Jim Buday is a truly modern lapidary. A self-taught expert who has used the Internet and connections made in the virtual world to learn and perfect his craft, Jim has managed to turn casual interest into a successful full-time profession. He started an immensely popular Reddit subgroup that now boasts over 26,000 members, where he and a few other select lapidarists sell their work. The group also serves as a hub of information for hobbyists, collectors, and members of the general public. Most recently, Jim has teamed up with the International Gem Society to create a series of videos, each one demonstrating how he goes about fashioning beautiful, faceted gemstones. He was kind enough to sit with me and discuss his work — past, present, and future — and his new venture with IGS.
Blue green Moissanite in Bumblebee Design - Jim Buday
Blue-green moissanite in a "Bumblebee" design. Photo credit Jim Buday.

What is a Lapidary?

For as long as people have loved gemstones, they have been trying to maximize their beauty. This is where lapidaries or lapidarists come into the picture. For thousands of years, lapidarists have mastered the art of manipulating gems: creating angles and proportions through cutting, grinding, and polishing to improve the overall appearance of stones. 

I began my conversation with Jim Buday by asking him to clarify a foundational point: what is a lapidary?

I think that a lapidary is someone who works with stones, glass, or some other material to be used for something, not even necessarily jewelry. More of an artist than anything else.

This thoughtful sentiment demonstrates how much reverence Jim has for his work. 

Learning the Lapidary Arts

I was very curious how Jim managed to teach himself to be a lapidarist, a process that is not only totally hands-on but also relies on immense precision, using the Internet. He credits YouTube videos and sites like for providing the necessary visual instruction.

I watched some YouTube videos to learn the basics. When I got my first machine, I didn't even know how to read a diagram. I mostly learned by doing. When I encountered a problem, I would look up a solution. There are forums to answer anything that you could ever run into. That is where I learned most of what I know. The community in general is pretty willing to help people.

Thus, even though he was not physically present in a classroom setting with teachers and fellow students, he was and remains deeply connected to other lapidaries and the community at large.  

Learning by Doing

However, Jim stressed that learning the art of gem cutting is not something you can pick up using description alone. Rather, he says a great deal of his education came from practical experience with gems.

I basically just learned by making mistakes for a couple of years. Really, once you learn the basics, it is all practice. Just take your time and be particular about things you want to do well. I think that learning by doing is the best way to do it.

Perhaps because people have been cutting gemstones for so long, Jim states that there are many techniques professionals can use to facet a gem.

I strictly do flat faceting. There are many ways to do that, but, for me, it is using a machine to place very precise, flat facets at angles and orientations to make designs in stone. 

Jim's work up until this point has employed flat faceting, but he is starting to experiment with concave faceting. He describes the process as

an intermediary step between flat faceting and carving. You are still using precise angles and a machine that does precise settings, but instead of cutting on a flat disk, you are cutting essentially on a round drum. The facets are actually curved as opposed to flat. They throw light a little differently. They can brighten up duller stones because of the way that they curve into the stone. It has become very popular in the last couple of years.

Grading Gemstones

While placing specifically oriented facets onto a gem may sound straightforward, Jim cautioned that different gems behave differently when you work with them.

First and foremost, you need to be good at grading. Sometimes you can put it right on the machine and get going, (but) I look for structural problems first. I make sure that there are no cracks. I'm not a gemologist, but you definitely learn about stones very fast and quickly see if they are going to be a problem. For example, I did have to look up a lot of stuff because heat sensitivity is a big deal. Cleavage planes can be a problem with some stones if you hit them just right. So, you do have to be mindful of that stuff. I have gotten a crash course on a wide range of stones pretty quickly. If I do get something new, I will look it up and ask a colleague who has cut one and ask what issues they ran into.

2-ct Natural Untreated Zambian Emerald - Jim Buday
A 2-ct, natural, untreated Zambian emerald. Photo credit Jim Buday.

Do Customers Understand the Limitations of Low-Quality Gems?

One challenge that Jim occasionally faces with clients is a lack of understanding as to how much low-quality stones can benefit from custom faceting.

Sometimes people send me stones to be cut and don't understand the process. They may think that a super-included stone can be cut into something clear and bright. 

What's Jim Buday's Favorite Stone to Cut?

Jim's Reddit page is filled with his custom-cut gems, and you will see everything from Montana sapphire, topaz, and tourmaline to synthetic sapphires, synthetic alexandrite, moissanite, etc. With such a wide repertoire, I asked if he has a favorite stone to cut.

I really do like everything. I would say that I really like doing engagement rings for people, which does lean toward the hardier gemstones like sapphire and moissanite. But I enjoy cutting moissanite as much as a piece of glass, really. I like seeing what you can do with it at the end of the project. Moissanites are a pain to cut, but, design-wise, they are a lot easier to cut because you can do a lot with them. You can do a lot with the optics without worrying about them being windowed or turning out poorly. 

Synthetics, in general, are nice because you don't have to worry about how the color is going to turn out for most of them. You know what you are getting. You don't have to worry about inclusions or stuff like that. So that is nice, but it is fun to cut a natural stone that is one of a kind. No one else will have something similar.

Giant Lab YAG
A giant, lab-created yttrium aluminum garnet (YAG). Photo credit Jim Buday.

Cutting Gems for Engagement Rings

I found it interesting that gems for engagement rings represent such a large part of Jim's business. Buyers are increasingly drawn to designs featuring unique details, so it makes sense that he is asked to custom-cut gems destined for engagement rings. In fact, he says that so many people come to him with engagement ring requests that he now partners with a goldsmith to produce custom settings.

We started doing that full time about a year and a half or two years ago. We are working towards doing more of it in-house so that we can (better) control the timeline. Liss, our Coordinator, has since taken on the enormous task of organizing the setting aspect of the business.

Liss's work allows Jim more time to get back to cutting stones. She helps with coordinating the stone selection as well as the settings.

Cutting Diamonds

Beyond sapphire and moissanite, I asked if Jim has any experience cutting diamonds, as those remain by far the most popular gem for engagement rings globally. He told me a brave soul recently wanted to see if he could cut some lab diamonds into custom designs. He anticipated some problems.

Obviously, the lab diamonds are as hard as the object that I am using to cut (them with), so I am expecting it to be a slow and tedious process. The major problem is the cost of diamonds. (Someone) buys the stone, and then we cut the stone smaller. (That means) someone is paying a lot more for a diamond of that size. So the cost is usually prohibitive. I am about to find out if it works and if people like it enough to send me some.

Unfortunately, it did not work out.

The first thing I found was it took a very long time to make a facet. The biggest issue I had immediately was the diamond heated up very fast, even with a lot of water. This is a big issue with the stone staying on the dop and not moving by melting the wax. The facet was also slightly curved, and I realized this was going to take far longer than I could invest in a single stone, if even possible. I tried prepolishing to see how it would react, and it dented my softer chargeable lap immediately. Sad to say, but diamonds won't be on my list of cutting with my current setup!

What Type of Gemstone Jewelry Sells Well?

Beyond the engagement ring niche, I asked him what else sells well.

Engagement rings are the biggest sellers in terms of keeping the lights on. There is a fair amount of (other) jewelry pieces. Collector pieces are the smallest part of my business. They are few and far between in terms of material that makes a collector's stone. When you do find one, you have to find a specific collector, and (stones) can usually be more expensive.

I then asked Jim how specific his clients' requests are. He said he sees everything from people who have a very clear idea of what they want to those with only a general impression.

People come to me either with a specific request, (such as) 'I want this exact stone in this exact setting,' or 'I want something that is pink and bright.' They may want to improve something that they already have. Or they have a general idea, and then we help them find what is best-suited for the situation. And, of course, work within the budget.

Sometimes people come and say 'I want this particular design in this color' and that is it. Usually (that happens) with synthetics because you can do that and not worry (about devaluing the stone). If I have a natural sapphire that I cut into an 8 mm round, but they want a 6 mm round, it doesn't make sense to cut a thousand dollars off a stone. So, it is a little more tricky with natural stones. I usually will cut a couple — I have a lot of rough on hand — and will pick pieces suited to their requests and try to get as close as possible.

Artistic Gem Cuts

Many of the stones Jim Buday cuts and features on his Reddit page have artistic designs rather than standard shapes. Such stones are described using names like Cleopatra's Eye, Cherenkov's Pool, and D20. I asked if those descriptions were names of specific unconventional cuts, or if they were just casual descriptors. Jim said that such names do indeed reference particular cuts that have been described by the lapidaries who created them. This brought up an interesting question: how many alternations to one of these described cuts is necessary to be considered its own design?

Jim's response was carefully thought out.

That is probably the trickiest part on the artist's side of cutting. If you make your own design, someone can make one very similar, maybe remove a certain number of facets. Is it the same design? Is it their design or your design? There really is no way to determine that. So, things get mixed. A lot of the small cutters try to do their best to credit the original designers if there is something modified. I do that a lot. The Cleopatra's Eye belongs to someone else, but I modified it for the material that I was working with. If it has a name, it is generally a very specific design. Then, you can modify it from there.

1.3-ct D20 Pink Garnet - Jim Buday
A 1.3-ct, D20 pink garnet. Photo credit Jim Buday.

Where Can Lapidarists Find Gem Design References?

I wondered if there are books or databases that contain these unique designs for other lapidaries to reference. Jim replied:

There are several sites. A lot of it is free access. You can find it and download it. You may be able to use it as is, but, in most cases, you have to run it through a CAD program to change it for what you are cutting. Sometimes the size or angle is a little different. But there is a lot of free stuff, and there are books of personal designs that people sell. So, there is a lot out there. You don't have to learn to make designs yourself if you don't want to.

Do Lapidarists Trademark Their Gem Designs?

If lapidarists are publishing their designs, I was curious if anyone trademarks their work. Jim responded in the affirmative.

You can. Usually, the big companies do that. Honestly, they name cuts that already exist so they are more or less copyrighting or trademarking the name, not the cut itself. There are quite a few people out there who will use a design and not credit an author. Or they will claim that it is their specific design, mostly to get sales and stuff like that. So, there is quite a bit of stuff like that going on. Really, the only thing that most cutters prefer is that it not get commercially used, which still happens, but, as long as the design can stay in a small community and not get mass-produced in the tens of thousands, designs stay pretty much safe.

Why Did Jim Buday Start a Reddit Page?

At this point, I was very interested in the details regarding the massively popular Jim Buday Reddit page. Founded just before the pandemic in 2019, the page has just surpassed 26,000 members. I asked Jim why he started the page. He said that it was all about finding buyers.

First, I tried selling on Reddit (but had a hard time being part of other groups). I started my own groupat the suggestion of Lindsey, a critical person in the development of the group. For three or four months, I ran it entirely by myself but quickly got overwhelmed by it. Then (I was luckily joined by) Lindsey, who helped manage the crowd, and we kept expanding from there. We then added Bryan, a computer wizard and sub-member with a decided passion for gems and jewelry, and Liss, a graduate gemologist to produce educational and fun articles.

1.2ct Mexican Fire Opal
A 1.2-ct Mexican fire opalPhoto credit Jim Buday.

From Sales to Community

I asked if the intention behind the group has evolved as it has grown. Jim explained that their vision did, indeed, morph from simply a way to sell his work into something that enriches the community.

We wanted to focus on educational stuff, kind of like IGS, envisioning something more community-based than a store. We didn't just want to post a stone for sale and say 'Here you go.' Instead, we wanted people to understand what they were buying and why they were buying it. We wanted to keep it light-hearted and fun (rather) than just a marketplace. We had a few cutters come in who didn't want to do that. So, they went off and started their own thing.

We first added Michelle Mai (Mvmgems). A newer cutter with exceptional personal designs and a specialty in small stones, she has since cut over 2,000 stones and is in the Somewhere In The Rainbow museum. She is our Garnet Queen of the group.

Then we brought in Arya Akhavan, a very prolific designer very involved in the community. He has YouTube videos on how to cut stuff and is one of the people whom I watched. He is big into odd synthetics and is perhaps the most knowledgeable person I have ever met in terms of gemstones and synthetics.

Then, Arya helped introduce us to Lisa Elser (Lisa Elser-Custom Gems), a world-renowned cutter. We soon brought her in. She's in the Smithsonian, Somewhere In The Rainbow, and Alfie Norville. Bringing her in was very exciting for us because she is the person who has 'made it.' She helped immensely with her expertise.

Keeping the Community Fun

Jim's ambition is palpable, and he clearly enjoys orchestrating fun and educational content that anyone can appreciate. He described games and giveaways that they have posted. Additionally, they have produced fun-themed articles like one published near Halloween regarding haunted gems. 

Best of all, Jim has made sure that the group is open to everyone.

The Sub in general is open to the public. Anyone can view it. Anyone can join. Of course, we maintain people being nice. It's the Internet. There are lots of people who just want to ruin peoples' day. For as many people as we have, it is a very positive community.

With tens of thousands of participants, I asked if he needed to police the group to maintain accurate information and ensure that sellers are honest. This elicited a quick reaction.

We do not let outside vendors sell because we can't verify what they are selling. We have no idea what it is, so we made that choice fairly early on. At first, we tried it, and the one person who was doing it was selling a whole bunch of fake stuff and just didn't care. So, as far as selling goes, it is just the five of us.

The IGS-Jim Buday Partnership

The conversation then pivoted to the videos that Jim is creating in partnership with IGS. He said that they are still in the beginning stage of the process.

I just started doing them. (We) just finished the very first video. I have filmed about five so far and we are still kind of figuring things out at this point. But the first one is over an hour long. Stones take hours to cut, sometimes they take several days, so we are working to consolidate that. I think that I am going to show what I am doing and explain it to kind of teach, but someone would have to know what they were doing to learn anything from the videos.

I just think that it is very interesting to a lot of people that it is a grinding action, not a slicing action. A lot of people ask for leftover pieces, not realizing how the action is done. Diamond is the primary thing embedded in the tools you are using. You are cutting, but in the same way that sandpaper cuts. So, you are grinding down facets. You are not actually slicing anything.

What Will Jim Buday's Videos Cover?

Fortunately, Jim said that anyone can enjoy and learn from these videos. While he does not cover basic terminology or explain the tools that he uses in the videos he has shot so far, they offer a window into the process as a whole. He does, however, plan to film something which contains that foundational information.

Eventually, it will be geared towards the education of a specific material, like 'Here's what you use. Here's what else you can use.' I'll probably throw in some tricks and tips that I have learned the hard way.

What Equipment Do You Need to Start Learning to Facet?

I then asked what types of tools and machines people need to start learning the basics of lapidary work themselves. Jim said that it does require an initial investment to get going.

What is considered the best home setup, and this is always debatable, is Ultra Tec. Their machines are really good, and they have customer support now. Those start at about $4,500. To get started with a really good setup, you are anywhere between $6,000-$10,000. 

Jim then added a note of caution.

A lot of people try to go with used machines, but you usually run into so many problems with them. They don't cut accurate stones. You really need a professional grade (machine). Even the old machines sell for thousands of dollars. Especially Ultra Tec, because they can be refurbished and there are still parts available. There are a couple of very bad companies out there that have machines for $1,500-$2,000. But they are not even worth the paper the money is printed on. They are just terrible machines. I did the same thing and realized quickly I was out-cutting the machine. I couldn't repeat things, stuff was moving. And when you are looking at fractions of a millimeter, it is impossible to do that on something that is not accurate.

Computer Control or Gem Cutting by Hand?

I asked to what extent these machines operate by computer versus by hand.

You basically need a motorized flat disk if you want to do flat faceting. But then, there are multiple ways to adjust the stone when cutting. So, there are hand pieces. There is a jam peg. There is a mast style, which is the most accurate way to do fine precision cutting. Everything will have a motorized flat disk. Mast is a specialized protractor for angles and orientations. It is very accurate. We are talking fractions of a millimeter. You still need to have the hand skills to apply the right amount of pressure and use a loupe to check things. So, you need a very good machine. However, you also need to be good yourself and know what you are doing with polishing and cutting to have a product turn out very well.

The Future for Lapidarists?

I wanted to conclude by asking Jim how he views the future for lapidarists like himself. Many gems today, especially diamonds, are cut using automated processes and carefully calibrated lasers. I wondered if Jim feels threatened by this emerging technology.

You can really see a difference (in a stone where) someone has gone over each facet by hand, as opposed to a machine cut. But you do have the cost for all of the additional time. But it does have its place. We have had no shortage of requests for quite a few years now, so it seems like it is a very strong market if people know that you (the lapidarist) exist.

2.7-ct Unheated Bicolor MT Sapphire custom oval
A 2.7-ct, unheated, bi-color Montana sapphire. Photo credit Jim Buday.

Emily Frontiere

Emily Frontiere is a GIA Graduate Gemologist. She is particularly experienced working with estate/antique jewelry.

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