Can You Make a Living Cutting Gems?
How much and how fast do you have to work if you want to make a living cutting gems? Jeff Graham has some advice for those who want to enter the business.
7 Minute Read
I've heard several people claim on more than one occasion that they've cut well over 10,000 stones in the last decade or so. Well, on my last fishing trip, I caught a fish so big it sunk the boat and I had to swim home.
If you're a newcomer to gem faceting, don't let these numbers scare you. Let's apply some simple math to these "fish stories" and figure out how many stones the average gem faceter can reasonably expect to cut in a day, a week, and a year.
How Long Does it Take to Cut 10,000 Stones?
Yes, I've heard even higher claims, but let's start with 10,000 stones. Let's divide 10,000 stones by 365 (the number of days in a year). 10,000 ÷ 365 = 27.39. So, if a person cuts one stone a day, every day without exception, for 27.39 years, they'll cut 10,000 stones.
Cutting 10,000 stones in 27.39 years is pretty optimistic. Like the gem designer and mathematician Fred Van Sant used to say, "Looks like an imaginary number to me."
Nobody cuts seven days a week, year after year, without a break. Illnesses, the demands of family and business, and just life in general will always intervene. 10,000 stones in a decade or so? That sounds fishy to me. Could someone cut that amount over the course of a lifetime career? Maybe, but that's still an awful lot of cutting for one person.
Let's consider a more realistic pace: two stones a day for five days a week. (Realistic, yes, but I still wouldn't want to do it). 52 weeks a year × 5 days a week = 260 work days a year (not counting holidays, sick days, and so on). 10,000 stones ÷ 520 stones a year = 19.23 years to cut 10,000 stones.
What if you cut three stones a day for five days a week? The time it takes to cut 10,000 stones drops to 12.82 years. However, this is a pretty unlikely pace, especially if you're cutting a variety of gem materials, sizes, and designs to quality, 10X loupe standards — not down and dirty commercial-cut 18-facet stones.
Can You Cut a Gemstone in One Hour?
Yes, I've seen people cut a stone in an hour and have done it myself. However, when people cut a stone in an hour, there are a few things going on that need to be clarified.
Small Stones of Material That is Easy to Work
These stones are generally small, not a 16 mm piece of quartz, for example. The materials are also easy to work with. There are no cutting problems with the rough, like flaws, directional hardness, chips, etc. Such problems eat up more time.
The designs used for speed cutting have a low number of facets — under 65, typically under 40, but certainly not 100 or more — and are usually easy enough to memorize. Looking at a set of cutting instructions really slows things down. New designs that a person has never cut obviously take longer.
The designs being speed cut have high symmetry. No ovals, hearts, marquises, pears, or other complicated designs. They require a minimum amount of angle changes. Changing the faceting machine settings slows down the work, especially if the angles aren't simple. For example, setting 42.34° takes longer than 42°.
The finished stones can be reasonably cut. They can have a pretty commercial look (think Bangkok) because of the simple designs and low number of facets. However, speed cutting does affect overall quality. They might have better quality than commercial-cut Bangkok stones but they won't meet a high-quality cut standard.
Dopping and Polishing
In the speed cutting I've witnessed, the one-hour time didn't include dopping. Generally, dopping is fast, especially if yield isn't important. However, as experienced faceters know, if yield is important, dopping isn't a fast process. Lining up the rough to maximize the carat yield can mean a lot of money, depending on the gem material.
The speed-cut stones had no polishing problems. Everyone has had bad polishing experiences, so you know how much this could slow you down. These stones stayed on the dop. If the stone comes off, re-dopping really slows things down, especially if the stone is part-way cut and has to be realigned.
The people doing the speed cutting made no mistakes. No wrong indexing, for example, which takes time to fix.
Do You Actually Want to Speed Cut?
Some people can cut a simple stone in a hour, maybe less. Most can't, and, frankly, I don't know why they would want to. Speed cutters will put out mostly small stones under 2 carats with very simple designs. This will be commercial-quality work, which will mean they'll have to compete with Bangkok stones at $4 to $8 a carat. Speed-cut stones won't be high-quality stones. Commercial-cut and quality-cut stones have different markets. Their cutting styles aren't the same.
So, do you want to compete with the cutting houses in Bangkok?
In my experience, while it's possible to cut a stone in an hour, this isn't something that can be done dependably by a single person. Too many factors can increase your cutting time (like dealing with rough problems), and cutting more complex designs is just out of the question.
Getting back to the figure of 10,000 stones, it's not feasible for anyone to cut that many gems to a high-quality standard, using modern, high-quality designs (not with low numbers of facets), from various types of rough, in the relatively short time frame of a decade… or two or three.
What is a Realistic Output for Quality Gem Cutting?
On average, if you cut five quality meetpoint stones a week, that's quite a lot of cutting. Now, I'm assuming these stones are cut to high-quality standards (sharp meetpoints that meet under a 10X loupe) not jam peg commercial cutting (which is faster, but not that much faster). I'm also assuming that there's only one cutter involved.
Most beginners take 20 hours or more per stone. More advanced cutters probably take 5-10 hours per stone. For very advanced cutters or pros, 2-4 hours is fairly common. (My average is 2-5 hours). Of course, these are averages. Sometimes, you'll go faster or slower depending on the size, type, and design of the gemstone. Some stones are just blessed. They cut well and fast. Others will make you question why you chose to facet in the first place.
I know some people can cut two — maybe even three — high-quality stones with complex designs in a day. I have done this, too, and it was a long, hard day of 10-12 hours straight. A standard work day is 8 hours.
Can anyone cut more than three high-quality stones with complex designs in a day? Maybe. Maybe it can be done with one machine by one person, but not by me. I'd need to see it to believe it. If anyone can, they're certainly the exception, not the rule.
An average of five stones a week is pretty tough for any cutter. Just think of how long it took to cut your last stone. Imagine if you have problems like scratches. Everyone has some problems with cutting and polishing once in a while. Add to that the problems of trying to run a business and trying to make a living.
Can You Make a Living Cutting Gems?
Don't let those claims of people cutting a huge amount of stones scare you. (In most cases, those claims just aren't real). Very few cutters can produce more than a dozen stones a week. However, you don't need to cut a lot of gemstones per week to make a good living faceting, as long as what you're cutting is good quality and worth cutting in the first place.
These two articles can help you choose the right materials:
Let's assume you can cut five stones a week, nice material worth cutting like quartz, tourmaline, and garnet. As finished stones from one to six carats in weight, these can sell from $150 to $500 each. In my experience, this material and range seems ideal. At the low end, in a week, you have five stones to sell for $750 gross. If you only net half (and you'll likely net more), you make $375. Of course, this doesn't count any wear and tear on your laps and other costs, but it's not too bad. You could also gross $2,500 a week, maybe more, depending on what you cut. Most likely, you'll fall somewhere in the middle.
Now remember, the other half of the trick of making a living at this is actually selling the stones you cut. These two articles discuss just that:
You don't need to cut a lot of stones to make a living. Most of the top pros I know don't cut a huge number of stones. However, they do cut consistently. The secret is cutting (and selling) enough of the right types of stones.
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