by Richard W. Wise, G.G. ©2003
The art of lapidary developed over a long period. As early as the 4th century BC, certain of the softer gem materials were polished to improve their luster and transparency. Gradually, methods were developed to improve and perfect the natural shape of harder crystalline gemstones. Early writers noted that the more perfect the natural crystal, the more beautiful the stone. As technology advanced, the next logical step was to tinker with the angle of the crystal faces, and with that the art of faceting was born! This development took a long time, as crystalline gemstones are, generally speaking, rated seven or harder on the Moh’s scale (steel is rated between six and six and one half). The technology necessary to cut diamond, for example, did not exist prior to the fourteenth century.
The evolution of the modern brilliant cut, the ubiquitous round diamond that has become the indispensable first step in the matrimonial mating dance, began when some enterprising lapidary sawed the point off a natural bipyramidal diamond crystal, thus creating the table cut. Over the centuries, the focus of gem cutting had continually narrowed so that by the beginning of the last century, lapidary arts were concerned almost exclusively with cutting gemstones to maximize the stone’s refractive qualities--what we call brilliance.
In the early 1980s a new concept in gem cutting was introduced to the American market by the German master lapidary Bernd Munsteiner. Called "Munsteiner’s" or "Fantasy Cuts", these gemstones were fashioned with asymmetrical outlines and faceting patterns that more resembled optical sculptures than settable gemstones. Though sneered at by conservatives, innovative designers and consumers embraced Munsteiner's fantasy cuts and these oddball cuts sold, and sold well. The market was hungry for something new. Though unrecognized at the time, a revolution had begun! This signaled a cutting renaissance, and the only major change in the objective of gem cutting in the four hundred years since the cabochon gave way to the Point cut.
In the past two decades a whole generation of new cutters has emerged. I say "new cutters" for lack of a better term. These are craft artists whose objective is not the cutting of a well-made brilliant stone, but the making of a work of art. The technologically advanced Germans, originally the leaders of this movement, have, since the early nineties, been surpassed by a group of mostly self-taught Americans who, in a burst of exuberant creativity, have thrust themselves into the forefront of this cutting renaissance. Artist-cutters like Michael Dyber, Glenn Lehrer, Steve Walters and Larry Winn, to name a few, have shown that America is still the world’s leader in innovation.
Given recent history, it is natural to conclude that this lapidary renaissance had its roots in Germany. But, this would be incorrect! Creative cutting began in the early 1940's. The father of the New Cutting was not a German, but an unassuming American pioneer by the name of Francis J. Sperisen.
Francis Sperisen (1900-1986) was a lapidary active in the San Francisco bay area from the 1920s into the 1970s. In the early 1920’s, he opened his shop at 166 Geary Street after working as an apprentice for four years at Moser Brothers, a local lapidary firm. Sperisen was a self-taught faceter.
In 1939-40, Sperisen began an artistic collaboration with Margaret De Patta, a metalsmith who is today considered the doyenne of American Art-Jewelers. San Francisco was, at this time, a hotbed of innovative handcraft. Sperisen worked with De Patta, cutting unusual gemstones to complement her metalwork. De Patta was, herself, a student of the Constructivist artist and founder of Chicago's New Bauhaus, Laszlow Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy, an important Hungarian born artist, is known for his interest in light. He created large shiny metal sculptures that were always exhibited under strong lighting.
De Patta called these
unusual stones "opticuts." Although most writers give her sole
credit for the concept, the evidence suggests that De Patta's pieces were the result of a true
collaboration between jeweler and lapidary. And, like many of the
great artistic partnerships, it is difficult to determine where De Patta's
concept ends and Sperisen’s influence begins. According to
Sperisen's son, Richard, De Patta knew nothing about lapidary or the optical possibilities inherent in gemstones. She would bring Sperisen
models (often made of opaque metal or balsawood), to show the shapes she
wanted to complement her metalwork. Sperisen would then experiment with the optical potential inherent in the shapes. However, statements
by De Patta strongly suggest that though she may not have fully understood the craft of the lapidary, she possessed a very
understanding of both the history and objectives of the lapidary arts.
This photo taken by Margaret De Patta also included her handwritten description on a sheet attached to the photograph: “Flat topped crystal with four back facets converging on center facet (culet), which is parallel to top. Two facets polished, two frosted. Black enamel beneath tiny bottom plane (culet) gives effect of extended perspective.”
We can trace
a direct link from the radical innovations of Francis Sperisen and Margaret De Patta to the work of some of the most important contemporary
The New Cutters may be roughly divided into two groups: faceters and carvers. I say roughly because often one artist will work in both disciplines. Faceters such as Michael Dyber, Larry Winn, Arthur Anderson and Sherris Cotter Shank are concerned with optical possibilities of the materials and tend to work in transparent materials such as amethyst, tourmaline and ametrine. Carvers like Glen Lehrer and Stephen Walters are more concerned with shape, color, texture and luster and favor opaque to semi-translucent gem material such as banded agate, gem silica and chrysoprase.
| GEM CARVERS:
Glen Lehrer is a California native and the only artist among the New Cutters to receive some formal training in Europe. He began cutting in 1975 and taught himself many of the techniques he used before going to Idar-Oberstein. Lehrer also acknowledges a debt to Henry Hunt who, in turn, counts Sperisen as his technical mentor.
Lehrer's wing forms, executed in agates, show a deft
mastery of flowing line as well as an inherent feeling for his material.
Although well grounded in art history, Lehrer says that most of
his inspiration and influence comes directly from organic forms.
He looks into the agate and visualizes in his imagination the
gem's proto-form as it emerges from the super hot magmatic soup.
Many of his pieces retain sections of drusy--tiny clusters of
quartz crystals that are part of the original skin of the rough agate.
These carefully outlined clusters form a counterpoint to the
sensuous flow of his carving, and serve as a focal point completing the;
Lehrer wing form executed in gem chrysocolla (chalcedony)5
Photo: Glenn Lehrer
Lehrer's pieces are complex and self-contained; his finished work rarely needs more than the addition of an accent stone, which he always seems to leave room for, and a bit of gold framing to create a beautiful piece of jewelry.
| Carver Steve Walters, also a California native, grew up around
the family gem business. He spent most of his early years working
as a production cutter.
In the early 1980s he
first saw the composition pieces of the German cutter Dieter Lorenz.
He considers Lorenz's carved onyx pieces to have been a major
Walters is a craftsman who sees his work as a component of the jeweler’s process. Where Lehrer is a conceptualist who shapes his pieces, sensitively molding the agate to complete his vision, Walters works without preconceptions and goes where the material takes him. His curves are soft, flowing, feminine and melodic. His best work reminds you of the overlapping currents of a fast moving stream. His favorite media is opaque to semi-translucent onyx and agate.
| Steve Walters
gem sculptures in Mojave blue agate.6
Earrings by Douglas Canivet.
Courtesy R. W. Wise, Goldsmiths, Inc.
|Unconventional techniques such as concave and
negative faceting juxtapose holographic effects against brilliance and
scintillation in this 52-carat aquamarine gem sculpture by Larry Winn.7
Photo: Helen Constantine Shull
article on the new cutters would be complete without a discussion of the
work of Michael M. Dyber. Dyber, considered by many to be the
preeminent American faceter, is a New Englander, born in Connecticut and
currently a resident of Rumney, New Hampshire. He began
cutting in 1983 after working as a goldsmith for several
years. He, like most of the other New Cutters, is almost
Dyber works exclusively in translucent gem material such as quartz and aquamarine, but some of his most dramatic pieces are executed in ametrine, a naturally occurring bi-colored quartz that contains both amethyst and citrine in the same crystal.
Dyber’s compositions are best described as cool and cerebral. When asked about his artistic inspiration he immediately mentions the work of another Constructivist, Alexander Calder. As a teenager, he admired the way Calder's curvilinear-shaped mobiles "floated in air." Dyber made mobiles of his own in high school and sold several of them.
Dyber via Calder is a true heir of the Constructivist aesthetic. It is interesting to note that he was completely unaware of Sperisen. His work resembles a miniature holographic mobile. Moholy-Nagy spoke of elements suspended in space; Dyber defines his own space, and his negative faceting technique creates icons suspended in their own self-contained universes. Yet Dyber maintains that he has no grand artistic plan. Rather he talks about an emotional response to the rough. Like Michelangelo, his gemstone compositions are the result of a continuing dialogue between himself and his material.
|Michael Dyber gem sculpture in amethyst
(48.85 carats). The holographic effects are a result of facets
ground into the back or pavilion of the gem which is roughly triangular,
similar to the pavilion of a standard faceted gemstone.8
Photo: Jeff Scovil
Dyber's work, like Lehrer's, reverses the traditional relationship between the designer and cutter. These sculptures are not accents, but are small works of art complete in themselves. Yet many designer-goldsmiths purchase his works and set them into jewelry. Dyber himself calls them "miniature gem sculptures suitable for jewelry."
The work of these New American Cutters is every bit as diverse as the personalities that create them. Yet, they have a number of things in common. None is menu driven. They have no aesthetic agenda, write no artistic manifestos. Some call themselves artists, others prefer the term craftsmen. Like most real craftsmen, their works are the result of a creative conversation between themselves and their material. Like most true artists, their aim is to create an object of beauty. For the most part they are willing to work in an unusual subconscious collaboration with metalsmiths whom they may never meet, to create a finished piece of jewelry that they may never see. In all these senses their work is revolutionary.
We are in the midst of a cutting renaissance, the results of which will define American jewelry design in the twenty-first century.
Cutters throughout the world are exploring new cutting styles in both traditional and non-traditional gem materials. New cuts have provided an opportunity for designers to expand their own creative potential. Traditional lapidary has improved because the new cutters have focused attention on the importance of fine technique. It is indeed an exciting time.
by Richard W. Wise
comments are invited.