The Art Of Faceting Colored Gems

Jewelers’ profit potential hides in the most remarkable places. An obvious one some jewelers overlook: colored gemstone faceting.

For independent jewelers, exquisite cut provides a competitive edge that eludes mass merchandisers, who can’t concentrate as much on this aspect of gems because of the volume they handle.

In addition, well-cut gems sell faster than others for the simple reason that they’re prettier.

Cut, or “make,” has long been an important sales factor in the diamond market. Retailers increasingly use it to show why one diamond is better than a competitor’s. Even consumers have grown sophisticated enough to understand the importance of cut on how a diamond looks.

Will the significance of cut roll over to colored stones? “Jewelers are used to selling precision cuts in diamond; I can only expect the same to happen in color,” says master gem cutter Richard Homer of LFA Enterprises, St. Petersburg, Fla. Many others agree.

Ingenious cutting goes a long way toward overcoming deficiencies such as inclusions or color that lacks punch. For example, inclusions can be hidden under corners and facet junctions simply by orienting and cutting the rough gem in a particular way. Or if an inclusion is particularly interesting, it can be emphasized to capture your customer’s imagination.

Gem rough that is strongly color zoned can be fashioned to “throw” color so the overall perception of the gem in a face-up position is enhanced. As Homer explains, the way the angles are cut can increase or decrease the distance light travels in a gem, influencing a viewer’s perception of darkness or lightness.

Well-cut gems are a bonanza even for jewelry manufacturers because they can lower labor costs. Poorly cut gems are difficult to handle and take longer to set. Adding insult to injury, poorly cut gems sometimes break, multiplying manufacturing costs.

To the top: U.S. jewelers and manufacturers have latched onto this notion and are building inventories of jewelry with well-cut gems. Jeff Ketay of Ketay Jewelry, Peoria, Ill., goes right to the top, buying gems from award-winning U.S. cutters such as David Brackna, Bill Day and Justina DeVries. Ketay has entered – and won – the American Gem Trade Association’s Cutting Edge competition with pieces he made for his store. “The profit to be made is in explaining to customers that they are getting true value,” he says. “I tell them that if they stick to quality, down the road their product will be worth hard assets.”

The value is based on the fact that gems of such exceptional beauty aren’t available everywhere. “Retail customers don’t buy a gemstone by carat weight; they buy pizzazz, sizzle and sheer beauty!” says David Epstein, a gem dealer, cutter, correspondent and author in Teofilo Otoni, Minas Gerais, Brazil.

Jean-Francois Albert and Babs Albert of JFA Designs in Irvine, Cal., are extremely careful in choosing well-cut stones. “If the stone is not cut properly, we will look at the stone’s merits and then decide if it is worth recutting,” says Babs Albert. “You can have the best design in the world, but if the stone in it is not well-cut, the whole package fails and you cannot sell it.” Adds her husband, “With especially nice cuts, I buy the stone and then design for it.”

Not every jewelry buyer pays as close attention to cut. But it can make a critical difference for independent buyers who face competition from mass merchandisers. “If you try to compete with the mass market on price, you will fail,” says Dana Schorr of Schorr Marketing & Sales, Santa Barbara, Cal. “Because of economies of scale, mass merchandisers can buy gems much cheaper than you can. Let’s say you have to pay $3 per carat for a given material and they pay $1. You can sell it for double the price you paid and make $3 per carat. But they can sell it for quintuple the price they paid and pocket much more than you.

“There is no other way to compete than to buy for cut!”

What do you need to know about cut to buy and sell it profitably? “The first order of business is to choose a gemstone you like,” says Schorr. “You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to appreciate a good cut. Just like people appreciate craftsmanship in a well-made car, even non-experts appreciate the craftsmanship of a finely cut gem.” A few rules of thumb:

  • Take the gem outside to see how daylight affects the color. Then take it inside and look at it under artificial light and under poor light; if it still looks lively, you’ve got a winner.

  • Nestle the gem between your closed fingers (face-up position) and carefully view it at arm’s length. Though the gemstone’s proportions are truly a matter of personal choice, most people will choose a well-cut stone over a poorly cut one.

Several factors help us to compute the “beauty” of a stone. Here’s a reference list.

PROPORTION

Does the gem possess a pleasing shape? With standard cuts – round, pear, oval and square – certain proportions have been embraced in the industry. Rounds and squares should be symmetrical; pears and marquises shouldn’t have “heavy bottoms” or “bulging wings” (where the width is larger than a 1:2 ratio relative to length); and any gem that seems too long raises concerns about durability. There are exceptions. A long, clean multicolored tourmaline crystal “pencil” is often cut as a disproportionately long gem to best exhibit its characteristics. But exceptions often are one-of-a-kind gems that seemingly squeal for the touch of an enlightened jewelry designer.

The profile of a gemstone, as seen from table facet to the tip of the culet is one area where gem cutters sometimes work creatively to save weight. They cut a deep pavilion and deep crown for a weightier – and more costly – gem. But while yield and weight are important, so is final appeal. An unappealing gem will sit in your inventory unnoticed. Expensive rough such as fine ruby, emerald and sapphire tends to be cut for weight, says Schorr, while less-expensive rough tends to be cut for appeal.

Cutters also can work creatively by opting for asymmetry in making abstract forms, internal carvings, grooves or notches. These tend to become works of art that are later integrated into jewelry by equally creative designers. While proportion is not a factor in these gems, polishing and finish quality still matter.

FACETS

Studying a gemstone’s outer surface is an easy way to evaluate cut. Use a loupe or microscope to see if the facets have few or no abrasions. Though most abrasions occur when gems rub against each other in a parcel, they can occur also during the cutting process. Well-cut gems almost always are shown in an individual “paper” or padded gem container.

Facet junctions should meet in a sharp point rather than overlap or miss each other.

Are there polishing lines or areas of a particular facet that seem duller than the rest? One dull facet can affect the appearance of the entire gemstone.

GIRDLE

Had Shakespeare commented on gemstone girdles, he might have said: “Neither too thin nor too thick nor too wavy should a good girdle be.” Girdles are the basic blueprint of a gemstone, a hard-to-notice area dictating the yield and overall outline.

To save weight, some cutters use extremely thick girdles, which have the effect of deepening the gem and adding weight. The depth of these so-called “native cuts” can make a very light colored gem such as kunzite or aquamarine appear to have greater color saturation. However, thick girdles also may look awkward and often are visible through the gemstone’s table. Thin girdles, on the other hand, can fracture easily in the mounting process.

REFLECTION & REFRACTION

Think of a beam of light hitting and then entering a transparent gem. Part of the light reflects off the facets, while some enters the gem, slows down, bends and then reflects off internal surfaces and out through the table and crown facets.

In a very brief way, this explains a gemological fact known as refraction of light. A well-cut stone’s facets, crown and pavilion return the maximum amount of light, brilliance and color. Lesser-cut stones have “windowed” areas, zones of extinction (darkness) or areas where you can see right through the gem, indicating that the loss of reflected and refracted light is more than it should be.

Because a viewer’s impression results from a combination of reflection, refraction, color and size, a cutter must understand a gem’s unique optical characteristics. Cutters who have gemological experience and have set stones in jewelry have a specialized understanding of what is needed.

COST & CUTTING

Weight retention is crucial in cutting precious gems, especially with expensive rough such as corundum, beryl, alexandrite and tsavorite. A focus on cut – at the expense of weight retention – is seen more often in less expensive rough such as quartz and beryl.

Should you try to improve a gem’s cut? Opinions vary, but most dealers agree that gems that already have good proportions can be recut profitably. For example, a 1.2-ct. gem that costs $300 per carat can be recut for $35 for a total investment of $395. Assuming the facelift justified a new per-carat price of $450, even a 15% weight loss to 1.02 ct. would yield a new worth of $459. And the improved gem would be more salable.

INCLUSIONS

The challenge of deciding where to place an inclusion becomes important to a cutter if it would appear unsightly in the gemstone. The size of the rough gem, its value and the placement of other inclusions all come into play. Some flaws can be placed in pavilions, as close as possible to the girdle, so they are minimized in the face-up position. You can check the pavilion to see what a good cutter has minimized. But remember such natural characteristics aren’t necessarily bad unless they are unsightly or affect a gem’s durability.

Some cutters emphasize an inclusion as a centerpiece. These can be sold as one-of-a-kind stones with diagnostic clues that point to their natural origin. (Note: synthetic gems also can have inclusions, but these are rarely a selling feature.)

As exceptional cutting gains recognition as an art form, more jewelers are realizing the importance of knowing a bit about a gem’s cutting provenance in order to sell it.

Among the names being incorporated into this developing story are U.S. master cutters Bill Day, Phillip Youngman, Justina DeVries, Michael Dyber, Dave Brackna, Glenn Lehrer, Richard Homer and Arthur Anderson. These men and women have devoted lifetimes to the understanding of the way light moves inside a gem. They and their compatriots are responsible for the revealed beauty and sensuality of gems whose magic will capture imaginations for generations to come.