Fabulous, Cabulous! 10 Tips for Buying Cabochons for Your Art Jewelry Designs

By Helen Driggs

Coyamito Agate (Chihuaha, Mexico) Barlow's Gems. Photo by Jim Lawson.

The earth makes beautiful things. With heat, pressure, and time, raw planetary stuff eventually morphs into fantastic minerals of every color, size, and shape. In their natural forms they are unbelievably beautiful, and for some, the story stops here, but in the hands of a talented lapidary, some minerals can be shaped and polished into exquisite gems suitable for jewelry. Cabochon gems, those cut with a curved surface and typically with a flat back, are also most often gems that are translucent to opaque, although transparent materials can also be fashioned into cabs.

The gem trade is a huge international business, but the small, independent gem cutter who gathers rough, seeks the best potential in a certain slab, and brings the inner beauty of that stone to light in a splendid cabochon is often the best source for unique or rare material for artisan jewelry making.

Covellite (Montana) Sierra Madre Mining Co. Photo by Jim Lawson.

With the dazzling array of color and material out there, it's hard not to be overcome with stone lust at a gem show. I try to keep these things in mind when I'm buying cabochons for my work:

1. Size: Yes, big, giant, gorgeous stones are beautiful. But, remember, you'll need a lot of metal around those stones to protect and support them. That means weight. And cost. And more time making the piece. And don't forget–thick or deep stones equal deep bezels, so you'll end up fabricating those from sheet instead of ready-made strip. Even more time.

2. Shape: Funky shapes are cool and interesting, but sharp direction changes or very pointed corners are a fabrication challenge and will often dictate how you must set the stone in a piece. A bezel may not work with that stone in your hand, so if you don't want to make prongs or something more challenging, watch those corners.

Mariposa Jasper (Mexico) The Clam Shell. Photo by Jim Lawson.

3. Workmanship: Is the back of your cab flat? If it isn't, you'll have to adjust your design to support the irregularities on the back of the stone. That will add to your fabrication timeline and the cost of more metal.

4. Material: Is the stone brittle or otherwise delicate? Trust me-buy an extra one. You never want to break a stone, but it happens.

5. Cost: Does it fit your budget? Will it fit your customers' budgets when you're done making the piece?

Picasso Ammonite (Morocco) Gary B. Wilson. Photo by Jim Lawson.

6. Skills: Do you have enough experience to set the stone you're holding confidently? By all means, buy it if it's a good price, but realize practice makes perfect, and you might hold it for a while before you use it. You'll know when you're ready.

7. Color: Sure, that blazing, hot pink drusy is just fantastic–but will your customers think so, too? Just because you like certain colors doesn't mean everybody does, so if you plan to sell what you make, try to purchase stones in many colors to offer choices to your customers.

8. Supporting Cast: Don't forget to buy smaller accent stones. I know it might seem boring to get a bunch of plain round, 10- or 12mm stones, but at 3 a.m. when you decide you need an accent stone to finish a pendant, you'll be glad you have them on hand. Make a list and follow it.

9. Quantity: It often pays to purchase stones in quantity. If it's a cut or material you love and your customers love, buy enough to get a price break. Ask the cutter how much that is, and go for it.

Septarian Nodule (fossil mud crack, Morocco) Gary B. Wilson. Photo by Jim Lawson.

10. Love Eternal: If you see something so fantastic you have to have it, you can afford it, and you will make a piece from it, buy it. The funny thing about gem material is that it is a limited commodity. You may never, ever see that kind of stone again, and regret really is a terrible thing. If you think you'll be "haunted" by a cab you love, buy it, and make a present for yourself. —Helen

Helen's tips were previously published in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine. To learn more about cabochons and other gems for your jewelry designs, as well as to get all the latest in the art jewelry world all year long, subscribe to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine!

Resources of cabochons for the original article:

Sierra Madre Mining Company/Village Silversmith www.villagesilversmith.net 

Barlow's Gems www.barlowsgems.net

The Clam Shell www.theclamshell.net

Gary B. Wilson www.garywilsonstones.com

Please note: This article was previously published in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine. The dealers listed here may no longer have these specific stones, but they still have fabulous cabs!


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