Lapidary 101: Introduction to Stone Cutting

Learn about lapidary and stone-cutting techniques in this exclusive, jewelry-making article.

Expert stone cutting techniques you need to know.What is Stone cutting? Stone cutting can refer to cutting and grinding rough rocks and raw stones into slabs or other workable segments or the act of cutting facets on stones (also known as faceting). Stone cutting is one step in the overall lapidary process. Lapidaries (stone-cutters or gem-cutters) cut, polish, and sometimes facet stones for use in gemstone jewelry making or for gem collectors. After cabochon cutting or gem cutting, stone polishing and buffing are final finishing steps in the lapidary process.

The Magic of Stone Cutting

The idea of slicing open a rock to see the beauty and color inside that no one has ever seen thrills me. Cutting stones into cabochons and faceted gems is a fascinating blend of foresight and technical skill, like most arts. Imagine the vision gem cutters must have, what optimists lapidaries are, to study what is most likely an average-looking rock and know that sparkling beauty and/or brilliant color lies hidden inside. Then, to find the best way to reveal the rough stone’s maximum potential, to transform a rock into a treasure of color and light—it seems downright magical to me.

There’s science behind the magic of cutting gems, of course, in the form of cut angles, table percentages, polishing wheel and sandpaper grits, and a whole host of other figures and measurements. The first question every lapidary must ask himself/herself is, “What’s the best way to cut this stone?” The mysterious world of rock cutting is filled with many other questions, too.

  • Do you know the steps that take a stone from a raw, rough rock, still muddy from the earth, to a sparkling faceted gemstone in a jewelry store?
  • Do you wonder how something as hard as a stone can be altered by sandpaper?
  • What’s the difference between slabbing and cabbing a stone?
  • Do you know how to set up a lapidary saw for rock cutting?
  • Why are a gem’s hardness, cleavage, and inclusions important to know for cutting and polishing (and maybe faceting) it successfully?
  • Can you tell a cushion cut from an emerald cut? Do you know the other standard gem cuts?
  • How many ways are there to facet a square-cut gem? How about round?
  • What are the parts of faceted stones called?
  • What’s the stick called that holds stone while it’s being sanded and polished? What holds the stone to the stick?
  • Do you know which polishing wheels and compounds are used in the cabbing process?
  • Do you know what roles everyday household items like leather, vinegar, baking soda, and laundry detergent can play in stone cutting and polishing?
  • Why should a lapidary polish the front as well as the back of a cabochon?

Do you know the answer to these questions? If not, are you ready to uncover the mysteries of stone cutting and polishing for yourself? You’ve come to the right place to learn to cut gemstones! You can never run out of ideas and inspiration for your newest jewelry designs with Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine. Discover hands-on expertise, illustrated demos, and projects loaded with valuable tips and design ideas to advance your stone jewelry-making skills. Every issue of our lapidary jewelry magazine is one you don’t want to miss!

Here’s the answer to that question:
Tom and Kay Benham, expert lapidaries and jewelry artists who answer the Ask the Experts column in Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist magazine, shared this great tip about why polishing a stone is important, even on the back:

“We are firm believers in polishing all surfaces of a stone, as this seals them, reducing the absorption of oils, sweat, and water, which can cause stains and/or color alteration. An additional benefit of polishing the back is that the finding [bezel] can be designed so that the back surface of the stone can also be displayed.”

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