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.
|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."
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
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 sophisticated understanding of both the history and objectives
of the lapidary arts.