Did you ever wonder why two similar gemstones often show a difference in brilliance, scintillation and dispersion, even with the same material and same cut? Commonly known characteristics like cut, clarity or refractive index are all important, but it’s a little understood characteristic called luster that plays a critical role. What is luster? Luster represents quality of the polish (reflectivity), which depends on both the material and the polishing agent. Luster is often confused with brilliance, but these are two completely different characteristics. Generally speaking, hard materials such as metallic compounds or diamonds have the highest luster, and soft materials such as amber have low luster. Pearls have, of course, a “pearly” luster. A high-quality polish facilitates refraction and dispersion at a molecular level at the gem’s surface, subtlety but critically improving the appearance of the gems.
There are two major groups of polishing agents – oxides and diamond. Oxides such as cerium, alumina and chromium have their use for specific purposes (quartz is commonly polished with cerium oxide), but most other stones are successfully and quickly polished with various grits of diamond. Large diameter diamond grits such as 320 or 600 are used for rough cutting, fine grits such as 3000 or 8000 are used for pre-polish, and extra-fine grits from 50,000 to 100,000 are used for polishing. 14,000 is often used as a final polish in overseas cutting houses because it’s fast, but it leaves fine scratches and a “greasy” look on the facet surfaces that can inhibit refraction and dispersion. A 100,000 polish takes more time and skill, so it’s often used only for gemcutting competitions. Many cutters will say that customers can’t tell the difference in polish, but we disagree! All Finewater-cut stones except quartz are polished with 100,000 grit diamond, so you can always be assured of the finest possible polish and luster.
For this post we will take a look at faceted vs rounded girdles and their effect on the appearance of the gemstone. Most "western" cutters learn gemcutting by following diagrams produced with the gemstone design software called GemCad. It's a fantastic tool, but one of the limitations is that it produces cutting instructions with straight faceted girdles instead of a smoothly rounded girdle on such shapes as rounds, pears, ovals, etc. Most common gemstone shapes cut with a strict adherence to GemCad instructions result a total of 16 such girdle facets, producing a "16-gon" mathematical figure called a hexadecagon, rather than a true round, oval or pear shape.
There is always some artistic license when cutting stones and for some fancy cuts a faceted girdle may be required, as it is for squares, octagons, rectangles, hexagons or other shapes with straight sides. Many new cutters believe that faceted girdles are a sign of a "precision cut" gemstone, but a rounded girdle can also be cut and polished in a precision manner - it just takes a little more time and effort to produce what we think is a more refined look. You would never see a ideal-cut diamond or an high-value colored gemstone with faceted girdles; you shouldn't need to settle for these either.
In addition to the aesthetic aspect, there's also a functional reason to round the girdles. Many jewelers hate faceted girdles because it makes stone setting more difficult. A rounded girdle also facilitates the use of settings with any number of prongs, with no need for awkward fittings such as a 6 prong setting on a 16-sided stone. A rounded girdle also works better with a bezel setting, as the metal can then be pushed into place more smoothly around the girdle.
Here are a few examples of faceted and rounded girdle outlines, with the GemCad-type faceted girdles on the left and rounded girdles on the right.
We think you will agree that the stones on the right appear more elegant. It shows that a little extra effort can make a world of difference!
People often wonder "what makes a good gemstone" so I've decided to write a series of short blog posts about various gemcutting or gemology topics - in no particular order. Here's the first installment, showing an easy way to visually determine a cutter's commitment to detail by examining a gemstone's crown facets.
Most western cutters learn what's called meetpoint cutting - that is, cutting each facet until it precisely "meets" or joins adjoining facets. When done properly it is a work of beauty; when not, not so much. Some cutters will take shortcuts, particularly when it comes to the crown facets that meet the table (the "star" facets on a round brilliant cut). In contrast, most foreign cutters will cut a good looking crown because that's what the customer will notice after the stone is mounted. We've found that it really doesn't take much additional time or effort to finish the meetpoints correctly.
Here are some examples (both good and bad):
So you see that's really quite easy to judge some aspects of cut quality from a quick examination of the gemstone (and often a photo will suffice). Of course, there will always be some exceptions where cutting constraints that might prevent perfect meetpoints - for example, repolishing a badly cut stone that had poor symmetry or to avoid inclusions just under the table. However, for the majority of stones (and especially those cut from rough) good table meetpoints should be the norm rather than the exception.
On each of my Sri Lankan buying trips I go with good intentions to purchase poorly-cut sapphires for recutting, yet it's becoming more and more difficult to find stones with a combination of poor cutting and top color. Sri Lanka has a long history of cutting, and while some stones are still cut on traditional hand-powered machines, most are now cut using modern precision machines. I'm often impressed with the innovative designs and cutting quality seen in the gem markets. As a cutter myself I appreciate that there's a consideration for the extreme rarity of clean facet-grade rough, meaning that they are cut for brilliance as well as weight retention. It is definitely possible to do both!
I've had a couple of recent trips to Myanmar (formerly know as Burma), and found lots of nice spinels in all colors but I focused my buying on the nice reds. The reds are outstanding due to the incredible fluorescence of these Burmese stones. Under UV light they have an unreal glow to them (see photo below); in normal daylight the fluorescence ramps up the saturation and intensity of the color. It's too bad that many of the stones that I saw were so poorly cut, but I did buy a couple of poorly cut (but deep) stones to recut because they were clean and had top color. Some rough spinels were offered including the awesome crystal shown in the photo below, which I would have bought except the owner was expecting an insanely high price. Maybe on my next trip I'll see some reasonably priced material.
I've just returned from annual buying trip to the Sri Lanka gem markets with nice sapphires, spinels and garnets. It's always cool to be one of the few Westerners to visit these markets where I get to see great stones, with many of them new to the market. As expected, there are plenty of sapphires to choose from, but there are always interesting stones such as cat's eyes, alexandrite and rare stones like sinhalite and andalusite. In addition to locally-sourced stones I also see many from East Africa, as Sri Lankan buyers purchase rough in those countries for cutting in Sri Lanka.
There were some opportunities to explore the area around the gem markets, so I saw the traditional blowpipe heating, gemcutting and rough stone markets. As a cutter, the rough stones were fascinating, but since rough stone exports from Sri Lanka are prohibited to protect the local cutting industry I couldn't bring any home.
I was also honored to be invited to speak at the 2016 International Gemology Academy conference this year, with my presentation on Gemstone Photography Techniques. The presentation was very well received, and I made many important contacts as a result. My broker tells me I'm now famous in the local community! I can't verify that, but I was introduced to several industry contacts including some dealers in Colombo that specialize in world-class sapphires. If you've ever wanted a top sapphire (like the 10 ct sapphire shown below) please let me know - I can probably find it for you.
I've just returned from a fantastic trip to Namibia, a place of stark and unparalleled beauty. Namibia is a mineralogical hotbed and is well known for such gemstones as diamonds, demantoid garnets, amethyst, tourmaline, and unique mineral specimens such as peitersite. It was great fun driving the remote back roads along the Skeleton Coast and in the Spitzkoppe and Erongo mountain districts, watching out for wildlife, poking through thousands of mineral specimens at the roadside shops, and searching out gemstone dealers and prospectors in the few small towns. My trip produced some interesting material, and new stones will begin to show up on my website in the coming months. If you haven't done so already, please sign up for my newsletter in order to get notification of these new stones.
I'd never been totally happy with my Asscher step cut design, so worked with the design in GemCad and found a way to optimize it so that a single design works well for all materials. A test cut in flawless white zircon shows that the hard work paid off!
The Jewelers of America and the American Gem Trade Association just announced that spinel has been added to the official list of birthstones! So if you or someone you know has an August birthdate, check out my spinel page.
In case you hadn't noticed, there's a new Finewater storefront so the purchasing experience should be more streamlined. There is now a cart for multiple purchases, a credit card payment option, and automated order management emails, as well as additional details on each gemstone for sale. Additional store features will be added in the coming months (as well as a number of new gemstones) so please check back often.