The lapidary tools and techniques that existed in America when I began cutting crystals in 1983 were engineered either for the diminutive world of the gem trade or the wafer-thin world of electronics. There was no way to cut and polish large chunks with tools designed to facet small chips. At that time, a “large” cut crystal was two inches long and weighed a few ounces (still bigger than all but the largest diamond in the world). Traditional lapidary was geared toward sparkle-sized faceted stones, fragments that could get lost if you dropped them on the floor. I wanted to cut stones that were too heavy to lift off the floor.
So, how to get from the facet-oriented tooling to cutting mega-gems? Think big. In our quest to cut crystals of increasing size and complexity, Glenn Lehrer (friend & associate) and I did what trailblazers do: we identified our destination and then set out step-by- step through the bush. A lot of trailblazing involves finding oneself at a dead end, or standing at the foot of obstacles that seem insurmountable and then finding ways around them. In retrospect, the answers were a combination of small, relatively simple resolutions that needed to be strung together in the right sequence. But the key ingredients were imagining the outcome we wanted and having the unbending desire and perseverance to achieve it, coupled with an unwavering belief it could be done. And we also did the obvious: designed tools that were bigger and could accommodate larger work. We also unabashedly borrowed and adapted machines from other professions, including dentistry, automobile manufacture and repair, monument fabrication, and masonry.
Glenn and I were evolving our own techniques and technology in a virtual Darwinian Galápagos Islands of invention. Concurrently, a handful of other North American gem artists were figuring out their own garage-band lapidary styles, inventing very innovative carving and faceting techniques. And on the other side of the world was the city of Idar-Oberstein, Germany, the gem-carving capital of the world, with centuries of tradition, technique, and technology.
Initially, Glenn and I had no awareness that such a tradition existed: we had had no contact with the mainland of lapidary, instead existing on our own little islands. We had to forge through the unknown, having neither the advantages of generations of craft nor mentors to point us in the right direction when we were facing backward. But what we lacked in experience we made up for with fresh eyes and ideas we might have missed had we been confined to the prevailing beliefs and traditions of lapidary. (As our careers later developed and diverged, Glenn and I eventually did incorporate carving technologies originating in Idar-Oberstein.)
Because we never had the limitation of someone telling us how it was supposed to be done, the sky was our limit. The disadvantage was that there had to be a lot of trial and error: one has to be willing to be wrong in the pursuit of what’s right. The advantage was that there was no one assuring us that we could not accomplish what we set out to do. Occasionally, I would meet someone quite knowledgeable and convincing about the impossibility of cutting huge crystals; my response would simply be “Then I’ll just have to figure out how to do it.” Naïveté can be a marvelous ally.