Like the woman in Paul Simon’s song, I often have diamonds on the soles of my shoes.

Quartz crystals are hard, some of the hardest matter on this planet, harder than steel, designed to last. Only diamonds, corundum (ruby and sapphire), and topaz are harder, as defined by the Mohs’ scale.

Penta copy

Quartz Pentadodecahedron


Crystal cutting is a primitive endeavor first attempted by cavemen abrading rocks. In essence, this is what I do as well: grinding and reshaping one rock with a harder one—diamonds grinding quartz. My heritage is caveman. This is the only explanation I have for choosing to spend untold hours grinding one rock against the surface of another.

Until quite recently, the tradition of gem carving evolved slowly over thousands of years. Before the advent of precision electrical diamond cutting tools, I can imagine a mason in Mesopotamia hand rubbing, back and forth, back and forth (now repeat the words back and forth a million times for effect). First, a coarse stone is used for shaping, back and forth, followed by rubbing a finer one to smooth the shape, back and forth, followed by a more refined one, back and forth. I assumed that in ancient times, this work was mandated by a supreme ruler, because only the enslaved or the spiritually impassioned would have the perseverance to see the process through. It might take a few generations to complete a work because quartz crystals are so hard.

While gem cutting has taken a quantum leap with the advent of electrical tools and high-tech diamond tool technology, the process is still arduous, consuming large expanses of time. These very recent innovations, many in the past thirty years, have allowed the caveman to become a gem artist, transforming slave labor into a labor of love.

The diamond tools I use are saws, grinding lap wheels, diamond-impregnated wood wheels, dowels, cylinders, cores, cones, burrs, bits, belts, points, pads, and anything else I can imagine, invent, or buy to skin these cats.

With a small to medium-sized crystal in grip, I handhold, using no calibrated faceting machine. It is an eye-to-hand process—optic-nerve-to-brain, brain-to-hand, mental calibration of the angle of incidence—resulting in the precise wrist position and finger pressure. Sometimes, muscles are tensed hard; at other times, with a sensitivity as light as thought. Larger crystals must be cut with rotating circular saws held in position by wedges and clamps, though the alignment is still a process of eyeballing, measuring, and lining up with a variety of tools. I often measure using three independent methods to insure that the cut will be accurate. Aesthetic judgment is the final criterion.

Gem cutting is a feel deal, using instinct, touch, and finesse. It involves looking, measuring, aligning, re-looking, re-measuring, and re-aligning; cleaning, examining the scratch patterns and pits in the surface with just the correct angle of light refraction to see, as the coarse and pitted surfaces become more and more refined. The lights are bright, the sounds are hard, the focus is constant, the medium is unforgiving; with the final polishing comes the fleeting yet boundless sense of satisfaction and joy.

As in any sport, there is a zone, and when I am in it, the crystal becomes malleable, soft, and smooth; it feels as if I can bend it, effortlessly changing as I direct it. As I lay delicate facets, crisp and symmetrical, the crystal graciously responds, working with me, embracing its new form.

Or am I following its command, simply an instrument of its redefining itself for the next million years?

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