An Afternoon with London’s Oldest Gemcutters

Exploring British Lapidary Tradition with Charles Matthews Ltd.

Article by Al Gilbertson, Project Manager, Cut Research (Carlsbad) GIA Laboratory Gemological Institute of America (GIA), AGilbert@gia.edu

Introduction and Conclusion by Justin K Prim, Faceting Instructor, Institute of Gem Trading, Bangkok, justinkprim@gmail.com

Introduction

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with John and Peter of Chas Matthews Ltd in December of 2018. They were kind enough to let me come in and pick their brains for a few hours and take photos and videos of everything in their studio. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting cutters from such a distinctly different cutting generation than the one I came up in. Their ideas are old fashioned, yet time tested and it was very hard to leave when the time came. Their acquired wisdom oozed out with every story they told me and I wish I would have had time to absorb more. If I lived in London I would sign up to be their apprentice in an instant but sadly we live a world apart.

By some strange coincidence, a few weeks after returning from London a friend showed me this article and I read it with intrigue. It was well written and echoed many of the sentiments that these master cutters expressed to me when I visited them. I figured out that the article was written by Al Gilbertson who I knew from his great book American Cut — the First 100 Years. I contacted him to find out more about the article and he told me he had written it exactly 10 years before my visit but for one reason or another, it had never gotten published. I thank Al for writing such a thorough article with so many historically important details and of course thanks for letting me publish it here. — Justin

John and Peter. Photo by Justin K Prim

Charles Matthews Ltd.

Modern lapidary work brings innovative design and techniques that often dismiss traditional practices. Some of the finesse and purpose of those old practices may soon be forgotten and lost. Approaching retirement in the small shop of Chas Matthews Ltd. in Hatton Garden (London’s jewelry district), two artisans proficiently exercise their skill, side by side, each having earned the jewelry trade’s esteem and respect over the decades for their mastery.

What is a master gem cutter? Someone who can cut a dazzling design of intricate symmetry or someone that understands how to maximize the rich color from a piece of rough? For Peter Rome and John Taylor of Charles Matthews Ltd the answer is simple. While a gem must appear well cut regarding symmetry and polish, it can never be at the sacrifice of color. The final color of the finished gem is paramount. This is the rationale for the devotion to what appears to be archaic cutting technology and technique. As they have seen the results of new cutting machines and ideas over the past few decades, they can’t help but observe that the brilliant style of cutting has lightened the colors and modified the tones of gems where subtle tones and richness of color are critical to value. In their minds, the techniques used to enrich color were discarded and abandoned in order to create symmetrical styles that were meant to be bright; disappointingly at the expense of color.

Empirically, the gems that they recut leave their hands with better color. The subtleties of what Peter and John learned over the years have led them to be experts in recutting to improve color, especially among the important stones like ruby and sapphire, a service they are often called upon to provide. It is more than just orientation to the crystal, but how the facets are inclined or placed that can cause a fine sapphire or ruby to take on a muddier look in a corner or end. They can remedy this problem. They prefer not to cut to the modern diagrams that seek sparkle, trying to (as John says) ‘look like diamond,’ but follow some of the older traditional facet arrangements which allow them to enhance the color appearance of a gem. They may lose 30% of the weight in recutting, but the improved value of the rehabilitated gem more than compensates. The result is that Peter and John are considered true masters in the art of cutting and polishing of gems.

Peter

Cutter Peter Rome. Photo by Al Gilbertson

Peter Rome, who first apprenticed in the firm nearly fifty-two years earlier (January 1966), attentively shapes and places facets on colored gems. His art is called ‘cutting.’ He never polishes the facets that he carefully places. That step is reserved for John Taylor, at Peter’s left, who is referred to as the ‘polisher.’ Peter grasps a wooden knob, briskly turning it several revolutions before letting it spin freely. This sets in motion a wheel, originally from a wringer washer used over a half century earlier, which is under the late 1940s bench. The wheel is connected by a leather belt and pulley to his copper lap. This is the only lap he uses; both shaping a stone and placing of all facets are done on this single lap. Every few months, Peter spreads 400 micron size diamond powder evenly over the lap with his fingers, mixing it with a little “3-in-1” oil. If the gem he is cutting is a little more fragile, he softens the sharpness of the coarse diamond by applying a small touch of liquid dishwashing soap. If the diamond gets pushed too much into the copper lap and the lap loses its sharpness, he dresses the lap by grinding a piece of rottenstone (tripoli) on the lap, which cuts back the copper and exposes the diamond. Rottenstone is a mineral; described by John as petrified mud, historically used for polishing daguerreotype.

The 19th Century Style Jamb-Peg Head Still in Use. Photo by Justin K Prim

Peter’s skill is dependent upon his eye and the subtle differences in the sense of touch of the stone on the lap. Each row of facets is placed exactly, not by index wheels found on modern machines, (index wheels help a cutter place facets evenly around a stone) nor by a protractor (which measures the angle of each facet). He places one end of the dop into holes in the jamb-peg (a wooden post with rows of holes at various elevations), bringing the stone end of the dop into contact with the revolving copper disc. The dops used to hold the gems are either from lignum vitae (a hardwood) or rosewood and are the original dops Peter and John used when they first joined the firm in the 1960s.

While Peter must place each facet with precision, he is always focused on which arrangement and inclination will maximize the color of the stone. And it is with that in mind that Peter chooses how to orient and place his first facets. He then rotates the dop so that each facet is correctly oriented to opposing and neighboring facets. While the same procedure is still done in a few remote areas of the world, it is not to the precision that Peter’s skill imparts. Always thinking about color, he decides how many rows of facets he wants (deepening the stone by adding more rows may help sometimes), whether he wants a row of eight facets or twenty facets, and then he so precisely places each facet that many might think he used a machine with an index wheel to assist him.

John

Polisher John Taylor. Photo by Al Gilbertson

John Taylor, who came to the firm in 1963, uses a thicker copper lap (when it has worn to half its present thickness, it will be used by Peter with coarser diamond bort) and polishes all the facets that Peter has placed. John’s skill is just as critical. Peter has placed the facets and now John will polish them on his copper lap, which is charged with a finer diamond bort. If he tries to polish a facet in the wrong position, with only maybe a tenth of a degree difference, he cuts into a neighboring facet. His eye and the feel of the wheel as it polishes guide him to use the jamb-peg just as carefully as Peter. Rarely, they will cut very soft gems and for that John employs a pewter lap with tin, aluminum oxide, or rottenstone as the polishing agent.

John uses the original inch-thick lap with a fine diamond bort; 1/2 to 3 microns in size for most stones. For certain harder stones, he adds finer bort, the size of ¼ to 1 micron to the same lap. A piece of hard agate is pressed into the lap if the diamond is cutting too sharply (to push the diamond deeper into the lap). Hard agate may also be used by John for the occasional re-charging of the lap, whereas Peter uses a steel bearing to press the diamond into the lap he uses when he is re-charging it. John has a small dish to his left containing more of the ‘3-in-1’ oil. Occasionally he will place a finger in the bowl and touch the lap, adding a very small amount of oil to the lap’s spinning surface. The top and bottom of the spindles are not set in bearings but are pointed and fixed in place between two pieces of lignum vitae (the same hardwood used by diamond cutters for centuries for their large iron scaifes). A drop of oil is added to each end once to three times per year. The points of the steel spindles wear out before the wood does. Each copper lap is trued or made flat, every four or five days (depending upon use) by applying a piece of sandstone to the lap. This also scores the lap and prepares its surface for accepting fresh diamond. The lap used by Peter was introduced to the shop in the 1940s, cast in a foundry that no longer exists.

Polishing a Gemstone. Photo by Justin K Prim

Background

Chas Matthews has had an interesting history–commencing the lapidary shop in 1894. Kashmir sapphire rough that came to the European market after its discovery in the 1880s often found its way into the hands of Charles Matthews and the firm cut many that were sold throughout Europe. By post-WWI, it was one of the most respected shops of its kind. Just as Bernard Oppenheimer, with the support and assistance of DeBeers, was tapped by the British government to begin a diamond cutting shop and train disabled British soldiers in post-WWI England, Matthews was also asked to begin a lapidary shop for returning disabled vets.

The firm’s biography includes cutting gems for the Royal family and various celebrities over the years. Chas Matthews Ltd. have fashioned crystal goblets, cut accent stones for such firms as Cartier, and fashioned gems for companies such as Wartski (founded in North Wales in 1865; Wartski is a family-owned firm of antique specialists, whose focus includes fine jewelry, silver, and Russian works of art, particularly those by Carl Fabergé). Over the years, Peter has repaired several Fabergé carvings. During WWII, they were called on to provide agate mortar and pestles for the war effort and cut viscometer jets for aviation (a cylinder of agate with a very small hole, centered along its length, perfectly polished on the inside of the hole of exact size).

In 1943, the Wilkerson Sword Company was commissioned to create a sword as a symbol of honor and gift to the people of Russia from King George VI and the people of Great Britain. Chas Matthews Ltd was part of the team that created the sword; they carved the crystal pommel, the ornament at the hilt. In October 1945, a well-respected, but unorthodox Count Taaffe (a Dublin gemologist) found the first Taaffeite and brought the rare, only known specimen to the only firm he could trust with its cutting; Charles Matthews Ltd. The first Taaffeite gem weighed .56 carats when finished. The most unusual stone Chas Matthews Ltd faceted was a large piece of hard anthracite (coal), fashioned for the Coal Board’s home office.

Continuing the tradition of fine cutting, Peter and John (they purchased the firm in the 1970s) entered the annual contests in Goldsmith’s Hall adjudicated by the Fine Arts Council. During their early years, there were separate categories for cutting and polishing and both men won their respective divisions, over, and over, and over again. When the two divisions were combined, they stopped entering the competition and were called upon to be judges for the annual competition. They have continued to be disappointed to see their modern counterparts fail to understand how certain cutting styles diminish the color of a fine gem.

Peter and John have fashioned some significant gems; a very large tanzanite (over 100 carats) that now resides in the Smithsonian and a 170-carat heart-shaped blue sapphire. The sapphire was used in the necklace designed by jewelers Asprey & Garrard that Celine Dion wore to the 1998 Oscar ceremony when she sang “My Heart Will Go On” (the theme song from Titanic). It was later sold at a benefit auction for $2.2 million.

Peter and John are also somewhat experts in identifying heat treated sapphires. Why? Because a heat treated sapphire feels different on the wheel when it’s being cut.

These two masters of gem cutting will probably retire in a few more years. The firm that shrugged off improvements in cutting techniques over the last century will quietly retire itself and the last of this unique class of master cutters in Europe will be no more.

World War I Veterans turned Gemcutters.

Conclusion

For almost two years now, I’ve been traveling around the world trying to piece together the untold story of gemstone faceting. This experience has led me to meeting dozens of gem cutters in most of the historical cutting centers of Europe; London, Idar-Oberstein Germany, Paris, Jura France, Turnov Czech Republic, Antwerp, Geneva, as well as some of the important cutting centers of Southeast Asia. Almost everywhere I’ve gone, I have heard the same story: The new generation does not want to be gem cutters. Whether they lack the interest, the patience, the time investment, or whether jewelry has simply gone out of fashion and replaced by technological toys, it seems that the professional lapidary industry is quickly dying out, all around the world.

In places like Prague and Jura France, gem cutting has completely stopped. Geneva and Antwerp are hanging on by a thread. Germany and the Czech Republic still have cutting schools to train new generations and in Paris, the heart of the European jewelry industry, cutters are still being trained on the job, so all hope is not lost for the future of this long lineage.

In London, we have a very unique situation. The jewelry industry in Hatton Garden is diminished but not dead and we still have living proof of Britain’s history in the gemstone lapidary trade. But not for long. When we find living treasures such as Peter and John, carriers of a tradition that will be forever lost when they’re gone, we must try and preserve it. There is no book dictating the history of London’s cutting trade. There is no documentation whatsoever. There are just these two masters, the last of their kind with no apprentices and no time to train any.

In some ways, it’s an exciting time to be a lapidary historian because it’s not too late to record this kind of unique knowledge but in many more ways it’s a very sad era to witness as the historical gemstone and jewelry traditions of Europe that have existed unbroken since Medieval times crumble and fade away as the world moves on and the younger generations finds their passion and careers in other industries. I hope the people like Al Gilbertson, myself, and my fellow gem and jewelry historians are able to save this traditional information before it’s too late.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my other articles on the gem trade and lapidary history: