Fashioning Fire From Pebbles

The History of Gem Cutting in the Czech Republic

19th Century Bracelet featuring Bohemian Garnets. Photo by Justin K Prim

The story of Czech gem cutting is deeply connected with the story of Bohemian garnet mining and the localities that provide them. It’s an old story, stretching back to the Renaissance, yet still living and breathing as new cutters are being trained today in the Bohemian faceting style. It’s a story that is linked to the great lapidary dynasties of Italy and the German gem cutting center of Idar-Oberstein. Let us now enter the world of the Bohemian Paradise…

Garnet has been mined in the Bohemian kingdom since the time of Celts. Jewelry with Czech garnets has been found in the settlements of Germans tribes as far back as the 6th century, but this is not where our story begins. Jumping forward about a millennia, during the time of the Renaissance, an eccentric ruler is about to change the history of the Czech garnet forever.

Emperor Rudolf II

In 1598, Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Archduke of Austria, and the King of Hungary, Croatia and Bohemia gave the order to start mining, cutting, and exporting Bohemian garnets. Rudolf II is an interesting character in European history, worthy of his own article, so I’ll briefly set the scenario.

Rudolf II moved his court from Vienna to Prague in 1583. He was a very unusual ruler who seemed to be more interested in philosophy than being an emperor. He surrounded himself with a court full of inspiring and talented artists, alchemists, astrologers, philosophers, and of course jewelers and gem cutters. During his reign, Rudolf acquired such a huge collection (the Kunstammer) of curiosities, art, minerals, and jewelry that he had an additional wing of Prague castle built to display them. He invited many notable people to live and work in his court but for our interests, his two most important guests were Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt, a Belgian physician, astronomer, alchemist, and proto-gemologist, and Ottavio Miseroni, a lapidary from one of the most well known gem cutting families in Milan, Italy.

Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt

Anselmus Boëtius de Boodt

Aside from being Rudolf’s personal physician, Anselmus de Boodt was also in charge of the royal mineral collection. de Boodt was perfect for this task as he had previously travelled through Europe exploring different mining sites and analyzing and recording the local geology. Anselmus eventually published a book, Gemmarum et Lapidum Historia in 1609, which is famous today as being one of the first scientifically oriented books on gemstones. In his manuscript, de Boodt gathered together the best scientific knowledge of his era. His position in Rudolf’s court gave him the perfect opportunity to study many prize-worthy specimens first-hand.

In his lapidary book, Anslmus is the first to use the phrase which “Granati Bohemici” or as we know them today, Bohemian Garnets. He speaks about their occurrences, the mining process, and the techniques used for cutting them. He also includes some wonderful images that show us exactly what type of machines they were using to cut the local gemstones.

from Gemmarum et Lapidum Historia, 1609 (Restored and Animated by Justin K Prim)

To get an idea of how this early gem cutting machine works, de Boodt’s Latin description helps a lot: “For carving a gem’s facets, they use a wooden wheel, from which a wooden handle sticks up vertically. Through a rope, the wooden wheel moves a tin wheel, on which water mixed with emery powder is sprinkled. Not far from the tin wheel, a stick of wood is erected which carries a ‘quadrant,' an instrument most ideal for the faceting of gems, or leveling and carving of stones.”

de Boodt’s image is one of the first representations in history of a hand cranked machine that can be operated by a single cutter, though he doesn’t tell us anything about where the machine originates from. In one of the earliest written reports on Bohemian garnet cutting (from one of the town’s books in Rovensko pod Troskami in 1599), it mentions Tadeáš Mendik, who carried garnets to Nuremberg for lapidary work in the same year. It also says he brought back a table with a horizontal cutting wheel, a novelty for the local region at that time. In an 18th century German book, we learn that the quadrant is said to have been the invention of a Frenchman by the name of Claudius de la Croix (or von Cruez) who lived in Nuremberg in the 1590s.

This is interesting because we don’t have any visual evidence for a hand cranked cutting machine from Germany in this era. The closest evidence I have found is from 40 years older and comes from Adam Lonitzer who was working in Frankfurt, 210 km west of Nuremburg. In the woodcut image we can see a lapidary cutting a gemstone on a horizontal wheel set into a table. There is no indication of a hand crank system but the machine might have been simplified for the purposes of illustration.

from Kreuterbuch, Adam Lonicer, 1557 (Digitally Restored and Colored by Justin K Prim)

Ottavio Miseroni

Dionysio Miseroni, Son of Ottavio

When Rudolph invited Ottavio and his family to become his resident gem cutters, the Miseroni name was already famous in Milan. The Miseroni dynasty can be traced back to 1460 when Francesco Miseroni is listed in the guild register of Milan as a goldsmith and Ottavio’s father was employed by Rudolf’s father, Maximilian II. The international reputation of the Miseroni workshop started with Gasparo Miseroni, the grandson of Francesco, who worked together with his brother Girolamo.

At a time of intense international competition between the European courts, Dukes, Princes, and Emperors tried to lure lapidary artisans to their courts to set up workshops. Philip II of Spain hired Gasparo Miseroni in 1582 to assist in the decoration of the new palaces and churches. Ferdinando I de’ Medici set up the Opifico delle Pietre Dure (Workshop of Precious Stones) in Florence, based on Milanese expertise.

Rudolf II was able to persuade Gasparo’s other nephew, Ottavio and some of his brothers to come to Prague in 1598. He completed his lapidary team later in the year with the addition of Cosimo and Giovanni Castrucci, also from Milan. Ottavio was to be the leader of Rudolf’s new gem cutting project and manage his workshops, centered around his largest workshop, The Imperial Mill.

The Imperial Mill

The Imperial Mill is located in Bubeneč, Prague, at the end of the Royal Park. At the beginning of the 13th century, the land under the mill was being used as a farm by The Convent of Saint George. The original mill was built in 1395 and one of the later landowners used it as a saw mill. At that time, the village where the mill stood was not part of Prague. Rudolf’s predecessor, Maximillian II, Holy Roman Emperor, had wanted to buy the mill, but was unsuccessful. The mill became royal property around 1584, when it was given as a gift to Rudolph II as an expression of gratitude for moving his imperial court from Vienna to Prague. Rudolph II grew so fond of the place that he had it renovated and improved upon.

The Imperial Mill in 1857 When The Water Still Flowed “Císařský mlýn v Bubenči” by Ferdinand Lepié, Museum of the City of Prague

The architect for the Mill was Giovanni Aostalli and it’s been proposed that the inspiration for the Mill’s appearance came from the engraving of the design for the Château Verneuil by Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau. When they renovated the old mill to become a grand gem cutting workshop, they added a square reservoir, connected by a columned passageway with a stone grotto. Evidently, the Imperial Mill was not only meant to be functional, but also beautiful. Rudolf would have been able to watch the whole mill operation from a gardened alcove on a small man-made island, now known as the Imperial Island.

Imperial Mill: 1820–2018. Arched Grotto with Rudolf’s Sigil Stands in the Middle. Center Photo by Justin K Prim

Aside from the Imperial Mill, two other cutting workshops were created, one on the Imperial Island and one near Prague Castle. Around the same time, another cutting shop was founded 25 km northeast of the Prague in the town of Brandy’s nad Labem. Of the Imperial Mill complex, only the grotto has been preserved and sits within the remains of the building that has recently been heavily renovated into an apartment building. Rudolf’s sigil can still be seen carved in stone over the entrance of the arched grotto. The other two cutting studios, however, have long been forgotten.

Map of the Cutting Factories of Rudolf II. Map Courtesy of Google Earth by Justin K Prim

Turnov

Lapidary Mural in Turnov Town Center. Photo by Justin K Prim

Though Prague was the center of gem cutting during Rudolf’s time, it’s no surprise that we see cutting activity happening near the mining regions of the country, known as the Central Bohemian Uplands. The center of this activity is in Turnov, a city with a long history. The oldest written document to carry the name Turnov is from the king Přemysl Otaker II from May 1, 1272 and the gothic foundation of the town dates back to the mid 13th century. We know that a metalsmiths guild was founded in 1519 but it wasn’t until the 17th century that the gem cutting trade spread throughout the town.

Throughout Rudolf II’s reign, many Italian gem merchants and miners, especially from Venice, migrated to these mining regions of Bohemia to take part in this newly bustling industry. Many settled in Mašov, 2 km south of Turnov, to take part in the mining activities. To date, there are a number of families in the region with typical Italian surnames e.g. Colombo, De Carli etc. The cutting industry in Turnov and the surrounding mining region grew until it eventually replaced Prague as the cutting center of Bohemia.

Life After Rudolf

Rudolf died in Prague in 1612, only 14 years after he had revitalized the Bohemian gemstone industry. Neither mining nor cutting stopped with the transfer of power from Rudolf to his younger brother. This was a troubled time that saw 22 different wars waged in Europe which culminated in the religious and dynastic tensions of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48). As a result of this turbulence, few notable lapidaries developed during this era. Ottavio continued on as the head of the royal gem cutting industry until his death in 1624. His son Dionysio, who was 17 years old at the time of his fathers death, would not yet have completed his lapidary training, though in the previous year, the Emperor had already transferred his father’s stonecutter stipend to him.

Dionysio Miseroni ran the workshop for 37 years until his son Ferdinand Eusebio Miseroni took over the work until his death in 1684. We have a great painting from this era that gives us a rare look into the 17th century Bohemian gem cutting world. Seated at the table is Dionysio and his wife and all their children. To his left we can see his second son who will one day take over the workshop, Ferdinand. Perhaps the most important feature of this painting is the gem cutting workshop in the background where we can see large, hand-cranked wheels being operated by a team of stone cutters. On the right side of the workshop, we can see what appears to be a manager, inspecting one of the carved vessels that the Miseroni workshop was so well known for. In the middle, we can see a lapidary working on a horizontal cutting wheel though it’s not possible to make out what type apparatus he is using to cut the stone. On the left, we can see two men carving out something on a machine connected to the big crank wheel.

Portrait of the Gem-Cutter Dionysio Miseroni and his Family by Karel Škréta (1653) with So-Called Pyramid (1653), Held by Ferdinand in the Painting

Torque was a crucial factor for engraving the larger stones and vessels that the Miseroni workshop was known for. It’s understandable why the Miseroni’s preferred the huge hand-operated flywheels that we can see in the images. With the small foot-powered machines that were typically used to carve and engrave gems, it would have been impossible to engrave the type of large bowls and rock crystal vessels that they were so well known for.

The three generations that headed the Miseroni workshop became very famous for their carved vessels and there are many surviving examples of Ottavio and Dionysio’s work in museums all over Europe. While the cutting of Bohemian garnets was happening in these workshops as well, it wasn’t their central focus. Sometimes the local garnets were used in some of the sculptural work and we can still see these accessory stones in museums today.

Emerald Vessel cut by Dionysio Miseroni in 1641. Photo courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

1700s

The Cup of Archbishop Franz Khünberg by Johann de Ambosy (1716) with Czech Garnets around Biblical Imagery. Photo Courtesy of Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral

Prague.

During Emperor Charles VI’s reign (1711–1740), the cutting of Bohemian stones moved mostly to Germany. They acquired the exclusive right to cut stones in the towns of Waldkirchen and Freiberg. In Turnov, only large garnets (24ct or higher) were being cut. Despite the reduced activity in gemstones, the introduction of Bohemian crystal glass meant that there was a lot of material on the market that needed the skilled hands of a lapidary. The local gem cutters wanted to be protected by regulations that would limit foreign competition and specify guild rules, as was normal for other trades. Because of this desire, a cutting association was established in 1715 called the Fraternity of Gem Cutters’ Free Craft which insured high standards for the cutting of both gemstones and the crystal glass that was quickly growing in popularity.

In 1752, the Holy Roman Empress, Maria Theresia, changed everything when she banned the export of raw garnets from Bohemia and returned the cutting of local stones back to Bohemian cutters. In the same year, garnet cutting began at the newly purchased estate of Count Kolowrat in Světlá nad Sázavou, where the Count summoned the best German master gem cutters. Simultaneously, independent gem cutters continued to work in Turnov, Podsedice, Třebivlice, and elsewhere.

It was during this period that Bohemia saw its first big gemstone boom. From the second half of the 18th century until the Napoleonic wars, stones were being mined in the Bohemian Highlands and the industry was continuously thriving and growing.

The Cutting Centers of the Bohemian Kingdom. Map Courtesy of Google Earth by Justin K Prim

Kolín

In the Kolín region, pyrope garnet was prospected for a relatively short period and in its time gained fame as the “Kolín Garnet.” A craft guild was founded for the few deposits located there. Garnet cutters probably worked in Kolín from 1768. The cutting and drilling of garnet was at the hands of the Kolín Jews, though it was eventually entrusted to experienced masters. They came, for example, from Rovensko (among them being a master named Jan Kramá) initially settling on the outskirts of Kolín. In 1773, they submitted a request to the town council for permission to found their own guild.

The Gemcutter and Driller Guild of Kolín was established on March 11, 1774. By 1786, it included 15 Christian master gem cutters with 7 journeymen and 3 apprentices, 4 Jewish gem cutters, 4 Christian master gem drillers with 1 apprentice, and 6 Jewish gem drillers. There were also 9 registered Jewish garnet traders, whose customers were mostly from Prague. Mention of Kolín garnet cutters gradually disappears and the death of the guild is documented in a sad statement from 1858 which tell us that at the age of 43, the last member of the Guild and an ancient garnet family, Josef Čuřik, died in prison.

Reliquary Pendant featuring 40 Czech Garnets with Large Table cuts, 5–7mm (1730s). Photo Courtesy of Treasury of St. Vitus Cathedral

At the end of the 18th century, the Czech National Revival movement, in cooperation with part of the Bohemian aristocracy, started a campaign for the restoration of the kingdom’s historic rights, whereby the Czech language was to regain its historical role and replace German as the language of administration and the Czech garnet became a symbol of Czech patriots and a mineralogical symbol of Bohemia. By that time, garnet cutting had spread even further; to the estate of Count Lobkowicz in Jistebnice near Tábor and the estate of Count Hatzfield in Podsedice. The Podsedice cutting shop was eventually acquired by Count Schönborn and operated until the 1870s.

Handpiece Evolution

Left to Right; Top: Earliest Style 1600s, 1700s, 1800s; Early 1900s, Mid 1900s, Modern

If we go back to Anselmus de Boodt and his 1609 illustration in Gemmarum et Lapidum Historia, we can see the machine that started the Czech cutting industry. It was called a quadrant and in de Boodt’s time, it was a very simple device that would very crudely hold the rough stone at a certain angle to help you cut your facets. By the 1700s, the quadrant had already evolved into a somewhat modern hand piece with back feet replacing the hole for the vertical stick. As time passes, we can witness the machine’s technological progression and improvements.

The first advancements comes in the form of an index wheel. In the first two images you can see that the dop stick is simply jammed into the handpiece pegs and must be rotated by eye with no assistance from the machine. By the time we get the 1800s, we can see that they’ve added two gears to the front of the handpiece. This allows the stone to rotate around in a very measured and repeatable way. This is the point in Czech cutting history where they diverge from all other cutting machines and create something truly unique and separate from other regional faceting traditions.

20th Century Foot Powered Czech Faceting Machine. Photo by Justin K Prim

Starting in the 19th century and moving through the 20th century and into the present, we can see that the main feature that changes is the index gear system. In the third handpiece photo you can see that there are two gears with a rocker lever on top. In the 4th picture (early 1900s), you can see that they’ve upgraded to 5 gears with a sliding lock above them. In the mid 1900s they refine the 5 gear system until we finally get to the modern handpiece which uses 6 gears.

This use of gearing is different from almost every other faceting machine in the world. Most index based machines only use one gear that has many teeth, allowing you to cut a variety of different shapes by dividing the gear into segments. One gear can cut a 4 sided stone, a 6 sided stone, or an 8 sided stone with its appropriate facet symmetry. Czech cutters chose to use a separate gearing cluster for each type of stone design that they want to cut. Instead of using a gear that has a lot of teeth and only using the specific teeth they need for each design (i.e., 1 in every 12 teeth for an 8 sided stone) they use very small gears, so that every facet you cut has its own tooth on the gear and therefore no mistakes can be made by miscounting teeth.

Diagram of a Round Brilliant with Tier Numbers.

For example, if they want to cut a standard round brilliant, the design has three tiers of facets on the top of the stone and two on the bottom. The first two tiers have 8 facets each so the first two gears have 8 teeth. The third tier has 16 facets so the third gear has 16 teeth. They can easily click through the gear with their thumb in order to cut the facets very, very quickly. This unique Czech design was obviously intended for a production setting because it’s very fast and reduces nearly all chances of counting error.

An Example of a Modern Cutter Holding the Quadrant Handpiece and Changing Gears. Photos by Justin K Prim

1800s

As we enter the 19th century, we are coming into a sort of Golden Era for Bohemian gem cutting. By 1809, there were reportedly 25 garnet cutting workshops in Světlá nad Sázavou that employed 88 workers with an annual production of 98,000 cut gemstones. It is likely that some gem cutters specialized in cutting diamonds, but their number is not known. By the mid-19th century, an impressive number of about 2,000 gem cutters were employed in Turnov.

Brooch with Czech Garnets from around 1880. Photo Courtesy of Radek Hanus

Like many gem cutting regions of this era, it wasn’t unusual for gem cutters to work from home. There are many surviving images of husband and wife teams facing each other on big double lapidary tables, one side working on the cutting wheel while the other side does the polishing.

Husband and Wife Faceting Teams. Photos Courtesy of Museum of Bohemian Paradise

Introducing Bohemian Techniques to Germany

In 1871, a gem cutter from the Podkrkonoší area named Gustav Postler moved from Hanau, Germany to Idar-Oberstein, the center of agate and quartz carving in Germany. In 1875, the head of a local gem cutting factory asked Gustav to teach the local German cutters how to cut using the Bohemian machines and techniques. The style at that time in Idar-Oberstein was to use big water-mill powered sandstone grinding wheels to cut and carve stones. The technique was very slow, as well as back breaking, and was suited for softer stones like Agates and Quartz varieties such as Amethyst and Citrine. The local gem cutting trade was in a deep economic depression at the time and the factory bosses hoped to boost the industry by bringing in new technology that would give the German lapidaries the ability to cut more varieties of gemstones.

This introduction of new technology helped to transform Idar-Oberstein into the modern cutting center that it has become today. With the introduction of horizontal cutting tables, quadrant handpieces, and copper polishing laps smeared with emery powder, the German gem cutters, who had adopted the word “lapidaries” from Postler, could now cut “hard stones” such as Rubies and Sapphires and bring more work and therefore more income into the cutting mills. It seems that the quadrant handpiece didn’t remain popular with German lapidaries as they quickly created their own type of jamb-peg head for the Bohemian hand-cranked tables. It’s interesting to note that only Czech and German machines crank with right hand. Other machines, from France and Britain for example, crank with the left hand and cut with the right hand.

Bohemian Cutting Table Circa 1887; German Lapidary using a Quadrant Handpiece; 19th Century German Cutting Machine

Gustav’s classes appear to have been a great success. Some of his students ended up founding a few of today’s well known German cutting houses such as Heinz Mayer OHG as well as Postler’s own descendants, cutters and carvers Heinz and Matthias Postler. If you look at the modern cutting industry of Idar-Oberstein, nearly all lapidaries use flat grinding wheels set in a table, though they now run on electricity. Germany has memorialized Postler and his influence with the Gustav Postler Platz street name in Idar.

Cutting Style

In older times, the Czech garnet was cut in a similar way to many other gemstones but by the end of the 19th century, the Bohemian jewelry industry had advanced and the cutters had figured out the best way to cut the stones to bring the fiery red shine out of the dark material. Bohemian Garnet has a deeply saturated red color and they can be challenging to cut using a traditional design since the stones can easily end up looking almost black instead of red. When the old style Bohemian garnets were cut, the cutters closely followed the size and shape of the natural garnet stone so that the final shape and to some degree the facet layout was adapted to the shape of the rough material. This would sometimes make Bohemian garnets significantly unbalanced, and to the modern eye, their cut would often contain many errors.

Rose Cut Garnets in a Gold Brooch Pin Circa 1870. Photo Courtesy of eBay

The rose cut became popular for diamonds back in the 1590s but by the end of the 1800s, we see that it’s become one of the favorite configurations for these garnets. Since the rose cut only needs half the height compared to other kinds of cuts, this means the stones can appear lighter and brighter. We also very frequently see Bohemian garnets cut into a rosette pattern, which is essentially a double sided rose cut. Nowadays, about 90% of the Czech stones are cut into rosettes and used in classic Czech-style jewelry set in a circular flower-like design. It is said that the rosette cut was devised in 1590 by the same Frenchman who popularized the quadrant, Claudius de la Croix of Nuremburg.

Brooch with Czech Garnets from around 1890. Photo Courtesy of Radek Hanus

At the end of the 18th century, the Czech garnets were mostly cut on lead or copper laps coated with alumina or garnet dust mixed with water. Polishing was carried out on copper or tin laps with tripoli. Nowadays, cutting happens on sintered laps with a diamond grit size of 25–40 microns. Polishing is carried out on hand-scored copper or tin laps with 3 micron sized diamond powder. Alumina Oxide mixed with water is also sometimes used on tin laps. For the ideal brilliance and color of Czech garnets, the crown main angle is cut at 41 ° and the pavilion main is 42°. The local stones to this day are cut on quadrant style hand pieces though the machines have been modernized with electric motors.

Supš a Voš Turnov — Secondary School of Applied Arts

By the time the 1880s rolled in, Bohemia was seeing its second gem trade boom. The momentum that began during the Czech National Revival nearly 100 years earlier was still creating enthusiasm for the unique Czech stones and designs. A special exhibition of Czech garnets travelled through Prague, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, and London to show off their unique beauty and style. Around the same time, the cutting industry had grown so big that a speciality school was created to train new gem cutters.

After cutting factory owner František Kraus unsuccessfully tried to teach Idar-style cutting classes with the use of water power in the local industrial school, Turnov decided they need open a school dedicated to the art of cutting. The Vocational School for Gemstone Processing was opened on September 3, 1883, (now called the Secondary School of Applied Arts) with the teaching commencing on November 8, 1884.

The school was inaugurated by director Josef Malina, a sculptor and a graduate of the Vienna School of Applied Arts. In 1885, a gem engraving program was added to the educational program. Over the years, more programs were added to the curriculum including jewelry design and later blacksmithing, metal engraving and sculpting, industrial design, and art restoration.

After 1918, the school was incorporated into the nationwide network of vocational schools under the name of the State School of Jewelery in Turnov and under the direction of director Antonín Karč, the school continued to grow. The school is still running today and at 125 years old, it’s the oldest gem cutting school in Europe.

The faceting program is taught over four years and is combined with general education subjects. The students learn how to cut with the Czech handpieces and over the four year program, they learn a variety of different types of cut, including some that have been developed especially for the local garnets. The students can also team up with students from the jewelry program to make collaborative jewelry pieces. Part of the curriculum includes a two-week internship with the local cutting factory, so that after they graduate, they have some real-world work experience and are ready to either dive straight into a cutting career or continue their art education in a university program.

Secondary School of Applied Arts, Old and New. Photos by Justin K Prim. Black and White Image Courtesy of Supš a Voš Turnov

1900s

The relationship between Turnov and Idar-Oberstein continued into the beginning of the 20th century. As Idar-Oberstein grew by cutting material from Australia and Brazil, they exported some of the work to Turnov. We can see more evidence of their mutual influences on each other in old photos where we can see examples of the big German-style sandstone grinding wheels being used in Bohemia. Cut stones would come from Idar-Oberstein to Turnov for the final polishing and Czech garnet would make its way to Idar-Oberstein to sell on the German gem market. As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th century, Turnov also began cutting the newly developed synthetic gems which they eventually became well known for.

Czech Cutters in the Early 20th Century. A German-Style Sandstone Cutting Wheel Can be Seen in Use on the Right. Photo Courtesy of Museum of Bohemian Paradise

The first half of the 20th century saw the newly independent republic of Czechoslovakia trapped in the middle of two world wars. In some respects, life continued on despite the warfare and in some respects everything degenerated. During World War II, approximately 345,000 Czechoslovak citizens were killed or executed while hundreds of thousands of others were sent to prisons and concentration camps or used as forced labor. Up to two-thirds of the citizens were in groups targeted by the Nazis for deportation or death. When the war ended, nearly the entire German-speaking minority, about 3 million people, were expelled to Germany and Austria.

In 1948, the Communist Party staged a coup d’état and effectively took over the Czechoslovakian government. The communist influence on the government, business, and culture of the country is outside the scope of this article but its effect should not be understated. Communist ideology permeated citizens’ lives and dominated all aspects of society. Czechoslovakia’s political decisions were dictated by the Soviet Union, and the country continued to rely on Soviet leadership until it's fall in 1989.

The influence of communist rule meant that the government took away many businesses from local business owners and many cutting factories owners lost everything. Turnov companies lost their position with the Western market and the relationship between Turnov and Idar-Oberstein was discontinued. It was during this unstable period of history that the Czech gem industry reorganized itself. Under Communism, workers were worshipped as heroes and exploited as propaganda for the regime. Miners, for example, received excellent pensions and comfortable housing. Workers had better salaries than university professors. In the 1950s, there were a number of small manufacturers, such as the cutting factory in Turnov, that were still able to produce Czech-made products, though they soon realized that to survive in the rapidly changing world, the Czech gem industry would need to reorganize itself.

Early 20th Century Czech Gemcutters. Photo Courtesy of Museum of Bohemian Paradise

Granát
After the Second World War, goldsmiths from Turnov teamed up with other goldsmiths from around Prague and joined the Goldsmiths’ Cooperative which had been rebranded as Soluna. Garnet production wasn’t the main focus of the company, so an initiative to begin garnet production began in the summer of 1952. A new co-operative company that originally included 127 goldsmiths was established in January of 1953 and was named Granát. The co-operative eventually became the sole owner of all Bohemian garnet mines, and is vertically integrated to be able to handle every aspect of the jewelry industry from mining and cutting the local stones to producing jewelry and marketing it.

20th Century Garnet Jewelry. Photo Courtesy of the Granát Archive

In September 1954, the catalog of Garnet jewelry was made up of old fashioned designs, but in 1955 the co-operative began to innovate new designs. In cooperation with the arts and craft schools such as Supš in Turnov, the design team prepared a collection of exclusive jewelry for the 1957 World Exhibition in Brussels. The Granát team won the highest prize for Grand Prix Brussels in 1958, which helped the Czech Garnet make a return to the post-war jewelry world. A new history of Czech jewelry production was beginning to be written.

In 1961, the first Granát shop opened in the town square of Turnov and by 1963, 415 employees were working in the co-operative, of which 60% were women. More apprentice centers were started in order to train new jewelers and stone cutters. Aside from the Secondary School of Applied Arts, which was training cutters full time, there were two other gem cutting training schools that were preparing new cutters for the industry.

Czech Gem Cutters at the Beginning of the 20th Century. Photos Courtesy of Czech Garnet Museum

In 1964, modern polishing machines were imported and by the following year, the team had 495 members. Exporting the Bohemian garnet jewelry was bringing in a lot of money to the co-operative. In order to have even more control over the manufacturing process, Granát purchased its first casting plant from Lindner in Germany and began casting its own jewelry on a large scale in November 1969. The interest in Bohemian garnet was high and export and retail sales numbers grew even larger.

Gemstone cutting in the region gradually became directly dependent on the production of Granát’s garnet jewelry. By 1987, the co-operative had grown to 725 members though the number of cutters dropped from the original 150 to 75 at the expense of increasing the rate of the garnet production.

Over the years, there had been garnet shortages here and there as mines went dry and new mines had to be started. In 1993, actions were taken to stabilize the permanent supply of rough garnet material. The company at first rented and then eventually bought the Podsedice surface mine in Litoměřice and opened its own mine at the Vestřev deposit in the Turnov region. Today, the nearly all Bohemian garnets are mined and cut by Granát and come from their only operating mine in Podsedice village, though in 2020 they plan to open a new mine in Olešnice in the Podkrkonoší area.

The 1990s also saw the relationship between Turnov and Idar-Oberstein reestablished. The Museum of the Bohemian Paradise in Turnov played a big role in renewing this old connection when they invited the celebrated Idar-Oberstein gem cutter Bernd Munsteiner to a jewelry symposium in Turnov in 1993. Between 2004 and 2006 Turnov and Idar-Oberstein exchanged art and jewelry exhibitions with each other which lead to the Museum organizing the international jewelry symposium in Idar-Oberstein in 2005. In 2006, an official partnership was established between the two famous cutting cities and Turnov and Idar-Oberstein were named as sister cities.

2000s

21st Century Czech Cutting Table. Photo by Justin K Prim

Like many other cutting centers in Europe, the early 21st century has not been kind to the Czech gemstone industry. As low cost factories in Asia overtake most of the world’s gemcutting work, the trade in Europe grows more fragile. Today in the Czech Republic, there remains only about 20–30 professional lapidaries and around 100 people in the country who know how to cut but aren’t working professionals.

The Granát co-operative now employs a mere 6 cutters down from the 75 they had in 1987. The smallest garnets that come from the mines are routinely cut on computerized machines instead of by hand. Machine cutting can produce a large lot of cheaply cut, similar sized stones, but the downside is that the finished stones have a low yield (around 10% of the rough weight) compared to the results achieved in hand cutting.

21st Century Garnet Jewelry. Photo Courtesy of Granát Turnov

Aside from Granát, there are about 5 more cutting workshops in the Turnov area that cut other types of stones beside garnet. Nearly all new cutters are being trained at Supš a Voš in Turnov, as they are the only remaining cutting school in the Czech Republic. 6 to 8 students graduate from the cutting program every year and some are able to find cutting work with Granát or the other workshops around the area. Despite the decline of the 21st century European gem trade, there is still a need for cutters and cutting work in the Turnov area. Thanks to the existence of the vocational cutting school and the Granát co-operative leading the Czech garnet industry, gem cutting is not yet in danger of fading away as it has in other traditional gem cutting centers such as French Jura or London.

Conclusion

Gem cutting is an old tradition for Bohemian culture and there is still a sense of romance around Bohemian garnets and the garnet cutting trade. If you visit Prague, there are dozens of Bohemian garnet jewelry shops including a few authorized Granát ones. If you visit Turnov, you will find an incredible display of Czech lapidary history in the Bohemian Paradise Museum as well as demonstrations of the Czech style cutting at the Granát gallery in the town square. There are small bits of gem cutting history littered around the Czech Republic if one knows where to look.

Though it’s not widely documented, the story of Czech gem cutting goes back to the earliest days of faceting along with the nearly forgotten cutting histories of France and Germany. The Bohemian cutting machine that is preserved in de Boodt’s 1609 manuscript serves as a critical link in understanding how the Renaissance history of gem cutting connects with the modern one. Bohemia’s long history of gem cutting has influenced so many aspects of European jewelry culture from the Habsburg Empire to the gem cutting machines of Idar-Oberstein, and even in the quadrant handpieces that are still sometimes used in Russia today. The cutting of Bohemian garnets in the Czech Republic holds a special place in the worldwide story of gem cutting and should be remembered and celebrated for its magnitude and uniqueness.

Pendant with Czech Garnets and Pearls. Photo Courtesy of the Granát Archive

Acknowledgements

I couldn’t have written this article without the help of my friends in the Czech gem industry;

Lukáš Zahradníček, Curator of Gemstones at the National Museum, Prague

Radek Hanus, Gemologist and Author of Český granát

Nada Solco, Teacher at the Secondary School of Applied Arts, Turnov

Miroslav Cogan, Art Historian at the Bohemian Paradise Museum, Turnov

Aleš and Pavel Hladký, Czech Gem Cutters

My hosts in the Czech Republic: Danka Babicova and Kimberly Muth

Resources

Books & Web:

Dobalová, S. (2009) Zahrady Rudolfa II. Jejich vznik a vývoj (Gardens of Rudolf II. Their origins and development), Prague, pp. 320–349

Hanus, Radek (2013) Český granát

Koeppe, W. and Giusti A. (2008) Art of the Royal Court: Treasures in Pietre Dure from the Palaces of Europe, pp 35–38

Kraus, Pascal (2016) Wissenserwerb im ländlichen Raum: Eine Analyse des Problemlösens in der Edelstein- und Schmuckwirtschaft von Idar-Oberstein

Lonicer, Adam (1557) Kreuterbuch

Murr, Christoph Gottlieb von (1777) Journal zur Kunstgeschichte und zur allgemeinen Litteratur

Stehlíková, Dana (2017) Bohemian Garnet Jewellery: 1,500 Years of Czech Treasures, Jewellery History Today #28

Zippe, Francis Xavier (1836)

Gemmarius Sculptor

Granát Turnov

Heinz Mayer Press Kit

Imperial Mill website

Praha Neznama: Imperial Mill

Private Prague Guide

Web Gallery of Art: Miseroni

Vodnimlyny: Imperial Mill

Czech Republic — Wikipedia

Locations:

Granát Gallery and the Visitors’ Centre, Turnov

Městské Muzeum, Rovensko pod Troskami (Town Museum, Rovensko pod Troskami)

Muzeum Českého granátu (Czech Garnet Museum), Prague

Muzeum Českého ráje v Turnově (Museum of Bohemian Paradise), Turnov

Muzeum Granátů (Magic Garnet), Prague

Supš a Voš Turnov (Secondary School of Applied Arts and Vocational College), Turnov

About the Author

Justin K Prim is an American lapidary and gemologist living and working in Bangkok, Thailand. He has studied gemcutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. He is currently working on a book about the worldwide history of gemstone faceting. He works as a Lapidary Instructor for the Institute of Gem Trading as well as writing articles, producing videos, and giving talks about gem cutting history.

If you enjoyed this article please check out some of my other gemstone and gemcutting related articles: