I Dream of Being a Gemcutter
When I first discovered gemstones and the gem trade, the first thing that came into my mind was “how do they cut these tiny stones?” This question led me to discover the lapidary club system and caused me to spend two years riding my bike to the local club almost every day to learn to cut cabochons. Later, that same question led me to buy a series of used faceting machines so that I could hopefully one day master the art of faceting. I dreamt of not only being a gemcutter but a good gemcutter, even possibly maybe a professional gemcutter. Now, eight years later, I have a thriving business that is comprised of cutting, teaching cutting, making videos, and writing about cutting. I talk to many people around the world all the time who have the same dream that I did and I wanted to write a bit about the path to becoming a professional gemcutter.
Learning to Cut
The first thing to know is that learning to cut stones takes a long time and has an expensive entry point. I’ve seen many established cutters give the same advice to new potential cutters; the faceting machine is cheap compared to what you need to spend on rough. That’s true. To start the journey of becoming a gemcutter, you need money and time. It would also help a lot if you had a mentor. To get started at home, you need AT LEAST $2500 (Here’s a shopping list). If you can’t raise that, you should get a second job and save more money. Whatever you get for less than that is going to be of poor quality or used (which can be ok if the machine is in good shape). But aside from the machine, you need laps, you need accessories and tools, you need a desk and a chair. If you are going to promote your work you need some sort of camera or smartphone with a good camera. If you want to cut on an American-made machine you need even more investment (Budget should be $4500-$6000 for the gear).
Once you have your gear, you need time. If you have a teacher you don’t need as much time, if you self-teach you will need more time. We have a faceting school in Bangkok (shameless plug: Institute of Gem Trading) which teaches the foundations of faceting over two weeks. I estimate that after a student graduates from the course, they need about six months of regular (daily or weekly) practice time to be ready to do professional work. That is the fastest path to professionalism that I’ve seen. If you don’t want to come to Bangkok, there are other, slower options. There are a number of other classes around the world, there are lapidary clubs, and there are books. If you are going to self-teach with books or even learn through a club, I would budget two years of trial and error to fully develop your personal system of cutting. I learned through all these ways: I read the books, watched the videos, digested all the forums, did a lot of trial and error and then later met professional cutters who took me under their wing which enabled me to fill in the gaps in my training.
After six months to two years, depending on the path you take and your natural ability, you might be ready to cut professionally. Now, you need a business plan. A few choices need to be made: Are you going to cut other people’s stones, Are you going to do recuts and repairs, Are you only going to be cutting your own stones and selling them? Your answer to these three questions will wildly change the direction you must take for your business strategy. If you are going to cut other people’s stones, you won’t really have to invest any more money into your business, but your income will be capped on the number of stones you can cut per day and the price per hour your community can afford. If you are going to do repairs, you need to have a relationship with jewelers, which might require you to live near a jewelry district or at least a jewelry shop and again your income will be limited by your speed and the economics of your region. If you buy your own stones to cut and sell, your income could be exponentially higher but the investment, amount of work, and chance for a costly mistake are much higher.
Most of the professional cutters I know started by doing trade work (cuts and recuts for jewelers and private clients) and eventually got good enough (and established enough) that they decided to stop doing trade work in order to focus on cutting their own stones. This is a good model because on this path, you get a lot of experience at first without having to spend money, you can make your mistakes on other people’s rough (ssshhhh, no one will see that extra facet), and you get to see inside the minds and operations of your customers and how they work. However, most people want their stones cut cheaply so the amount you can charge per hour (or per carat) can only go so high.
When you start cutting your own stones and essentially go into business for yourself, you need to increase your skillset. Not only do you need to be a good cutter, but also a manager, a sales person, a photographer, a customer service coordinator, a shipping agent, and a social media marketer. Seriously. You have to do all that. You can learn all of this while you are making a living from trade work. If you cut other people’s stones for a few years, you will have a lot of time to learn to take photos and surely you will have to do some customer service with your clients, and if you’re smart, you will simultaneously be building up your social media following with photos of all the stones you’ve cut so that you have a big following of gem-hungry customers by the time you’re ready to go independent.
Being a good cutter doesn’t automatically mean you’re a good business person. You need to learn both skills if you want success. You need to keep track of your expenses, your costs, and your overheads. You need to make budgets, financial plans, and spreadsheets. You need to figure out how much you can charge and how much you need to get paid to survive. You need to figure out taxes and shipping import/export fees, and monetary exchange rates. This is homework for you before you can begin. Of course, you must be a competent cutter. This entire article and plan only works if you can actually cut beautiful stones that people want to buy and put in jewelry.
As far as customer service goes, people want reliability and repeatability. When they send in an order, they want to know when it will come back and how much it will cost. Then they want to do that over and over again. You also want that because that’s how you make money. You want them to be happy so they keep sending in (or buying) stones. Here are some things that people have told me make them unhappy when it comes to working with cutters: when the cutter disappears after accepting the order, when the order takes one year to complete, when the price at the end is not the same as the price quoted, when the cutter can’t finish the order, when the cutting is bad, when the cutter has made bad choices and the color or yield is bad, when the cutter is rude and defensive, etc.
If you can avoid those pitfalls you will be moving in the right direction. Be kind, be understanding, be on time. Figure out your prices before you start taking orders and know your limits. When people ask me to do things I can’t do (concave cutting, carvings, bowling ball-sized stones, calibrated orders of over 1000 pieces), I tell them No but I explain why in a kind voice. This way, there is less stress and less disappointment. The worst thing for the client is to receive a batch of poorly cut stones. The worst thing for you is to accept an order that you can't do, which makes you want to give up or raise the price (neither of which is acceptable).
The biggest challenge when cutting your own stones is finding rough gem material. Answering this essential question is part of your initial homework: How will I source rough? There are a few different ways and everyone will find one that works for them: buy the rough at the Tucson show (or other gem shows), buy the rough from Western rough dealers online (or at shows), buy the rough from people who live in gem-producing countries through social media, go to gem-producing countries and buy the rough in person, mine your own rough. I know cutters who do all of these things. How you choose to get rough is outside the scope of this article but it’s very important. If the rough you buy is very expensive then you have to make your stones very expensive to in order to turn a profit. If you fly to a gem-producing country and can’t find any good rough this is also a very expensive mistake. If you buy from someone and get scammed; same negative consequences. There are pro’s and con’s to all of the options.
You need to know a lot in order to buy rough and/or you need to find someone you trust to help you. Gemology training can help here and experience is crucial. This is why spending a few years cutting for private customers can be helpful. If you've been looking at rough for a few years then you have more experience. From an American cutters point of view, the easiest place to start buying rough is from trusted rough dealers located in America. The cost is higher but the risk is lower. Here is a list of rough dealers that I personally know and trust:
New Era Gems. Maybe one of the original American rough dealers:
Tom Schneider. A pillar of the American rough world:
John Garsow. Another well respected staple of the American rough world:
Farooq Hashmi. A good friend and adventurous rough dealer who specializes in parcels as opposed to single stones: https://www.facebook.com/intimategems
Amir Hashmi, Farooq’s cousin. Amir mostly posts individual stones here: https://www.facebook.com/Unlimitedgems1/
Joe Henley. Well respected and traveling a lot to source rough: https://joehenleyrough.com
Matthew Milstead. Has great material and a nice social media presence: https://www.milsteadgemstones.com/
Gil Yuda. Another close friend and gem adventurer. His etsy shop has cut and rough: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ancientkingdom
Marketing to Your Customer Base
If you want to cut and sell your stones then a customer base is essential. How can someone who currently doesn’t have clients or a product build a customer base? Traditionally, you could have used word of mouth or set up a booth at a gem show (both still valid and useful modes of advertising) but today, social media is probably the easiest way. Start an instagram account. Maybe start an etsy shop. Start posting photos of what you do. Show people the quality of your work. Learn to take better photos. If you can’t afford a nice camera and macro lens, get a $20 clip-on macro lens for your phone and start that way. I didn’t have a nice camera for the first three years of my business. Learn about lighting, learn about visual storytelling, learn about composition, learn to use Photoshop to color correct and de-dust your photos. There are free YouTube tutorials for all of these things. Cut great stones (whether they belong to you or your customers), take great photos (make sure your customer is ok with you showing their stones), and slowly build your network. Two years later, people can see a portfolio of your work through social media and they will have an idea on your style, your level of quality and professionalism, and your personality.
People always say to target the needs of your customer base but if you have no clients then it’s impossible to do that. You literally don’t have any idea who wants to buy your stones and what they like. Don’t worry about that at first. Just begin. Start cutting, start photographing, start posting. Learn as you go. By the time your cutting is great, hopefully your photos will be great and an audience will have found you. I’ve found it helpful to interact with gemstone-related social media groups, use hashtags, make videos, and generally try to put as much of my personality into my work as possible so that it stands out from every other amazing cutter on the internet.
There is a lot to learn and a lot to say about gemcutting. There are a lot of resources online to learn from. There are forums, Facebook groups, YouTube tutorials, and video courses. I have highlighted some of the hurdles you need to think about but don’t let them bog you down. There is work out there for cutters. There are jewelers looking for unique stones. For the recutter, there is an unlimited amount of trade work waiting to be done.
If you want to get more behind the scenes information into the lives and businesses of professional cutters, I have a webinar series called Gemcutting Conversations where I interview a new cutter each month. All the conversations are on YouTube and they are full of very valuable and unique content.
Gemcutting is a rewarding trade that allows you to look at some of the most beautiful things in nature while interacting with some of the nicest people, who love their industry. Gemcutting gave me all the things I was looking for in life; excitement, adventure, and really wild things. If you are interested in learning to cut stones, whether for hobby or for your career, spend some time exploring the links that I’ve sprinkled throughout this article as well as exploring the gem and jewelry industry in your city/country to see where there might be a niche for you to fit into. Good luck. The path of the gemcutter is worth the effort.
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 reading this article, you might enjoy my other articles about finding a path in the gem trade:
The Path to Success in the Gem Trade
Originally Published on the Institute of Gem Trading website, May 2018