The History of London’s Lapidaries

by Justin K Prim

Justin K Prim
Justin K Prim
55 min readApr 20, 2022


The history of London’s gem and jewellery trade has always been a story of three parallel narratives: those of the goldsmiths, the coloured-stone lapidaries and the diamond cutters. Although one would be hard-pressed to find a diamond cutter in modern London, and coloured-stone cutters have become exceedingly scarce, these three interrelated histories are quite important to understanding the role of London in European gem and jewellery craftsmanship. This two-part article pieces together the least known of these three narratives to present the largely untold history of London’s coloured-stone cutters. Part 1 briefly examines the ancient beginnings of British gem cutting, followed by developments from medieval times through the Renaissance. In conjunction with the growth of the British Empire, the lapidary trade benefitted from the variety of rough gems that made their way to England and helped London to become, at one period of time, one of Europe’s largest gem-cutting and trading centres. Part 2 of the article will explore how London remains one of the last European cutting centres (although quite small), and yet still preserves and transmits historic traditions for cutting coloured stones.


The art of cutting and polishing gemstones is a very old tradition in Britain. For evidence of early British gem cutting, we need to look no further than the Anglo- Saxon Staffordshire Hoard from the 6th–7th centuries. Found in 2009, the hoard contains hundreds of loose and gold-set cut-and-polished slices (Figure 1) and cabochons of garnet (Fern et al. 2019). To produce these gems, the garnet slices were attached to stone slabs with a mixture of brick dust and resin and then held against a rotating horizontal wheel carrying abrasive (Bimson 1985, p. 127). The polishing might have been done manually against a wooden block or possibly against a smooth piece of copper covered with abrasive powder, as has been documented in several European medieval manuscripts (Bol 2019, p. 226).

Figure 1: (a) This 6th–7th century gold ornament (seax fitting or knife sheath; dimensions not provided) from the Staffordshire Hoard is set with ornately shaped garnet slices that are arranged in a complex pattern. (b) A closer look at another piece from the Staffordshire Hoard shows the different shapes in which the garnets were cut. Photos from Fern et al. (2019); © Birmingham Museums Trust.

These polished garnets are more appropriately called wafers or slices rather than faceted stones (Figure 1b), but the techniques to produce them likely continued to be used and innovated upon until the present day. In London, the tradition of using copper and abrasive powder to shape and polish gemstones has continued until modern times (as discussed in part 2 of this article), a technique which possibly links directly to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of cutting garnets into thin, flat shapes.


Evidence of a goldsmithing quarter in London exists as far back as the 13th century. The goldsmiths and their livery company are important to this story because the history of gem cutting in London is intimately linked to the goldsmithing trade. The lapidaries of London never had a guild of their own, such as the ones in Antwerp or Paris (Bycroft & Dupré 2019, p. 10), but information about the activities of the cutters can be gleaned between the lines of The Goldsmith Company’s meeting minutes. The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths received their royal charter in 1327 (The Goldsmiths’ Company n.d.), although taxation records indicate that goldsmiths were already operating in London in the 1200s (Schofield 2011, pp. 114–115). Any jeweller who wanted to do business inside the City of London needed to be a freeman of a city guild (Glanville 1979, p. 1), so the local gem cutters had to work directly with these members to do legitimate business.

A few blocks from Goldsmiths’ Hall was the business hub of Cheapside, which was occupied by four-storey timber-framed buildings, and which the antiquarian John Stow described as ‘the most beautiful frame of fair houses and shops in England’. Cheapside was well known throughout Europe as the centrepiece of an extraordinary market street (Stowe 1908, pp. 344–352). The shops were occupied by goldsmiths and craftsmen who specialised in working with gems, and likely also included a few gem cutters. Cheapside would prove quite significant for shedding light on the early history of Renaissance jewellery and cutting styles (see below).

There are no documented records about the techniques of London gem cutters from these early days. The jewellery styles of the time show that gem cutters and gem merchants would have been necessary in the city. Stirrup rings — simple rings usually ornamented with a central gemstone — were popular from the middle of the 12th century until at least the 15th century (Egan & Pritchard 2008). Rings from this period have been found in London (and in other cities) with sapphire, garnet or glass as the centre stone. Stones at this time were cut as round or square cabochons.

One of the earliest examples of a faceted stone in England is found in the ring of Bishop William Wytlesey, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1368 to 1374. The ring (Figure 2), which is now on display at the V&A Museum in London, was made between 1362 and 1374 and includes a faceted sapphire (V&A 2002), which was considered a symbol of purity by the church (Lecouteux 2012, p. 283). The stone has a large table surrounded by eight facets, as well as a hole drilled through it, which was believed to increase its power and might also provide evidence that it came from a prior piece of jewellery.

Figure 2: The sapphire in William Wytlesey’s ring, which was made between 1362 and 1374, is one of the earliest examples of a faceted stone in a piece of British jewellery. The ring measures 3.1 × 2.8 × 1.4 cm. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, M.191–1975.

At the start of the 16th century, most gem cutting was done outside of England (Reddaway 1975, pp. 206–207). While England was witnessing the beginning of the Tudor period, merchants in France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany were building the reputations of trading centres in those countries for Europe’s gem and jewellery industry. In this pre-British Empire era, London was simply not yet ready to compete on a global scale.

London’s goldsmiths and gem cutters were inspired by the styles and techniques of the European gem hubs at the time through the many immigrants who came to London from these cultural centres. Throughout the 1500s, there were Dutch and Flemish goldsmiths and gem cutters working in London, as well as German artisans. Craftsmen from Nuremberg and Augsburg — well-known gem-cutting centres in Bavaria — settled in London and brought their influence (Carrington & Hughes 1926, p. 4). In 1501, three Flemish gem cutters reportedly came to London to share their techniques (Reddaway 1975, p. 207). The foreign presence would have led to an exchange of skills, styles and cultural preferences, especially as the craftsmen started taking on apprentices.

The influence of foreign jewellers in London was strong throughout the Tudor period, and that influence grew as more of them emigrated there (Lever 1975, p. 18). Craftsmen of all types attempted to sell their exquisite creations to the court of Henry VIII and, later, Elizabeth I, both of whom patronised these foreign artists. Many of the craftsmen became permanent residents of London, and records from 1571 and 1593 (Scarisbrick 1994, p. 87) report 138 immigrant members of the gem and jewellery trade, 19 of whom were lapidaries, with some specified as agate, diamond or ‘stone’ cutters, and a few labelled specifically as stone slippers (Dutch for gem cutters). In addition to those of German, Dutch and Flemish ancestry, a smaller number of the immigrants hailed from France and Spain. According to Scarisbrick (1994, p. 87), 16 of the lapidaries came from the so-called Low Countries (historically, the Netherlands, Flanders or Belgica in the coastal lowland region of north-western Europe), with some specifically from Antwerp and Amsterdam.


The Renaissance brought a reverence for the styles of classical antiquity. One of these styles was the ancient art of gem engraving of cameos and intaglios (Scarisbrick 1994, p. 82). Cameo portraits were popular throughout King Henry VIII’s and Queen Elizabeth’s reigns (1491– 1603; Evans 1921, p. 96). Gem cutters in London such as Richard Astyll (the king’s ‘graver of stones’), Michael Berger and John Mayne specialised in carving these cameos (Scarisbrick 1994, p. 82). Engravings were done on all types of stones, such as ruby, chalcedony, garnet, sapphire, agate, lapis lazuli, amethyst and turquoise. These engraved gems were used as seals, crests and badges, and also set in all kinds of jewellery.

As for faceted stones, most 16th-century gems were fashioned as point cuts and table cuts (Figure 3), with an occasional multifacet cut (described further below). There is not much extant jewellery from this period (most of it was melted down and reused), but what does still exist shows the repeated use of these same two simple cuts, as well as cabochons. Since these early cuts did not have a lot of sparkle and shine, the jeweller relied on extravagant metalwork to create something eye-catching. Aside from the surviving English Renaissance jewellery, there is a wealth of pictorial evidence from which to glean details. Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543), who was an important court painter, recorded many images of jewellery designs in what is now known as his ‘Jewellery Book,’ which currently resides in the British Museum and affirms the regular use of table cuts as the main faceting style at the time (Figure 4; Evans 1921, p. 75).

Figure 3: This drawing by the author illustrates the major faceting styles for coloured stones introduced during the 14th–17th centuries.

The growing use of multifaceted cuts in the 16th century shows a push towards novelty in the gem-cutting world. Not only were gem cutters looking back at antiquity for inspiration, they were also starting to create innovative designs to appeal to their customers. A rare example of extant jewellery from this period containing multifaceted cuts is seen in Figure 5. For the peridot at the top, the cutter used what is now considered a standard step cut for the pavilion, but the crown was more experimental. It consists of two rectangular steps, visible along the edge of the stone, on top of which were added two triangular facets on each side to form a point instead of a table. This early use of triangular facets is uncommon, probably due to the challenge of cutting them symmetrically on the crude faceting machines of the period. For the garnet mounted below it, the cutter started with a rectangle with the corners cut off. On its pavilion is a simple step cut, but the crown shows another innovation: the cutter used triangular-shaped facets, similar to those of a rose cut, to create a diagonal chequerboard pattern across the crown, which also has a keel line across the area where the table would be. This is quite a complex and unique cut for this period of Tudor jewellery. The pendant itself is also interesting because the mounting leaves the culet points of both stones exposed so that they would touch the wearer’s skin in order to transmit the believed protective properties of the stones to the wearer.

Figure 4: Hans Holbein’s ‘Jewellery Book’ (1532–1543; British Museum Inventory number SL,5308.95) shows a Tudor example of table-cut stones in this pendant. It was described as being set with sapphires and pearls, and this painting depicts one of nine designs for pendant jewels. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum. Figure 5: This English-made gold pendant (circa 1540–1560) is set with a faceted peridot (top) and hessonite (centre) that are accompanied by a sapphire bead. The peridot and garnet both have unusual multifacet cuts that were quite innovative at the time. The pendant measures 5.9 × 2.8 × 0.6 cm. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London, M.242–1975.


Halfway through the 16th century, Britain began to shift its trading position to one of power, laying the seeds for what would become the British Empire. Until that point, the big trading companies had been Venetian and Portuguese. In 1555, a group of Londoners set up the Muscovy Company to ship goods directly from Russia to London with no continental middleman (Britannica 2013). Soon after followed the Levant Company and the East India Company, importing goods from around the Mediterranean and the Far East, respectively (Britannica 2021).

Between its new trading companies in the East, as well as the new wealth that was coming from the Americas, England found that it had suddenly become very rich. Queen Elizabeth indulged in jewellery and the country followed suit. The medieval stock of gems that had been released onto the market when Henry VIII seized the monasteries and their treasures had not yet been exhausted, and the stones coming from the trading companies were quickly added to these (Lewis 1948, p. 255). The Renaissance interest in classical gems caused an explosive obsession with gemstones and gem cutting, both engraved and faceted. Even the middle class joined in on the gemstone craze, using transparent colour- less quartz rather than diamonds, and paste (glass) in place of more valuable coloured stones. Even mundane items could become ornate objects or jewellery, such as a pomander, a fan handle or even a golden toothpick.

Through Venice and Lisbon, stones came from all over the world: ruby and spinel from Burma, lapis lazuli and spinel from Afghanistan, turquoise from Persia, sapphire from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), garnet from Bohemia and opal from Hungary, as well as pearls from Scotland and Venezuela (Scarisbrick 1994, p. 80). Lisbon had become a trading powerhouse when the Portuguese started bringing back gemstones, among other luxury goods, from India in 1498 (Vassalo e Silva 1993). Venice, already a powerful trading centre, continued to import stones from the Middle East and via the merchants of the Silk Road into the 1600s. English merchants stationed themselves in port cities around Europe and as far away as Turkey, with some of them becoming very wealthy as they bought and sold gems on commission.

In London itself the lapidary trade was progressing, and Figure 6 illustrates styles of cutting that were being experimented with. One new addition was the rose cut, which originally developed in the mid-1500s (Ogden 2018, pp. 152–159). The drawing illustrates two pear-shaped rose cuts, as well as a ‘French cut’, in which the four facets of the table cut have been rotated around the stone to create four (or sometimes eight) triangles around a kite-shaped table. In 1668, the word lapidary appeared in a London-based list of manufacturing trades (Wilkins 1668, p. 339), and in 1677 an English-Latin dictionary defined a lapidarius (Latin) as a ‘digger of stone, a stone cutter, a mason, a lapidary, one that cuts and sets precious stones and jewels’ (Holyoake 1677, p. 792).

Figure 6: This 1615 drawing (from Pointon 2009) shows some popular cutting styles of the time. Top row: two table cuts, a baguette and a French cut; middle row: four step-cut rectangles; and bottom row: two rose-cut pears and a rectangular step cut.

As in the previous century, most of London’s 17th-century gem cutters were immigrants, and a few of them could be identified by name: Sophia Antine (from Dusseldorf) in Blackfriars and Cornelius Johnson (from Brussels) on Coleman Street were both professional agate cutters. Leonard Renatus (from France) of Blackfriars specialised in emeralds. A cutter from Antwerp named Harwick worked in the Tower ward and was known as a cutter of ring stones (Forsyth 2013, p. 80). Of course, some of London’s gem cutters were of English origin, such as Robert Russell of Aldersgate Street, who specialised in emerald, John Blunt of Silver Street, who specialised in turquoise and ruby, and John Critchlowe of Great Wood Street, who specialised in garnet and amethyst (Forsyth 2013, p. 80).


The Cheapside hoard is an incredible time capsule for the story of gem cutting, because it comes from a period with little documentation about the lapidary tools or techniques used. The hoard is a collection of more than 400 pieces of gold, gems and jewellery buried under a shop in Cheapside in the middle of the 17th century. It sat underground, untouched, for almost 300 years (Forsyth 2013, p. 6). Although the country (or countries) where the stones were cut is not known, the cutting styles show how diverse and experimental the lapidary arts were in the early 17th century (see Figure 7). As expected, there were point cuts and table cuts, which were also common during the previous 200 years.

Figure 7: These diagrams show some of the cutting styles found in the 17th-century Cheapside Hoard. Top row, left to right: table cut, French cut, an unusual rectangular rose cut and two unusual octagonal cuts. Bottom row: Three variations on the rose-cut style. Drawings by J. Prim.

We find several variations of the rose cut, indicating that this must have been a popular design (Wheeler 1928, p. 20). On one ring is a cluster of round rose-cut garnets (Figure 8a), and in a pendant are two sapphires with unusual rectangular variations of the rose cut (Figure 8b). This rectangular style of rose cut seems to be unique to the period and might have been a short-lived experiment for the lapidary who cut it.

Aside from the hundreds of pieces of jewellery, there are also many unset stones, which provide rare visual access to the pavilions of the gems. Included among the several types of table-cut stones is a large citrine with four facets and a table on top, and four facets and a culet on the bottom (Forsyth 2013, p. 160). The lines and symmetry are nearly perfect and the polish appears to be without blemish. The hoard also includes a variety of step-cut variations. Some have two steps, some have a keel and others have a culet. Shapes include pear, square, octagonal and oval. Round, rectangular and rough cushion shapes appear alongside numerous cabochons, briolettes, unique square rose cuts and a large collection of carvings (e.g. Weldon & Jonathan 2013).

The highlight of the hoard is an emerald watch (Figure 8c), which consists of a large Colombian emerald crystal that was hollowed out, faceted, polished and turned into a pocket watch (Forsyth 2013, p. 136). The facets on this piece are large, well polished and straight, although there are indications that they are not perfectly flat

Figure 8: Examples of jewels from the Cheapside hoard include (a) a ring mounted with rose-cut garnets (19 × 17 mm), (b) an exceptional sapphire-and-spinel pendant featuring two forms of rectangular rose-cut sapphires (72 × 15 × 6 mm) and © a magnificent pocket watch with a hinged lid that was crafted from a single carved emerald crystal (32 × 24 × 21 mm). Photos © Museum of London; inventory numbers (a) A14237, (b) A14104 and © A14162.


Little to no evidence exists about the techniques used by early British lapidaries. One of the first pieces of solid information is from 1652, when Thomas Nicols in his A Lapidary, or, History of Pretious Stones indicated that the engraving and polishing processes required the stones to be prepared by grinding them on a whetstone (or millstone) and then shaped into a more exact form. He said they must be rubbed with emery powder and then polished with tripoli, although diamonds could only be polished with diamond powder. He provided nothing specific about how facets were placed, but he did say that carving could be done with an iron or steel orb (Nicols 1652, p. 26).

The earliest documentation of definitive British lapidary technology comes from herald painter Randle Holme in his 1688 book, The Academy of Armory. The book is intended to be a comprehensive guide to heraldry in the 17th century, but Holme often diverged from his topic and, in one of these digressions, he produced an illustrated list of trades, which included lapidary work. He provided an image of a lapidary in his shop, as well as his tools: a lapidary mill (Figure 9a) and a ‘sandbox’ (Figure 9b), which were described as follows (Holme 1688, p. 382):

There belongs to it first a strong Plank Table Cover, four square, set upon a strong Frame with four feet…. The Axis of the Left Hand Wheel comes through the Table, and is turned about with Lapidaries left hand, with a Winch fitted on the end of it.

The Right Hand Wheel, hath also an Axis which comes through the top of the Table, upon which again is fixed another round Wheel, or rather a round flat piece of Lead, fitted into a round cavity upon the superficies of the Table, where it turns…

About the Table Mill is fixed a square Frame, about an inch and half high, which is only to lay Stones to be ground therein, that thereby they may not be scattered abroad on the Table in time of working.

In such kind of Boxes with covers, Lapidaries keep their fine Dust of Diamond, or of other kinds of Stones made into a kind of Sand, by which with the help of their Mill and Water or Oil, they cut or grind a Stone or Diamond into what form or fashion (used in Rings and Jewels) he pleaseth, afterwards he polisheth them.

Figure 9: This lapidary polishing mill (a) and ‘sandbox’ (b) from 1688 are the earliest illustrations of British faceting tools (Holme 1688, Book 3, p. 380).

The device illustrated by Holme (again, see Figure 9a) is essentially identical to other lapidary machines seen around Europe at the time, such as in Anselmus de Boodt’s Gemmarum et Lapidum (1609) and Andrés Félibien’s Des Principes de l’Architecture (1676). Both of those machines featured a quadrant handpiece that held the stone and helped the cutter make the desired angles and rotations. It is curious that Holme did not mention the use of any sort of handpiece. Several later sources indicate that London lapidaries did in fact employ quadrant handpieces. The earliest mention of such a device in Britain is in John Barrow’s Dictionaries Polygraphicum (Barrow 1735, p. 408):

The workman turns a wheel with one hand, and with the other he forms the stone fixed to a stick, fastened in an instrument of wood, called a quadrant, because it is composed of several pieces that quadrate together, and is turned by a vice; which turning the stick, forms regularly the different angles the lapidary would make on the stone.

Before de Boodt (1609), there were few early depictions of cutting tables in Germany, where it seems this type of lapidary mill originated. The earliest known illustration appears in Das Steinbuch (Volmar 1498, p. 1; Figure 10), and it appears that this machine was used without the help of a quadrant-type handpiece. Writings from this period report that Nuremberg was a major cutting centre, and a Czech merchant brought one such table from Nuremberg to Prague in 1599 (Prim 2019a), so it is likely that the design for the British lapidary mill is of German origin. The predecessor to all of these machines was likely the mill recorded by Henri Arnaut, which seems to have connections to both Germany and Venice (Schmetzer 2019).

Figure 10: The British lapidary table likely descended from early German ones, such as this one depicted in Volmar’s Das Steinbuch (1498).

Although Holme provided a thorough description of this type of hand-cranked bench machine, he also illustrated another device that he did not give details about. This drawing shows a lapidary in his shop with stones for sale on the counter (Holme 1688, p. 95) and what appears to be a diamond-polishing mill in the background (Figure 11; see a similar machine in Schmetzer 2019, p. 548, figure 7).

This type of diamond-polishing machine is a more industrial version of the hand-cranked device used for coloured stones and is often turned by a second person, leaving the diamond cutter free to focus on faceting the stone. Although Holme did not show it, this kind of lapidary mill was always used with a wooden handpiece, called pincers (later a tang), which helps the cutter hold the stone at a certain angle. These types of machines appeared as early as 1550 in German manuscripts such as Eucharius Roeslin’s Kreuterbůch and later in 17th-century French books such as André Félibien’s Des Principes de l’Architecture in 1676. From the presence of this mill in Holme’s book, it seems possible that London’s lapidaries were using this large diamond-cutting mill with a wooden tang handpiece, and that the separate traditions and trajectories of diamond cutters and coloured-stone cutters had already been established.

Figure 11: This 17th-century illustration of a lapidary selling his goods also shows what appears to be
a diamond- polishing mill in the background (Holme 1688,p. 95).

At the beginning of the 18th century, one more source provided concrete information on the polishing techniques of the time: The Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (Chambers 1728). It specified that ruby, sapphire and topaz were cut on a copper wheel with olive oil and diamond powder, and polished on another copper wheel with tripoli and water. Emerald, zircon, amethyst, garnet, agate and other softer stones were cut on a lead lap with emery and water, and polished on a tin wheel with tripoli. Turquoise, lapis and opal were cut and polished on a wooden wheel with tripoli. These descriptions reflect techniques being used in other European cutting centres at the time (Félibien 1676, pp. 358–363; Prim 2019a), reinforcing the idea that many of the techniques for cutting coloured stones in London came directly from the lapidary traditions of the immigrant cutters who had relocated there.


Much of the early history of European faceting took place in France, Germany and the Low Countries, and the techniques of these cutters were handed down from master to apprentice until they finally found their way to London. Thus, religious struggles in Europe had consequences for the gem trade in London as various religious refugees relocated to England. In the 1660s, Portuguese Jewish gem merchants and cutters settled in London and helped revitalise London’s local trade while also infusing it with new techniques (Claremont 1906, p. 36). Protestant Huguenots started arriving from France around 1670, and many of these jewellers and clockmakers set up in Clerkenwell, just outside the city walls, so they could sell their goods directly from their workshops without needing to be a part of London’s guild system (although the Goldsmiths’ Company still had the right to control the quality of their work; Lichtenstein 2013, p. 136).

In the 17th century, jewellery styles became fixated upon the gemstones themselves, and with the 18th century, that trend continued. Gem cutters became more creative and more proficient with their craft, to the point where some have called it the ‘Age of the Faceted Stone’ (Bradford 1967, p. 13). The biggest change that arrived with the 18th century was a new fascination with diamonds. Thanks to the discovery of the Brazilian alluvial deposits in the early 1700s, the European market was flooded with diamonds and, as a result, diamond jewellery became the dominant fashion (Ogden 2018, pp. 318–320). London was thus an important diamond- cutting centre throughout most of the 18th century.

The rose cut reached its ultimate form, along with several variations, some more elaborate than others. The brilliant cut first appeared in the mid-1600s (Figure 3) and was used in London right away (Ogden 2018, p. 171). As it evolved, the brilliant cut would continue to enchant the imagination of its viewers (Figure 12; Jeffries 1751). The quality of gem cutting in London was high, although fashion in England still generally followed the lead of France (Bradford 1967, p. 15). Foreign craftsmen continued to emigrate to London, bringing influences from Italy, France and Germany.

The 18th century saw a renewed interest in the classical period, which meant that faceted stones were no longer the only fashion trend. For example, Figure 13 shows master engraver Samuel Rogers operating his turning machine. He did public demonstrations for one shilling, and promoted the capabilities of the machine to create carved medals, gentlemen’s cane handles, eggs, bezels for snuff boxes, toothpick cases and more (Anonymous 1937, p. 171).

Figure 12: Popular 18th-century diamond-cutting styles are illustrated in David Jeffries’ 1751 Treatise on Diamonds and Pearls, compiled here from end plates 1–10. Figure 13: This 18th-century trade card depicts master engraver Samuel Rogers with his ‘turning machine’ (from Anonymous 1937).

An 18th Century Gem Cutter: Hyams Lapidary

To get an idea of what the life of a gem cutter might have looked like in the 18th century, we can follow the story of jeweller, engraver and lapidary Solomon Hyam. According to his trade card (Figure 14), he set up shop at 127 Pall Mall, which was three doors down from Carlton House, the mansion where the Prince Regent lived (Hyams 1780). According to Ancestry.com1, family legend says that Solomon’s father Moses was a soldier in the Polish army who fled to Ireland after banishment for his revolutionary activity in defence of Polish freedom. In Dublin, Moses married Judith Isaacs of Germany and a year later she gave birth to their oldest son, Solomon. Around 1765, the family relocated to London. Solomon was 12 at the time and it seems likely that, after a few years in London, he would have started an apprenticeship at around age 14.

By 1780, when Solomon was 27 years old, he was advertising his services (again, see Figure 14). He was buying and selling many kinds of rough and cut gem materials, including bloodstone, carnelian, topaz, amethyst, aquamarine, garnet and turquoise, as well as rough diamond. He was slicing, cutting and polishing gem materials, as well as teaching the art of cutting for a reasonable price. In addition, he supplied opticians with ‘the very best Brazil Pebble [rock crystal] for Spectacles’ and also provided carvers with agate burnishers.

Solomon’s trade card depicts him using the same machine that Randle Holme described in 1688. Although the image shows him slicing a stone on the side of a slitting lap, it is likely that he used a quadrant handpiece for the actual faceting and polishing of his stones. According to Ancestry.com2, Solomon had an address in Whitechapel in 1791 before moving his shop to 254 Strand, and he moved again around 1801 to 6 Pall Mall. All four shops were generally along the route between the financial district in the City of London and the government district of Westminster — a route that London’s wealthiest patrons would have travelled regularly. Sometime after closing his shop on Pall Mall, he emigrated to the United States and, later, died at age 84 in Charleston, South Carolina.

Figure 14: An excerpt from the 1780 trade card of Solomon Hyam, a lapidary of Pall Mall, illustrates him slicing stones on his British lapidary table. Courtesy of the Winterthur Library: Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.

Solomon’s life provides a quintessential example of British gem cutting in this period. A Jewish immigrant to London, he was trained with a skillset that likely developed during a previous generation in Lisbon, went into business as a successful gem cutter and merchant, and ran several shops in prominent locations around London before retiring. Along the way, he passed on his skills to his apprentices, which allowed his foreign skillset to become naturalised as it was adopted by the next generation of London-based gem cutters.


With the destruction of Cheapside in the 1666 Great Fire of London, its importance as a gem and jewellery trading hub declined, and a new neighbourhood slowly rose up to take its place. Less than a mile to the west was a sort of in-between neighbourhood, just outside the City of London, which was once the walled estate and garden of Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. From this property came the name ‘Hatton Garden’.

The descendants of the Huguenot jewellers and clock- makers who had originally settled in Clerkenwell started to migrate to the next neighbourhood south, and by the early 1800s a few shops had opened there. However, the neighbourhood did not start out as a gem hub. In the 1830s, there were printmakers, bookmakers, cabinet- makers and tailors, with only a few jewellers (Lichtenstein 2013, p. 138). It had a seedy reputation, with parts of it being a ‘liberty’ — an area free from the jurisdiction of the police and frequented by undesirable characters. Leather Lane, which runs through the centre of the neighbourhood, was described as being ‘much infested by thieves, beggars, and Italian organ-grinders’ (Abrahams 1955, p. 154). It did not take long for all this to change.

Aside from the descendants of French and Dutch immigrants who relocated in the early days of Hatton Garden, a wave of Italian immigration into London took place at the same time (Lichtenstein 2013, p. 193). Many of them were highly skilled craftsmen who lived in apartments above their ground-floor shops in Hatton Garden. From the 1830s onward, more jewellers, gem cutters, clockmakers and goldsmiths settled along Leather Lane, as well as on Hatton Garden Street. The success of the early Hatton Garden days was due in part to the assayers and mineralogists of Johnson Matthey & Co. Ltd (Lichtenstein 2013, pp. 160–161). The company refined and sold metal bullion to the jewellery trade that was quickly growing in the neighbourhood around them. As England passed into the Victorian period, Hatton Garden started to develop a reputation as the new gem and jewellery district of London. In the early- to mid-19th century, the neighbourhood only serviced the trade and not the public.


Until the 19th century, the main tool used for faceting stones was the quadrant handpiece. It was employed not only in London but in the cutting centres of Prague and Paris, as well as in workshops in Germany, Russia and Sri Lanka (Prim 2019b). Although a reference was made to the London quadrant by Barrow in 1735, no images survived until the mid-1800s. Curiously, two different handpieces were depicted within a few years of each other (Reed 1833; Anonymous 1840). Figure 15a is of the earlier one, nearly identical to the one depicted by de Boodt in 1609. This early quadrant design was a major innovation in gem-cutting technology because it enabled the stone to be held at specific angles. Without the development of the quadrant handpiece, gem cutting probably would have been stuck in the 1500s, unable to progress much further than the simple table and point cuts so often seen before the quadrant was put to regular use.

Figure 15b seems to be a later innovation that was developed just before the quadrant went out of style. It had a more sophisticated index wheel that looks similar to a clock face with a hand that rotated around a dial to tell a cutter exactly which side of the stone was going to get cut by the lap, enabling lapidaries to be even more accurate than before. Despite its updated design, the quadrant was about to be superseded by the next development in lapidary technology.

Figure 15: Quadrant handpieces are illustrated in two London periodicals: Mechanics’ Magazine (a, Reed 1833) and The Saturday Magazine (b, Anonymous 1840). These were used by professional British coloured-stone cutters until the 1820s–1840s, when they were replaced with new lapidary technology.

PART 2: 19th Century to Present

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the coloured-stone cutting trade in London was at least 450 years old. The first five centuries had witnessed the introduction of the hand-cranked cutting table (likely of German design) and, later, the introduction of the quadrant handpiece (probably of French design) used for precisely placing facets around a gemstone (Prim 2021). Thanks to these two pieces of technology, and to the cutting and polishing techniques that came with them, London lapidaries were held in high regard during the preceding centuries. Throughout the history of gemstone faceting, the introduction of new cutting technology directly correlated to advancements in faceting styles (e.g. Figure 1). It is this type of technological advancement which marks the next chapter of British gem cutting. Early in the nineteenth century, a new type of cutting machine — the jamb peg — made its way from Paris to London, where it transformed the lapidary trade.

Figure 1: This 21.03 ct mixed-cut synthetic sapphire was faceted in the first decade of the 2000s by the last generation of gem cutters at the Chas. Mathews company, John Taylor and Peter Rome, for a museum exhibition. The mixed-cut style epitomises the tastes of professional London cutters: the step-cut bottom saves weight and improves colour saturation, while the brilliant-cut top increases brilliancy while also following the natural shape of the rough stone. Photo by J. Prim.


Much can be said about the adventurous life of British mineralogist John Mawe (1764–1829). Hailing from Derby, in his 20s Mawe apprenticed under the well-known marble cutter Richard Brown, and in 1794 he married Brown’s daughter, Sarah. In 1797, they moved to London and opened a mineral shop in Covent Garden (Torrens 1992, p. 267). Over the course of his career, he produced several books that contributed greatly to Britain’s gemmological and mineralogical knowledge. Of greatest importance was Familiar Lessons in Mineralogy and Geology, which was first published in 1819. The book introduced the basic terms and concepts associated with mineralogy, including the study of chemistry, crystal structure and the physical properties of minerals. It was written from Mawe’s practical experience (and published in 12 editions), and included basic observations on minerals, gems, geology and the lapidary craft. In the first edition, Mawe introduced readers to the world of lapidary by providing detailed instructions on how stones were cut and polished. The book includes a colour plate depicting a cutting machine that seems to have been his own invention (Figure 2). This ‘portable lapidary apparatus’ was offered for sale in his London shop, and Mawe stated that, ‘This compact Lapidaries’ Mill is contained in a small box, and may be placed on any parlour table’ (Mawe 1821, p. 102). This might be the first attempt to make gem cutting appealing and available to the layperson. England was going through its first popular interest in amateur gem hunting, which may explain why Mawe’s book was so successful. It spoke to a demand by hobbyist enthusiasts for mineralogical information.

Figure 2: This illustration of a Regency-era gentleman operating a British-made portable faceting machine (Mawe 1821, facing p. 102) provides an early example of equipment designed to appeal to amateur lapidaries. It was possibly the invention of John Mawe.

In 1827, Mawe published a standalone version of his lapidary instructions, which contained an illustration of a new lapidary machine: the jamb peg (Figure 3). This drawing (which also appeared facing p. 106 of the 1828 edition of his Familiar Lessons) is the first English-language reference to this new type of gem-cutting tool. In fact, the only previous reference to the device is in C. P. Brard’s Minéralogie Appliquée aux Arts (1821, p. 421), which demonstrates that the jamb-peg cutting head was being used in Paris only a few years earlier. Brard described the appearance and function of the apparatus but did not give it a name. Evidently it was not yet known by the French name ascribed to it today: évention (a corruption of the French word invention). In addition to giving the device the English name of gimp peg, Mawe described the functions of the machine (Mawe 1827, p. 8):

In order to cut facets…it is necessary to have a cone of wood, about eight inches high, placed perpendicular on an iron pin…. This is called a gimp peg: it has four or five heights of holes, about half an inch above each other…so that a line from it to the edge of the mill would form a perpendicular, and the next a very acute angle; a stick of definite length is used, and the stone that is to be cut in facets must be cemented to it.

Figure 3: The drawing shows the first representation of a jamb-peg faceting device to appear in English-language literature (Mawe 1827, Plate A, facing p. 9). This type of machine would forever change the cutting traditions of London’s lapidaries.

Regarding the name gimp peg (today known as jamb peg), Mawe’s use of gimp was likely a mispronunciation of the French word jambe, which means leg. The word peg equates to the word notch (as in the idiom ‘take one down a peg’ vs ‘take one down a notch’). It refers to an indentation or incision on an edge or surface, which is appropriate for describing this apparatus: a wooden cone with a series of notches cut for a tapered wooden ‘leg’ to sit in.

Mawe also provided an interesting piece of lapidary history. He mentioned that before the invention of the gimp peg, ‘The ancient mode of cutting stones was with a quadrant having a moveable index, to which the stone was cemented, and placed at any angle desired. This mode, though mathematically exact, is now discontinued, and the workman depends more on habit in placing his stick at a proper angle, and on his eye, in forming facets’ (Mawe 1827, p. 10 footnote). Thus, the quadrant handpiece, which had been in use since the early 1600s, began to be replaced by the new jamb-peg device in the 1820s. Although cutters lost the mathematical precision of the quadrant, they gained speed and, with practise, their cutting accuracy was just as good if not better than that of the old quadrant cutters.

Over the next 70 years, the jamb-peg device appeared in numerous books. In 1850, for example, Charles Holtzapffel’s six-volume Turning and Mechanical Manipulation series featured various images of the jamb-peg table (e.g. Holtzapffel 1850, p. 1324; see Figure 4). Volume 3 of the series contains detailed information about how the gem cutters of the mid-nineteenth century worked, including a discussion of the types of polishing abrasives used on the machine (Holtzapffel 1850, pp. 1307–1308):

Notwithstanding the apparent expence [sic] of the diamond powder, it is very generally employed…and although for this and some of the softer stones, emery, or in some cases even sand, might be successfully employed, the diamond powder is almost exclusively used, as it is found to be the most economical, when the time occupied in the cutting is taken into account.

Figure 4: (a) This drawing by Charles Holtzapffel (1850, p. 1324) is essentially identical to (b) the last surviving Victorian lapidary table, which now resides at Calke Abbey (Ellis 2021). The Calke Abbey table is missing the jamb-peg head, although the metal post that it attaches to can be seen. Photo by J. Prim.

Holtzapffel distinguished between the machines used by professionals and those used by amateurs (Holtzapffel 1850, pp. 1341–1347), reinforcing Mawe’s idea that lapidary work was becoming a popular hobby at the time. Before 1800, there were almost no amateur lapidaries — only professionals who had painstakingly learned the cutting and polishing techniques of previous generations through the apprenticeship system.

Beginning with Mawe’s generation, a new favourite pastime arose: people throughout Victorian Britain began to polish locally collected gems (Crawford 2008, p. 67). Adaptations to the cutting bench were made for those lacking the experience needed to become proficient at the jamb peg. An 1833 article included instructions for how to build an ‘amateur lapidary’s apparatus’ (Reed 1833) — essentially duplicating the machine illustrated in de Boodt’s 1609 Gemmarum et Lapidum Historia — with a hand-crank table and a quadrant handpiece. It was accompanied by an anecdote about the fine ‘pebbles’ that could be found on the coast near Scarborough.

Holtzapffel’s work also records another adaptation for amateurs: the use of a goniostat (Figure 5), normally employed for lathe turning, but modified for cutting facets. In Holtzapffel’s 1850 book he simply referred to it as ‘the instrument’ (p. 1164), but in a later edition he named it a goniostat (Holtzapffel 1864, p. 1159). He remarked that this device, with its mechanically controlled angles and indices, would make it much easier for the amateur to cut a perfect facet arrangement (Holtzapffel 1850, p. 1344), foreshadowing the progression of twentieth-century faceting technology.

Figure 5: In 1850, Charles Holtzapffel took a device used for lathe-turning (which he later called a goniostat) and converted it for cutting gemstones, with its adjustable angles and removable bit. By modifying the device with a rotating gear, the goniostat helped amateur cutters easily facet gemstones without the years of training needed to master the jamb-peg cutting technique. Drawings from Holtzapffel (1850), p. 1165 (left) and p. 1344 (right).


The Chas. Mathews company was founded in 1894, when Charles Mathews (Figure 6) was only 21 years old (Anonymous 1932b), presumably right after his apprenticeship ended. He soon built a reputation as one of the foremost gem experts in Hatton Garden. Not only was he a gem cutter, but he was also a gemmologist. Like Mawe, Mathews travelled the world looking for gem materials and brought them back to London to be cut and sold. His office was on the main street of Hatton Garden; 127 years and three offices later, the studio is still located on the same road.

By the time the company was founded, the jamb-peg machine had been in use for approximately seven decades and was standard for London lapidaries. Stones were cut on hand-cranked laps made of copper, gunmetal, pewter or lead, with carborundum (silicon carbide) or diamond powder used as the cutting abrasive (Smith 1913, p. 105). Polishing was then done on hand-cranked wheels made of copper, tin, pewter or sometimes wood topped with cloth or leather. The polishing agents used were diamond powder, ruby powder, tripoli, putty powder, pumice or rouge, in all cases mixed with oil or water (Smith 1913, p. 106; Ken Harrington pers. comm., September 2021). Stones were ‘stuck up’ on a dop with a cement made of shellac and plaster of paris. As a general rule, the harder the stone, the greater the speed of the lap.

Figure 6: Charles Mathews has been described as ‘Hatton Garden’s best known lapidary’ (Anonymous 1932b) and ‘a great gemmologist’ (Anonymous 1941). He founded his Hatton Garden-based gem and lapidary company in 1894. The Chas. Mathews company still exists today.

The London Cut — a world-renowned brilliant-style diamond cut with a slightly higher crown and smaller table (Tillander 1995, p. 175) — influenced London’s ideal coloured-stone cutting styles. Holtzapffel (1850) illustrated examples of faceting styles of the period (Figure 7) which, in turn, laid the foundations for the cuts seen in jewellery stores today. By the turn of the twentieth century, stones from all over the world were being sent to London for recutting (Streeter 1898, p. 41).

The London cutting facility described in Leopold Claremont’s 1906 book The Gem-Cutter’s Craft was likely identical to Chas. Mathews’ studio (Claremont 1906, p. 39–40):

What strikes a casual visitor most forcibly upon entering a modern lapidary’s workshop is the extreme simplicity and almost primitiveness of the tools and instruments in use. This is the keynote to the art of cutting and polishing precious stones, for the work is essentially a matter of skill and judgment.

Some of the most notable and precious stones made their way through London, arriving as rough material or crudely cut stones that were recut to perfection by London’s lapidaries (Ward 1933, p. 187). Their continued use of hand-crank faceting tables (Figure 8a), even after the availability of electricity, provided a considerable degree of accuracy due to the fine control of the lap speed, along with the delicate touch that was necessary for their jamb-peg work (Figure 8b).

Chas. Mathews started training apprentices early on. In 1903, James Arthur Cummings started his apprenticeship and ended up staying with the company for 40 years (Anonymous 1962). Starting in 1931, Mathews penned occasional gemmological articles for the newly launched magazine, The Gemmologist. He wrote about emeralds, rubies and sapphires (staples of the Chas. Mathews lapidary studio), as well as how to test for synthetics (Mathews 1931a–d, 1932). He gave a first- hand account of gem hunting in Ceylon (Sri Lanka; Mathews 1932), and also mentioned visits to Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar; Mathews 1935). During the 1930s, he travelled to South Africa to give expert advice on newly discovered emeralds in the Transvaal (Anonymous 1941).

Figure 7: Gem cutting styles used in London in the mid-nineteenth century included the mixed cut, step cut, rose cut and star cut (composite illustration from Holtzapffel 1850, pp. 1325–1335). Only 23 years after Mawe’s 1827 publication introduced the jamb peg, Holtzapffel (1850, p. 1337) reported, ‘All the different forms of facetting are usually cut by practical lapidaries, without any other guide than the gim [sic] peg, and cement stick’.

Articles of this period stressed that London cutting was much better than the work of local cutters in Southeast Asia because, in part, British gem cutters had the science of gemmology to aid them (Ward 1931). This is consistent with the presence of one of the first gemmology schools in the world — the Gemmological Association of Great Britain (now Gem-A) — which opened in London in 1931, less than 5 km from Hatton Garden (Gem-A n.d.). In the mid-nineteenth century, cutters already knew that correctly cutting facets on gems could ‘improve their brilliancy, by multiplying the number of reflecting surfaces, in order that the play of light may be proportionally increased’ (Holtzapffel 1850, p. 1321). However, after a further 80 years of gemmological discoveries, London lapidaries with a background in gemmology, such as Mathews, were cutting with an understanding of how light interacts with different types of gem materials.

Early records show that Charles Mathews donated rough gem materials to Gem-A and was involved with several committees and societies through which he would have been acquainted with some of Gem-A’s founders, as well as local gemmology lecturers (Anonymous 1932c, p. 3). Mathews seems to have attended such lectures as early as 1893, when he was still an apprentice (Anonymous 1937). These educational pursuits made Mathews an early ‘gemmologist gem cutter’, who used his scientific knowledge of crystal systems, optics and cleavage to pursue the best colour and shape for his gemstones.

Figure 8: These 1906 photos show London lapidary Leopold Claremont hand-cranking his machine (a), as well as a close-up of cutting a gemstone (b). From Claremont’s The Gem-Cutter’s Craft, pp. 55 and 57.

By the 1930s, however, the London lapidary trade had waned. Factories that once had 24 cutters were scaled down to workshops of only a dozen (One of them 1932, p. 249). Despite the public interest in gem cutting — as seen at the Streeters jewellery shop on Bond Street, where the young lapidary Leopold Claremont and his lapidary mill were positioned in the window (Anonymous 1932a) — it seemed that London’s lapidary trade was losing work to cutters in other countries. This was likely due to the French modification of the jamb-peg technique to include a ‘mechanical stick’, which gave French lapidaries a competitive edge by cutting at much faster speeds (Prim 2017). Large-scale cutting factories were constructed in France, and in 1920 the Jura region housed around 8,000 lapidaries, a number that London never came close to. However, when the Great Depression made its way to France in the 1930s, many lapidary factories went out of business (Prim 2017).


The idea of the hobbyist cutter had been building in popularity since the early nineteenth century, but the most powerful wave of amateur cutting began in 1935 with the publication of the Handbook for the Amateur Lapidary (Howard 1935, reviewed by Anderson 1935). The book was filled with instructions and photos written by amateur cutters for amateur cutters. It was an immediate hit in the United States (where it was written) and in the United Kingdom, where it was offered for sale at the London offices of The Gemmologist magazine.

Over the next 40 years, several other books were written for the amateur lapidary, first in the United States and then in the UK and Australia. They followed the premise of Howard’s original book: amateur gem cutters teaching amateur gem cutters. Thus began a movement that has continued until the present day and, through exponential growth, would eventually surpass the lineage of professional cutters. The number of hobbyist cutters in the United States, the UK and Australia grew dramatically, while the number of new apprentices in the professional London cutting trade declined to almost none.

Along with the dissemination of cutting techniques came new technology designed for use by amateur gem cutters. The jamb-peg machine, which had been the specialty tool of London cutters for more than 100 years, was too difficult for hobbyist cutters to use. American engineer-cutters, building upon the concepts utilised by Holtzapffel’s goniostat, began to develop a new type of gem-cutting device as early as the 1890s (Passmore 1892), which eventually became popularly available in the 1940s: the ‘mast-style’ faceting machine.

One of the first mass-produced mast-style devices was manufactured by the American company M. D. Taylor around 1938 (Taylor 1938) and also exported to Britain (Figure 9). Instead of employing a jamb-peg head and rosewood dop stick, cutting was done with a metal ‘faceting head’ and ‘dop arm’ (Anonymous 1948). While the jamb peg used a series of holes to determine the angles of facets, the new mast-style machines featured an extremely accurate vernier scale to determine specific angles for cutting facets, a feature also found on Holtzapffel’s goniostat (Figure 5, left). With the jamb-peg technique, facets were placed by manually rotating a stone, using the cutter’s eye and experienced touch. The newer machines allowed a stone to be accurately and easily rotated using an index gear containing 64 or 96 teeth.

Figure 9: The Taylor faceting head was one of the first new ‘mast-style’ faceting machines to enter the British hobbyist community from the United States. This image of the device appeared in a 1948 article in The Gemmologist magazine (Anonymous 1948, p. 101).

This new technology meant that a gemstone could be faceted relatively quickly and easily with accurate angles and meetpoints. Theoretically, a lengthy lapidary apprenticeship was no longer needed. There was virtually no crossover between the methodologies employed by the amateur cutters with their mast-style machines and the professional cutters with their jamb-peg devices, so amateur cutters never came to know many of the tricks and techniques used by professional cutters. In addition, a distinctive cutting aesthetic developed in hobbyist cutting circles: an obsession with brilliance and the brilliant cut (Vargas & Vargas 1975, p. vi). This contrasted with the traditional aesthetic tastes of professional London cutters, who used cuts that emphasised colour while saving weight (e.g. the step cut). A 1938 article by a London-based gem cutter heralded this transition (Roberts 1938, p. 59):

To-day we live at a very high speed…. We have to try and get the facetted stone brilliant and bright. Years back, people loved the softly blue sapphire, but it takes a little while to find the hidden beauty. There is no time to look to-day. We have to make our effects striking…. The London lapidary could seldom afford to reduce weight, sometimes necessary when facetting in order to make a fine gem. He had to save weight instead and could seldom cut a stone as he desired.

In 1941, shortly after the newest phase of the amateur-cutting movement began, Charles Mathews died at the age of 68 (Anonymous 1941). Reginald Mathews, Charles’s son, who had joined the company in 1934 (Anonymous 1934), took over and focused on running the gem-trading side of the business. He hired a new manager to run the lapidary studio: George Bull-Diamond (Figure 10). Starting in 1947, the company formally split and incorporated into two different entities: Chas. Mathews (Lapidaries) Ltd, which was responsible for cutting stones, and C. Mathews & Son (Figure 11), which bought and sold gems (Mathews 1947). While Chas. Mathews (Lapidaries) Ltd was managed by Bull-Diamond, C. Mathews & Son was managed by Reginald, who had never taken up his father’s interest in gem cutting (John Taylor pers. comm., May 2019).

Figure 10: George Bull-Diamond, manager of Chas. Mathews (Lapidaries) Ltd from the 1940s to the 1980s, is shown cutting a stone on a jamb-peg bench in this illustration from Webster’s Gems (1975, p. 434). Reproduced with permission. Figure 11: This advertisement for both of the Mathews companies appeared in The Gemmologist in 1950. Variations of this ad ran in the same publication from 1947 to 1952 and in The Journal of Gemmology from 1947 to 1951.

World War II began two years before Charles Mathews died. One-third of London was destroyed between 1941 and 1945, and Hatton Garden took a huge hit. More people died in Hatton Garden’s encompassing district of Holborn than in any other part of the country (Lichtenstein 2013, p. 239). During both world wars, Chas. Mathews halted production to aid the war effort (John Taylor pers. comm., May 2019). The cutters worked on government-mandated projects such as carving marble parts for airplane fuel injectors, fabricating agate wedges for balance scales and manufacturing engine bearings made of tourmaline (Ken Harrington pers. comm., September 2020). Some cutters, such as James Cummings, departed for the battlefront. After World War II, Cummings rejoined the firm and helped Charles Mathews start the British Gemcutting Company, which retrained disabled veterans as lapidaries to help them reintegrate into civilian life (Gilbertson & Prim 2019).


The 1666 Great Fire of London changed the old jewellery quarter of Cheapside forever, and the same can be said about World War II and Hatton Garden. After the war, as the neighbourhood was rebuilt, it began to transform from an insular manufacturing district into a shopping centre that would attract tourists and customers worldwide. Before the 1950s, there were no public jewellery shops in Hatton Garden. Soon, new retail outlets started to open, and workshops were pushed to upper floors as street- level storefronts were needed to attract customers (John Taylor pers. comm., May 2019).

Despite this change, the cutting studios of Hatton Garden persevered. In January 1952, two gem cutters from Chas. Mathews gave a talk at the Gemmological Association of Great Britain about the methods used in gem cutting (Tremayne 1952). Their presentation indicated how little the cutting technology had evolved since the time of Mawe and Holtzapffel. Cutters were still faceting stones with carborundum powder on copper laps and polishing them using tripoli, diamond powder and ruby powder on copper laps for hard stones, and on lead and pewter laps for softer stones. The only modern innovation they mentioned was that the polishing mills had become motorised, running at 400 rpm. This fact was also briefly mentioned by London cutter Leopold Claremont in The Gem-Cutter’s Craft (1906, p. 59), so we can assume that motorised polishing laps became standard at the very beginning of the twentieth century, when electricity became commonplace in London.

Another aspect they emphasised was the specialisation of roles in London cutting studios. Each stone had to go through two sets of hands and across two benches — one for cutting and one for polishing. Since the laps of large lapidary machines cannot easily be changed, it was necessary to have one bench for the cutting abrasive and lap, and another for the polishing abrasive and lap. Each tradesman was specialised only in his particular role — either cutting the facets or polishing them — which was not the case in other jamb-peg cutting centres such as Paris and Idar-Oberstein (Sébastien Hourrègue and Gerhard Hörnlein pers. comm., September 2021).

New tastes and cutting styles were being developed in other parts of the world (Howard 1946, pp. 128–139), but the London lapidaries still followed nineteenth-century traditions, such as continuing to use the hand-cranked cutting machines. These cutters scoffed at new brilliant styles as ‘synthetic looking’ (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019), an opinion that had been promulgated since the earliest days of their apprenticeships, and was partially due to the fact that they were trained to cut expensive material that would lose too much weight and value if faceted in a modern and more brilliant style (Roberts 1938, p. 59).

By the 1950s, London had developed a reputation for the beautiful stones that were being produced in Hatton Garden and exported to other parts of the UK, across continental Europe and to America. Merchants from other countries sent their poorly-cut stones to Hatton Garden to have them recut to perfection. London studios also obtained rough material from mines worldwide. For example, Reginald Mathews received monthly shipments of Burmese ruby and sapphire due to his friendship with a mine manager in Mogok, and the company also regularly obtained parcels of emerald from Colombia, as well as shipments of the highest-quality sapphires from Kashmir (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019).

During this time, Chas. Mathews trained its last generation of cutters. Ken Harrington started his apprenticeship in 1960. A few years later, Patrick Aldridge (who later formed the Jewel House cutting studio) started, and finally Peter Rome and John Taylor joined the company, and ended up being the last two Chas. Mathews apprentices to become professional cutters (Ken Harrington pers. comm., November 2019).

THE END OF AN ERA (1970s–1980s)

The London gem-cutting industry changed drastically when the value-added tax (VAT) was introduced to the UK in 1973. Internationally sourced rough material was then subject to import tax, which significantly increased the cost of business for London cutters and merchants. Other than De Beers, all the major dealers left London, with many going to Geneva. Simultaneously, Asia started to become a major player in the world’s gem-cutting industry, and this shifted even more business away from London (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019). Many London gem merchants and cutters simply retired.

As more retail shopping outlets opened in Hatton Garden, rents increased, and this pushed many people out of the neighbourhood. New shops meant new merchants, but this generation of retail jewellers was no longer interested in patronising local gem cutters for custom-cut stones; it was easier to buy gems directly from large manufacturers who imported them (often cheaply and crudely cut) from elsewhere, which severely curtailed London’s cutting trade (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019). Clerkenwell, which had helped push immigrant cutters and traders into Hatton Garden a century before, now took on gem cutters who needed a cheaper hub to work from. During the 1970s, most of the buildings in Hatton Garden were torn down as the neighbourhood was modernised.

The Chas. Mathews company circumvented the VAT, thanks to an aggressively worded letter written to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in which they expressed, ‘If they couldn’t export their skills, they may be forced to export themselves’. Chas. Mathews became the first company in the UK to be awarded the special VAT exemption called ‘Inward Processing Relief’ (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019).

Figure 12: London’s last traditional gem cutters, John Taylor and Peter Rome (left and right, respectively), pose in their studio in 2018 with hand-cranked jamb-peg machines. Photo by J. Prim

The Chas. Mathews studio transferred ownership to its current generation in the 1980s. Cutter Peter Rome and polisher John Taylor (Figure 12) took over the company from George Bull-Diamond when he retired, and the studio that once had up to a dozen cutters was reduced to only two (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019). Very little rough material was coming into London, likely because most was going to Bangkok, Hong Kong and India, where it could be processed cheaply (Patrick Aldridge pers. comm., October 2019). London’s lapidary industry all but disappeared due to the exodus caused by the VAT, and the gem market there eventually crashed due to a recession.

Since the late 1970s, recutting became the main activity for the remainder of London’s lapidaries, whose customers in Hatton Garden are mostly second-hand and antique dealers (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019). Rome and Taylor, who apprenticed during the beginning of the unstable market period, excelled at recutting fine material. The Chas. Mathews company had always avoided treated stones, and unheated sapphires and rubies had become one of their specialties. In today’s market, customers for high-end untreated stones are typically the only ones who can afford the hourly rate of London’s top cutters.

Over the years, many companies closed, but new ones occasionally replaced them. One of these is R. Holt & Co., which was established in 1948 and opened a cutting workshop in 1970 (Holts Lapidary 2021). Since then, they have rebranded as Holts Lapidary and have become one of the major lapidary shops in Hatton Garden, among only a handful of others. In the 1970s, there were at least five medium-size lapidary studios in Hatton Garden: Chas. Mathews, F. Dennis and Co., Art and Fowler, Benjamin Roberts, and Holts; only two of these remain today (John Taylor pers. comm., May 2019).


Today in Hatton Garden there is a new generation of merchants working on a vastly transformed high street, but inside the Chas. Mathews lapidary studio little has changed in the 127 years since it opened. Although it is smaller nowadays, the techniques and technology

have stayed the same. Rome and Taylor cut and recut fine sapphires, rubies and emeralds on their traditional lapidary benches. The machine that Rome uses is from the 1940s, when Reginald Mathews was still in charge of the company. The crank is a repurposed bicycle pedal arm, and the large gear that turns underneath is from an old-fashioned mangle washing machine. They have been using the same copper laps since their apprenticeships (Peter Rome pers. comm., May 2019). They still cut the old-fashioned way and prefer the same classic designs that were popular in the 1900s, based on those from centuries before. To them, only the step cut and the mixed cut (see Figure 1) bring out beauty and colour while also saving weight. They use the same grit of diamond powder (0.5–3 μm) for polishing as the masters they learned from. (They prefer powder made of natural diamond, and specifically avoid synthetic diamond powder because they think that it does not ‘feel the same’.) The dops are English-made rosewood, and they still use dop wax from Germany (Gilbertson & Prim 2019), as they have always done.

In London, the days of the cutting factory or even small studio are over. Lapidaries in Hatton Garden now mostly work in single-cutter studios. As of 2021, six gem cutters are actively working, aside from those at Chas. Mathews and Holts: Roger Duncan from England, Muhammad Ishaq (Gem Craft Lapidary Ltd) and Shabbir Khan (Khan Gems & Jewellery) from Pakistan, Kaneel Mathurata (Crystal Myths International) from Sri Lanka, Duncan McLauchlan (McLauchlan Gems) from Australia, and Bruno Zoppolato from Italy.


The apprenticing of new lapidaries in London has always been tricky. Unlike goldsmiths, who have been trained under the watchful eyes of the Goldsmiths’ Company since its inception in the fourteenth century, the apprenticeship of a gem cutter depends heavily on who is doing the training. Not all master cutters are of the same skill level, so not all apprentices are prepared to reach the same heights.

Fortunately for Ken Harrington, John Taylor and Peter Rome, who apprenticed with Chas. Mathews, they learned from some of the best cutters in London (Patrick Aldridge pers. comm., October 2019). A novice traditionally started an apprenticeship at age 14 and was bound for seven years. The master was only responsible for training and a modest wage, unlike masters in earlier centuries who were required to feed and house their apprentices together with a lower wage (Cowman 2014). When Ken Harrington started his apprenticeship in 1960, the wage was GBP2.15 per week (Ken Harrington pers. comm., November 2019).

In those days, it took six weeks just to learn how to dop a stone. The apprentice learned by sitting next to a master cutter or polisher and watching how they worked through each step of the process. The apprentice would typically learn either cutting or polishing, depending on what the studio needed. Slowly, the master would give the apprentice more work and responsibilities, and eventually the apprentice would become specialised, such as in cutting large sapphires or polishing emeralds (Ken Harrington pers. comm., November 2019).

After seven years, during which time a vast amount of accumulated technique had successfully been transferred, the apprentice became a specialist. Typically, the apprentice would continue to work for the same company and the wage would be raised to the salary of a full-time employee. Often, a cutter and a polisher who had apprenticed or worked together would form a partnership and friendship that would last until their retirement (Ken Harrington pers. comm., November 2019).

Nowadays, the old jamb-peg cutting techniques have almost died out in London, and so has the tradition of training apprentices. As early as the 1930s, requests were made to the British government to start a training centre for cutters (One of them 1932; A lapidary 1934), but this never occurred. Rome and Taylor have had a few apprentices over the years, but none stayed long enough to finish their training. Fortunately, there is still hope that new cutters will emerge. Two shops have taken on the training of lapidaries, and they each follow a different approach: one uses traditional methods with jamb-peg machines, while the other uses modern techniques with mast-style machines.

In 2000, Holts Lapidary set up Holts Academy (which later evolved into the British Academy of Jewellery) to train the next generation of lapidaries and jewellery crafts- people (Holts Lapidary 2021; BAJ n.d.a). The school had six cabbing wheels and an American mast-style Ultra Tec faceting machine on the ground level of Holts’ shop in Hatton Garden (BAJ n.d.b). Headed by Roger Dunkin and supported by Holts lapidaries Claire Westenhofer, Jan Hugye and Emma Barne, 70 people were trained in the art of gem cutting and design in the school’s first year (BAJ n.d.b).

Figure 13: At Holts Academy (now the British Academy of Jewellery) in Hatton Garden, apprentice Yasmin St Pierre learns the art of lapidary. Image used with permission of Holt Gems (2011).

In recent years, only one apprentice lapidary has completed their training in London. Yasmin St Pierre started training at the Holts Academy in September 2016 (Figure 13; Holts Lapidary 2021). Aside from her apprenticeship there, she was also part of a new Goldsmiths’ Centre apprenticeship scheme to ensure familiarity with all aspects of the jewellery trade (Helen Dobson pers. comm., June 2019). Through her Holts apprenticeship, St Pierre learned how to cut and carve a wide variety of gem materials, from coral, turquoise and carnelian to agate, amethyst and topaz. She has won two awards for her work (Keim 2019; The Goldsmiths’ Centre 2021).

The traditional British lapidary methods have not been lost either. In 2011, Ken Harrington, a former polisher at Chas. Mathews, founded Salamander Gems, a full- service jewellery company based in Ipswich, Suffolk. The facility combines a retail outlet with an extensive workshop of lapidaries and gemmologists. Over the past 10 years, the facility has evolved from a one-man jamb-peg studio to a facility housing six cutters, including their newest apprentice, Ryan Kiddle (Figure 14; Ken Harrington pers. comm., November 2019). Harrington is therefore continuing the lineage of British gem cutting that he inherited through his apprenticeship in the Chas. Mathews studio in the 1970s. He has continued the ancient tradition of the British jamb peg and is passing it on to the team at Salamander Gems. In Harrington’s apprentices lie the hope for the future of the lineage of traditional British lapidaries, going back to the invention of the jamb peg in the mid-1800s, to the quadrant cutters of the mid-1700s, to the Cheapside Hoard in the mid-1600s and to William Wytlesey’s ring in 1374 (see Prim 2021).

Figure 14: Ryan Kiddle, the UK’s latest professional lapidary apprentice, is shown working at Salamander Gems in 2019. Photo by J. Prim.


Interest in the amateur art of lapidary has been growing in the UK. The first lapidary club, The Kensington Lapidary Society, was founded in 1964 in Hull by Kenneth Parkinson (Wainwright 1971, p. I). By 1969, the club had 150 members, and clubs had been formed in other parts of the country, such as North Yorkshire and Hampshire. As in the United States and Australia, ‘rock hounding’ was an expanding hobby (Jerrard 1969).

Being an amateur cutter in the UK was initially somewhat challenging due to a lack of resources. Not only did the UK have a limited number of clubs, but they also had few locally made machines (Figure 15), so most faceting devices had to be imported. In 1973, one source reported that almost all such machines came from the United States, although Japanese cutting benches (likely Imahashi) had also been imported at the time (Fairfield 1973). A new amateur cutter could expect to spend GBP300 (GBP3,780 by today’s value) to equip their studio with a faceting machine and all the needed accessories (Fairfield 1973, p. 86). Hobbyist cutters were aware that other methods of cutting were used in professional workshops, but they did not want to spend years learning to cut stones with a jamb peg when the newer mast-style machines were so easy to use.

The number of British lapidary clubs has grown, and today this community continues to provide a way for hobbyist cutters to learn the art of faceting gemstones. In 1994, many of the clubs consolidated under the umbrella of the UK Facet Cutters Guild (UKFCG 2021). Only a few of them have lapidary workshops, the most notable ones being the Scottish Mineral & Lapidary Club in Edinburgh, The Bristol Lapidary Club, The Leith Lapidary Club in Edinburgh, the NE1 Faceters group in Blaydon and the Sidcup Lapidary & Mineral Society in Kent. The lapidary club network remains one of the best ways for the layperson to become an amateur gem cutter in Britain today.

Figure 15: This photo shows a rare British-made faceting machine, the Glenjoy ‘Concord’ from Wakefield, England (from Scarfe 1979, p. 73). Reproduced with permission.


The story of British lapidary is intrinsically linked to gem cutting all over Europe, from the quadrant handpieces of France to the hand-cranked polishing tables that originated in Germany along with the methods of Jewish Portuguese cutters. The techniques used by professional European cutters, while not British innovations, became the traditions of British cutters through transmission from master to apprentice. However, the traditions of London lapidaries have evolved differently from those in neighbouring European cutting centres. Today, London is the only major city in the world where you can find a professional lapidary cutting a gemstone on a hand-cranked machine using a wooden jamb peg with just the cutter’s expertise to place the facets.

Without support from the government and the local trade, it is likely that commercial British gem cutting will go the way of lapidary traditions in other European countries. The fact that British apprentices are currently learning the art of gem cutting gives hope, but the lapidary trade needs more young people to realise that gem cutting is a learned profession that can provide employment. Those wishing to see a representation of classic British gem cutting can view numerous stones cut by the Chas. Mathews company at the Natural History Museum in London (Figure 16). The collection was donated by Reginald Mathews in 1992 and is on permanent display in the Earth’s Treasury gallery of the museum.

Figure 16: These gems are part of a collection of 268 stones cut by the Chas. Mathews company and donated by Reginald Mathews in 1992 to the Natural History Museum in London. A selection of stones from the collection is on permanent display at the museum. The box shown here measures 20 cm wide. Courtesy of NHM London, © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.


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About the Author

Justin K Prim is an American gemcutter. He has studied gemcutting traditions all over the world as well as attending gemology programs at GIA and AIGS. Justin has taught gemology and gemcutting at AIGS and IGT in Bangkok and he has recently published his first book, The Secret Teachings of Gemcutting. He is the founder of Faceting Apprentice, an online gemcutting school, and he also writes articles, produces videos, and gives talks about gem cutting history.

If you are interested in supporting the work that I do and would like exclusive access to all the content that I create then please consider becoming my patron on Patreon!


This article would have been impossible to write without a research grant from the Society of Antiquaries of London. I also thank my host in London, Kim Rix, and my host in Derby, Sarah Crane. Finally, a big thank you goes out to the following for their help with researching this article: Dr Jack Ogden, Hazel Forsyth at the Museum of London (in part for pointing me towards the Randle Holme manuscript), Rachel Church and Joanna Whalley at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Ken Harrington and the Salamander Gems team; Peter Rome and John Taylor at Chas. Mathews; Patrick Aldridge; Sébastien Hourrègue; Gerhard Hörnlein; Sarah Caldwell Steele; Imogen Redvers Jones; Charlene French at the UKFCG; Robin Hansen at the Natural History Museum; Alan Hart and the Gem-A staff; the staff of the British Library, British Museum and Calke Abbey; and The Journal of Gemmology’s editors and peer-review team, who helped tremendously with both parts 1 and 2 of this article.

This article was originally published in The Journal of Gemmology, 37(7), 2021, pp. 688–701, © 2021 Gem-A (The Gemmological Association of Great Britain)



Justin K Prim
Justin K Prim

Gentleman Lapidary | Author | Faceting Instructor | Chronicler of Gemcutting History