Traveling Abroad with a Faceting Machine
A Gem Cutter’s Travel Guide
In early 2015, I relocated to Scotland and then to Thailand so that I could pursue my dream of getting a Graduate Gemologist diploma from GIA. I decided that I would take my faceting machine with me so I could still have fun cutting gemstones when I was done with the day’s school work. This is when I started to discover the joys (heavy sarcasm) of taking a heavy, industrial machine on an airplane and through Customs. I successfully made it where I needed to go but since then I have been wondering how others get around with their machines. After a bit of research and interviews with other faceter’s online, I have this story to share.
It was May 2016 and by the time I was ready to start packing my bags, I had gone through three faceting machines to find the perfect one. I bought my first machine the previous December after taking some classes at the San Francisco Gem and Mineral society. I had cut half a dozen faceted stones after three years of only cutting cabs. I was loving the process and the art that is faceting so when I left San Francisco for the more rural Scottish home-study educational setting, I didn’t want to leave my new hobby behind.
My original machine was a vintage UltraTec V2 from the early 80’s. I would have been fine with taking this machine but the wooden base it came with was a custom replacement and it was so tall that the machine would not fit in my luggage so I started scouring eBay for (hopefully) newer machine that had the original base. I got a good deal on one. Then I couldn’t resist another good deal that came with a lot of accessories and book. At one point I had three Ultratec’s in my tiny San Francisco bedroom. Once I reorganized all the accessories I wanted to keep and sorted out which laps I was going to keep and which I was going to pass on with the machines, I resold two of them. That should have settled the matter until I found an incredible deal on craigslist for a Polymetric Scintillator plus a Polymetric OMF concave faceting machine with a ton of books, accessories, and rough. I couldn't resist because this was the machine I really wanted.
Looking back, I don’t regret the decision because I really like the Polymetric, but the Scintillator is maybe the worst machine for traveling. The main reason is because the solid brass machine is probably the heaviest faceting machine ever made. The UltraTec base is a fairly light weighing wood compared to the base of the Scintillator which is solid metal. The shaft that connects the motor to the lap wheels on the Scintillator is all one piece and it’s very tall so I had to completely disassemble the machine to get it to fit inside a piece of airline approved luggage. I don’t think the Ultratec machine wouldn’t have given me the same issue as it’s much more stout.
In my planning process, I also had to think about power compatibility. I knew that the UK runs on 220 volts of power with a 50Hz cycle, where as the US runs on 110 volts with a 60Hz cycle. While these numbers don’t mean much for your laptop or electric toothbrush, for things with a motor that turns directly from the wall power, it makes a big deal. You will definitely burn up your motor if you plug it into a 220V socket. Also the change from 50Hz to 60Hz means that your motor will not run at the exact same speed as it did in the States. Since faceting machines have variable motor speeds, this isn’t as much of a problem. I contacted UltraTec to see what they recommended for a step down converter to change 220v into 110v and they sent me the specs they use. I ended up finding a reasonably priced converter on Amazon. I recommend having it shipped directly to the UK or wherever your final destination is because the converter is big and heavy and you wont fit it in to you luggage if you also have a faceting machine in there.
When organizing your packing list, you need to consider the bare minimum of what you need:
- laps (cutting, pre polish, polish)
- dops (not too many)
- rough (enough to get you through the trip without alerting Customs)
- wax (just enough)
- machine tools (just in case)
I took four laps with me and the bare minimum of everything else. Laps are usually very heavy unless you are using a master and toppers. My laps gave me troubles in some airports because security didn’t like the look of them. After a layover in Iceland, I had the laps in my backpack and the security people decided that even though I had flown to Iceland with these in my bag I could no longer take them on the airplane because they were “blades.” No matter how I argued they wouldn’t budge and much to my worry and dismay, I had to check the laps (with no box) because all my bags had already been checked. I literally taped four laps together with packing tape and prayed they wouldn’t get damaged. Somehow they didn’t. I don’t recommend this approach.
Here is how I approached the packing: I completely disassembled the machine. This left me with separate bits:
- The base
- The mast/head
- The motor/power assembly
Since the base was so heavy I surrounded it with my clothes and put it in a rolling suitcase that had my rough and accessories. Then in my second bag I took the motor/power assembly (in a garbage bag so the grease and dirt couldn’t stain my clothes) and I surrounded it with clothes and soft things and put it in the second suitcase. Since the mast is the most fragile bit, I didn’t dare check it. I put it in my hiking pack surrounded by sweaters and took it on the plane with me. This got through security every time but you should definitely arrive at the airport early because they always want to take it out and look at it. Iceland didn’t really want me to bring it on but after I repeatedly told them it was not dangerous and it was very fragile they let me go. Luckily.
Another thing to consider is Customs. I didn’t really think about this before I left and I got away with it but technically you are supposed to claim things like this at customs and pay an import tax. You are definitely supposed to pay customs on rough stones but if they are small in number and checked into your luggage, no one will know. I didn’t pay anything until I had to ship the mast back to the States for a repair. When it was returned to me, UK Customs charged me £250. When I called and questioned them about this they said I should have paid this charge at the airport. Oops. You can get a customs refund when you take the machine back out of the country. I’m not looking forward to that bureaucratic headache.
Others have told me that they flew with a Graves Mark 5XL as hand luggage and had no problems: You can remove the mast and the tank, and fold the lamp low on the base. The whole thing can fit in a cheap sports bag, making sure to carefully fold the power cord under the base so it does’t disturb the belt. Along with a laptop, in a second piece of hand luggage you can put the mast, the head and the ring with your dops and index gears stuffed in the tank , all separately bubble wrapped and lightly taped in case you’re asked to show what it is. Laps (in cases) and rough were in their checked bags.
Another person told me they took an UltraTec on a flight to Alaska. The base and a few key laps fit in carry on. They discovered that during the flight, the spindle had rubbed a hole in the cloth carry on. I found this happened to me even though I had put bubble wrap over the spindle. Be careful which side you put against the fabric.
A third faceter told me they used to take their faceting machine to Australia when they went to the mine. They had a base in both locations so they only needed to travel with the mast and spindle. Security at the airport would not allow these items in the hand luggage because it looked like a weapon so it had to go in hold baggage.
At the airport in Australia they inadvertently picked up the wrong bag from the baggage claim. They realized outside the airport and went back in to Customs to find the bag. Customs had retained the bag to check it out.
On this particular machine, the strain gauge had been replaced recently and epoxy filler that was used came out and exposed the wires. Customs took the assembly dug into the epoxy for drug samples. Unfortunately, they broke the fine wiring from the strain gauge. Repairing it was not a simple job. The gear was returned with a warning to always check the bag. This faceter no longer travels with a faceting machine.
One final heavy duty guide that might help your packing:
1. Put your machine in an airtight bag, separate bags if you intend to disassemble the machine. It’s very important that there are no leaks in the bags.
2. Put your machine in a wooden crate. You can line the crate with a bag if you want.
3. Fill the crate with expanding foam — if your bag from step 1 has leaks you will spend the next year cleaning your machine. If you line the crate you can just pull everything out and cut the machine out with a knife. If you put a little time into it you may be able to end up with a custom made transport box.
Every thing should be safe no matter how many times the luggage handling apes at the airport kick it across the room — as long as it ends up in the same city as you. It’s also light so it wont add to much to the cost of transport.
I sucessfully got my machine to Scotland and have cut some stones on it but I’m really not looking forward to moving it back. Maybe I should have picked a smaller hobby!
Thanks to the following contributors who helped with the research of this article: (listed by username on GemologyOnline.com)
gembug, ondzi, wilsonintexas, ebgym, ozymandias
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.