I’ve done a lot of time in jewelry school, hundreds of hours. Learning to solder and fuse, saw and hammer, sand and polish. I always used stones produced by others – from tiny machine cut faceted stones to large specialty cabochons cut by lapidary experts. Cutting my own stones always seemed like just too much work, another distraction to keep me from bringing my designs to life. However, I’ve noticed that sometimes I just can’t get exactly what I want, stone-wise, for a particular piece of jewelry. I have a necklace in mind, just a hint from the muse so far, that would need a set of graduated cabs, at least five or seven. Try finding that! Even wandering around at the Tucson Gem Shows, that’s not something easy to spot. It’s enough to drive a person to learn to do it themselves!
Last year, I went to the evening slide show by master jewelry artist Michael Boyd when he came to teach a week-long lapidary workshop at Creative Side Jewelry Academy of Austin (I’m so lucky to have this jewelry school right here in my backyard!). His way of designing, using the stones as the main event of his work rather than as accents, was very intriguing. His background as a painter means that color is really important to him. I struggle with wanting more color in my own work – after all those years of thread painting and brilliant glass, metal is a bit monochromatic! That evening’s presentation left me wanting to take his workshop when he returned.
So this year, I did it. I got sucked into the lapidary world. I’d hoped to buy a bunch of rough stones in Tucson, but the combination of lack of knowledge and early illness meant I really didn’t buy much there. Still, I headed into class knowing that I could experiment with something and decide if this was for me.
The first day of class was spent learning to cut rough cabochons (cabs) from stone. From slicing lump stones with a lapidary saw to “dropping” the stones with super glue or wax onto nails to hold them while we shaped them with six grits of grinding wheels and a final cerium oxide polish takes all of about 10 minutes for an experienced stone cutter. What a revelation! All the students in class went wild with working. In the afternoon, we had design discussions with hands-on inspections of a large variety of Michael’s jewelry to see all his specialized tricks.
On Tuesday, we started exploring some of those concepts. We had demonstrations of making bezels and drilling holes through stones.
For the third day, we discussed selecting materials and design. We learned to mount metal on top of a stone, either a textured sheet or a bezel/tube setting. Bezel-set stone on top of bezel-set stone is a Michael Boyd trademark. Lamination was one of my favorite processes – using an archival epoxy to layer stones, metal, and/or natural objects that can then be cut as one into a cab. We also remounted stones to finish their bottoms and discussed different polishing compounds, including loose diamond powders.
Thursday morning found us on a field trip to the local rock shop, Nature’s Treasures, shopping with experts in tow to answer questions. This was in addition to all the stones that Michael brought for us to purchase from him in class, if desired. Laden with small but heavy bags of stones, we headed back to the classroom to learn to carve stone with diamond bits in the flex shaft.
On the final day, we learned to make our own custom bezel wire and watched another trademark mount – a saddle with drilled holes and rivets. An epiphany for me was watching Michael polish up a riveting hammer in about two minutes on the same lapidary wheels, which don’t become cross contaminated. The last demo of the workshop was hammer inlay, where wire was pounded into channels cut in the top of a thick piece of jade.
The workshop was so inspiring that I bought one of the demo lapidary machines for my own studio. I’m looking forward to seeing how this ability to customize stones impacts my design work going forward. If you ever get a chance to take a class with Michael Boyd and his oh-so-helpful assistant, Ryan Gardner, do it!