Stone cutter/lapidary

 29 November 2012

A stone cutter, also known as a lapidary, cuts, shapes and polishes precious and semi-precious gemstones.

This 22ct gold plated silver 'cave treasure' ring designed by Ruth Wood contains cubic zirconia stones with facets cut into them. Image sent
This 22ct gold plated silver 'cave treasure' ring designed by Ruth Wood contains cubic zirconia stones with facets cut into them. Image sent

What do stone cutters (lapidaries) do?

Stone cutters often specialise in coloured gemstones. These could be anything from emeralds, sapphires and rubies to amethyst, rock crystal and black onyx. These stones are then used to make jewellery or decorative objects.

As well as cutting stones for new pieces of jewellery, lapidaries also repair and re-polish jewellery stones, often from antique pieces. They may also repair the stones in other antiques, such as stone-inlaid clocks, urns and goblets.

What is the job like?

As a lapidary, your job would involve:

  • using a magnifying lens to examine the stone for fissures, holes and cracks
  • cutting the stone into the required shape, such as a block, or slicing it using various saws and grinders with diamond-blade edges. The diamond may be applied manually, or the machine may have an electro-plated diamond-blade edge
  • using a faceting machine to cut the stone at certain angles so that it catches the light
  • drilling holes in specific places
  • using hand and machine tools to sand the gem in several stages to produce a very fine surface
  • using different types of polishing equipment to finish the stone.

You would need a detailed understanding of the different types of gems and their properties, such as the various grains, to enable you to cut the stones properly. Stones vary in their hardness and heat sensitivity, and some are more prone to breaks or cracks.

Some lapidaries are employed in jewellery workshops, whilst others are self-employed and make bespoke jewellery for clients.

How do I become a lapidary?

If you want to become a lapidary, you need to be:

  • a creative person who loves to make things and who enjoys working with their hands
  • interested in gemstones, and stone generally
  • extremely patient and meticulous
  • willing to work hard and take pride in your work.

If you are self-employed, you will normally be working on your own all day, so it's important that you enjoy working independently. Teamwork skills are important if you are employed in a workshop with other people.

Relevant school subjects include GCSE Design and Technology and GCSE Art, and an interest in jewellery and gemstones is important.

What training and qualifications do I need?

Training is normally on-the-job with an experienced lapidary. At present, there are no full-time courses dedicated to lapidary in the UK, although other jewellery courses may include it alongside other aspects of jewellery-making.

An in-depth knowledge of gems and their properties is vital for this work.

An in-depth knowledge of gems and their properties is vital for this work. The courses run by the Gemmological Association of Great Britain  (also known as Gem-A) would provide a good background in this respect. However, they do not cover the craft of stone cutting as such.

Holts Academy of Jewellery offers an apprenticeship in jewellery manufacture at levels 2-4 for those aged 16-23. The apprenticeship combines on and off-the-job training in a wide range of jewellery skills to include stone cutting.

You will learn traditional and modern techniques alongside a master craftsperson.  There are no formal academic entry requirements, although you will need a keen interest in jewellery, and GCSEs at grade C or above are an advantage.

Holts Academy also offers the Diploma in Jewellery Manufacture at different levels, which cover all aspects of jewellery design and making at increasing levels of complexity:

  • Level 2 – this course takes four months, two days a week, with no formal entry requirements other than a keen interest in jewellery making
  • Level 3 – this course takes six months, two days a week, and entry is with a level 2 qualification (above) or experience in the jewellery industry
  • Level 4 – this course takes seven months, two days a week. This is an advanced course, and you will need a level three qualification (as above) or appropriate industry experience.

Finally, Holts Academy offers short courses in lapidary. These cover faceting, carving and basic cabochon cutting (a cabochon is a gemstone which is smooth rather than faceted).

You may find short courses in lapidary being offered around the country, usually by private training providers.

What can I earn?

The minimum wage for an apprentice aged 16-18 is £2.68 per hour, although some employers pay more than this.

Once you have completed your apprenticeship, you can expect to earn from around £12,875 per year. With more experience, salaries can rise to around £35,000.  The most experienced lapidaries can earn in excess of £35,000 per year.

Some lapidaries are self-employed, and their earnings can vary widely.

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