1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lapidary and Gem Cutting
LAPIDARY, and GEM CUTTING (Lat. lapidarius, lapis, a stone). The earliest examples of gem cutting and carving known (see also Gem) are the ancient engraved seals, which are of two principal types, the cylindrical or “rolling” seals of Babylonia and Assyria, suggested by a joint of the bamboo or the central whorl of a conch-like shell, and the peculiar scarabaeoid seals of Egypt. Recent researches make it appear that both these types were in use as far back as 4500 B.C., though with some variations. The jewels of Queen Zer, and other jewels consisting of cut turquoise, lapis lazuli and amethyst, found by the French mission, date from 4777 B.C. to 4515 B.C. Until about 2500 B.C., the cylinder seals bore almost wholly animal designs; then cuneiform inscriptions were added. In the 6th century B.C., the scarabaeoid type was introduced from Egypt, while the rolling seals began to give place to a new form, that of a tall cone. These, in a century or two, were gradually shortened; the hole by which they were suspended was enlarged until it could admit the finger, and in time they passed into the familiar form of seal-rings. This later type, which prevailed for a long period, usually bore Persian or Sassanian inscriptions. The scarabaeoid seals were worn as rings in Egypt apparently from the earliest times.
The most ancient of the cylinder seals were cut at first from shell, then largely from opaque stones such as diorite and serpentine. After 2500 B.C., varieties of chalcedony and milky quartz were employed, translucent and richly coloured; sometimes even rock crystal, and also frequently a beautiful compact haematite. Amazone stone, amethyst and fossil coral were used, but no specimen is believed to be known of ruby, sapphire, emerald, diamond, tourmaline or spinel.
The date of about 500 B.C. marks the beginning of a period of great artistic taste and skill in gem carving, which extended throughout the ancient civilized world, and lasted until the 3rd or 4th century A.D. Prior to this period, all the work appears to have been done by hand with a sapphire point, or else with a bow-drill; thenceforward the wheel came to be largely employed. The Greek cutters, in their best period, the 5th and 6th centuries B.C., knew the use of disks and drills, but preferred the sapphire point for their finest work, and continued to use it for two or three hundred years. Engraving by the bow-drill was introduced in Assyrian and Babylonian work as early as perhaps 3000 B.C., the earlier carving being all done with the sapphire point, which was secured in a handle for convenient application. This handwork demanded the utmost skill and delicacy of touch in the artist. The bow-drill consisted of a similar point fastened in the end of a stick, which could be rotated by means of a horizontal cross-bar attached at each end to a string wound around the stick; as the cross-bar was moved up and down, the stick was made to rotate alternately in opposite directions. This has been a frequent device for such purposes among many peoples, both ancient and modern, civilized and uncivilized. The point used by hand, and the bow-drill, were afterwards variously combined in executing such work. Another modification was the substitution for the point, in either process, of a hollow tube or drill, probably in most cases the joint of a hollow reed, whereby very accurate circles could be made, as also crescent figures and the like. This process, used with fine hard sand, has also been widely employed among many peoples. It may perhaps have been suggested by the boring of other shells by carnivorous molluscs of the Murex type, examples of which may be picked up on any sea-beach. It is possible that the cylinder seals were drilled in this way out of larger pieces by means of a hollow reed or bamboo, the cylinder being left as the core.
The Egyptian scarabs were an early and very characteristic type of seal cutting. The Greek gem cutters modified them by adding Greek and Etruscan symbols and talismanic signs; many of them also worked in Egypt and for Egyptians. Phoenician work shows a mixture of Assyrian and Egyptian designs; and Cypriote seals, principally on the agate gems, are known that are referred to the 9th century B.C.
Scarabs are sometimes found that have been sliced in two, and the new flat faces thus produced carved with later inscriptions and set in rings. This secondary work is of many kinds. An Assyrian cylinder in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, referred to 3000 B.C., bears such a cutting of Mediterranean character, of the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. In the early Christian era, also, many Greek and Roman gems were recut with Gnostic and other peculiar and obscure devices.
In the later Roman period, the 3rd and 4th centuries, a great decline in the art is seen—so great that Castellani terms it “the idiotic age.” Numbers of gems of this kind have been found together, as though they were the product of a single manufacturer, carved in the crudest manner, both in design and execution. Yet remarkable results are sometimes produced in these by a few touches of the drill, which under the glass appear very crude but nevertheless yield strong effects. The same thing may be seen now in many of the Japanese sketches and lacquer designs, where a whole landscape is depicted, or rather suggested, by a few simple but powerful strokes. It is now thought that some of these seals may be of earlier origin than has been supposed, and also that they may have been worn by the poorer classes, who could not afford the more finished work. They must have been made by the hundred thousand. The decline of the art went on until in the Byzantine period, especially the 6th century, it had reached a very low point. Most of the gems of this period show drill-work of poor quality, although hand-work is occasionally seen.
With the Renaissance, the art of gem carving revived, and the engravers from that time and onward have produced results that equal the best Greek and Roman work; copies of ancient gem carvings made by some of the 18th-century masters are only distinguishable from true antiques by experts of great proficiency. It is in fact extremely difficult to judge positively as to the age of engraved gems. The materials of which they are made are hard and resistant to any change through time, and there are many ingenious devices for producing the appearances usually believed to indicate great age, such as slightly dulled or scratched surfaces and the like. There are also the gems with secondary carving, already alluded to, and the ancient gems that have been partially recut by modern engravers for the purpose of fraudulently enhancing their price. All these elements enter into the problem and make it an almost hopeless one for any but a person of great experience in the study of such objects; and even he may not be able in all cases to decide.
Until the 14th century, almost all the gems were cut en cabochon—that is, smoothly rounded, as carbuncles and opals are still—or else in the form of beads drilled from both sides for suspension or attachment, the two perforations often meeting but imperfectly. These latter may be of Asiatic origin, brought into Europe by commerce during the Crusades. Some of the finest gems in the Austrian, Russian and German crowns are stones of this perforated or bead type. An approach, or transition, to the modern facetting is seen in a style of cutting often used for rock-crystal in the 10th and 11th centuries: an oval cabochon was polished flat, and the sides of the dome were also trimmed flat, with a rounded back, and the upper side with a ridge in the centre, tapering off to the girdle of the stone below.
The plane facetted cutting is altogether modern; and hence the pictures which represent the breastplate of the ancient Jewish high-priest as set with facetted stones are wholly imaginary and probably incorrect, as we have no exact knowledge of the forms of the gems. The Orientals polish gems in all sorts of irregular, rounded shapes, according to the form of the piece as found, and with the one object of preserving as much of its original size and colour as possible. The greatest ingenuity is used to make a speck of colour, as in a sapphire, tone up an entire gem, by cutting it so that there is a point of high colour at the lower side of the gem.
In later times a few facets are sometimes cut upon a generally rounded stone. The cabochon method is still used for opaque or translucent stones, as opal, moonstone, turquoise, carbuncle, &c.; but for transparent gems the facetted cutting is almost always employed, on account of its fine effect in producing brilliancy, by reflection or refraction of light from the under side of the gem. Occasionally the ancients used natural crystals with polished faces, or perhaps at times polished these to some extent artificially. This use of crystals was frequent with prisms of emerald, which were drilled and suspended as drops. Those the French call “primes d’émeraudes.” These were often natural crystals from Zaborah, Egypt or the Tirol Mountains, drilled through the height of the prism, and with little or no polishing. In rare instances perfect and brilliant crystals may now be seen mounted as gems.
The modern method is that of numerous facets, geometrically disposed to bring out the beauty of light and colour to the best advantage. This is done at the sacrifice of material, often to the extent of half the stone or even more—the opposite of the Oriental idea. There are various forms of such cutting, but three are specially employed, known as the brilliant, the rose and the table-cut. The last, generally made from cleavage pieces, usually square or oblong, with a single facet or edge on each side, and occasionally four or more facets on the lower side of the stone, is used chiefly for emeralds, rubies and sapphires; the two former for diamonds in particular. The brilliant is essentially a low, double cone, its top truncated to form a large flat eight-sided face called the table, and its basal apex also truncated by a very small face known as the culette or cullet. The upper and lower slopes are cut into a series of triangular facets, 32 above the girdle, in four rows of eight, and 24 below, in three rows, making 56 facets in all. The rose form is used for diamonds not thick enough to cut as brilliants; it is flat below and has 12 to 24, or sometimes 32, triangular facets above, in three rows, meeting in a point. Stones thus cut are also known as “roses couronnées”; others with fewer facets, twelve or even six, are called “roses d’Anvers,” and are a specialty, as their name implies, at Antwerp. These, however, are only cut from very thin or shallow stones. None of the rose-cut diamonds is equal in beauty to the brilliants. There are several other forms, among which are the “briolette,” “marquise,” oval and pear-shaped stones, &c., but they are of minor importance. The pear-shaped brilliant is a facetted ball or drop, being a brilliant in style of cutting, although the form of the gem is elongated or drop-shaped. The “marquise” or “navette” form is an elliptical brilliant of varying width in proportion to its length. The “rondelle” form consists of flat, circular gems with smooth sides pierced, like shallow beads, with facetted edges, and is sometimes used between pearls, or gem beads, and in the coloured gems, such as rubies, sapphires, emeralds, &c. The mitred gems fitted to a gauge are much used and are closely set together, forming a continuous line of colour.
Modern gem cutting and engraving are done by means of the lathe, which can be made to revolve with extreme rapidity, carrying a point or small disk of soft iron, with diamond-dust and oil. The disks vary in diameter from that of a pin-head to a quarter of an inch. Better than the lathe, also, is the S. S. White dental engine, which the present writer was the first to suggest for this use. The flexibility and sensitiveness of this machine enables it to respond to the touch of the artist and to impart a personal quality to his work not possible with the mechanical action of the lathe, and more like the hand-work with the sapphire point. The diamond-dust and oil, thus applied, will carve any stone softer than the diamond itself with comparative ease.
We may now review some of the special forms of cutting and working gems and ornamental stones that have been developed in Europe since the period of the Renaissance.
Garnets (q.v.) have been used and worked from remote antiquity; but in modern times the cutting of them has been carried on chiefly in Bohemia, in the region around Merowitz and Dlaskowitch. The stones occur in a trap rock, and are weathered out by its decomposition and gathered from gravels and beds of streams. They are of the rich red variety known as pyrope (q.v.), or Bohemian garnet; it is generally valued as a gem-stone. Such are the so-called “Cape rubies,” of South Africa, found in considerable quantity in German East Africa, and the beautiful garnets known as the “Arizona rubies.” Garnets are so abundant in Bohemia as to constitute an important industry, employing some five hundred miners, an equal number of cutters and as many as three thousand dealers. Extensive garnet cutting is also done in India, especially at Jeypore, where there are large works employing natives who have been taught by Europeans. The Indian garnets, however, are mostly of another variety, the almandine (q.v.); it is equally rich in colour, though inclining more to a violet cast than the pyrope, and can be obtained in larger pieces. The ancient garnets, from Etruscan and Byzantine remains, some of which are flat plates set in gold, or carved with mythological designs, were probably obtained from India or perhaps from the remarkable locality for large masses of garnet in German East Africa. Many are cut with the portraits of Sassanian kings with their characteristic pearl earrings. The East Indians carve small dishes out of a single garnet.
The carving of elegant objects from transparent quartz, or rock crystal, has been carried on since the 16th century, first in Italy, by the greatest masters of the time, and afterwards in Prague, under Rudolph II., until the Thirty Years’ War, when the industry was wiped out. Splendid examples of this work are in the important museums of Europe. Many of these are reproduced now in Vienna, and fine examples are included in some American museums. Among them are rock-crystal dishes several inches across, beautifully engraved in intaglio and mounted in silver with gems. Other varieties of quartz minerals, such as agate, jasper, &c., and other ornamental stones of similar hardness, are likewise wrought into all manner of art objects. Caskets, vases, ewers, coupés and animal and other fanciful forms, are familiar in these opaque and semi-transparent stones, either carved out of single masses or made of separate pieces united with gold, silver or enamel in the most artistic manner. Cellini, and other masters in the 16th and 17th centuries, vied with each other in such work.
The greatest development of agate (q.v.), however, has been seen in Germany, at Waldkirch in Breisgau, and especially at Idar and Oberstein on the Nahe, in Oldenburg. The industry began in the 14th century, at the neighbouring town of Freiburg, but was transferred to Waldkirch, where it is still carried on, employing about 120 men and women, the number of workmen having increased nearly threefold since the middle of the 19th century. The Idar and Oberstein industry was founded somewhat later, but is much more extensive. Mills run by water-power line the Nahe river for over 30 m., from above Kreuznach to below Idar, and gave employment in 1908 to some 5000 people—1625 lapidaries, 160 drillers, 100 engravers, 2900 cutters, &c., besides 300 jewellers and 300 dealers. The industry began here in consequence of the abundance of agates in the amygdaloid rocks of the vicinity; and it is probable that many of the Cinque Cento gems, and perhaps even some of the Roman ones, were obtained in this region. By the middle of the 18th century the best material was about exhausted, but the industry had become so firmly established that it has been kept up and increased by importing agates. In 1540 there were only three mills; in 1740, twenty-five; in 1840, fifty; in 1870, one hundred and eighty-four. Agents and prospectors are sent all over the world to procure agates and other ornamental stones, and enormous quantities are brought there and stored. The chief source of agate supply has been in Uruguay, but much has been brought from other distant lands. It was estimated that fifty thousand tons were stored at Salto in Uruguay at one time.
The grinding is done on large, horizontal wheels like grindstones, some 6 ft. in diameter and one-fourth as thick, run by water-wheels. The faces of some of these grindstones are made with grooves of different sizes so that round objects or convex surfaces can be ground very easily and rapidly. An agate ball or marble, for instance, is made from a piece broken to about the right size and held in one of these semicircular grooves until one-half of it is shaped, and then turned over and the other half ground in the same way. The polishing is done on wooden wheels, with tripoli found in the vicinity; any carving or ornamentation is then put on with a wheel-edge or a drill by skilled workmen.
In the United States the Drake Company at Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has done cutting and polishing in hard materials on a grand scale. It is here, and here only, that the agatized wood from Chalcedony Park, Arizona, has been cut and polished, large sections of tree-trunks having been made into table-tops and columns of wonderful beauty, with a polish like that of a mirror.
Much of the finest lapidary work, both on a large and a small scale, is done in Russia. Catherine II. sought to develop the precious stone resources of the Ural region, and sent thither two Italian lapidaries. This led to the founding of an industry which now employs at least a thousand people. The work is done either at the great imperial lapidary establishment at Ekaterinburg, or in the vicinity of the mines by lapidary masters, as they are called, each of whom has his peculiar style. The products are sold to dealers at the great Russian fairs at Nizhniy Novgorod, Moscow and Ekaterinburg. The imperial works at the last-named place have command of an immense water-power, and are on such a scale that great masses of hard stones can be worked as marble is in other countries. Much of the machinery is primitive, but the applications are ingenious and the results unsurpassed anywhere. The work done is of several classes, ranging from the largest and most massive to the smallest and most delicate. There is (1) the cutting of facetted gems, as topaz, aquamarine, amethyst, &c., from the mines of the Ural, and of other gem-stones also; this is largely done by means of the cadrans, a small machine held in the hand, by which the angle of the facets can be adjusted readily when once the stone has been set, and which produces work of great beauty and accuracy. Then there is (2) a vast variety of ornamental objects, large and small, some weighing 2000 ℔ and over, and requiring years to complete; they are made from the opaque minerals of the Ural and Siberia—malachite, rhodonite, lapis-lazuli, aventurine and jasper. A peculiar type of work is (3) the production of beautiful groups of fruit, flowers and leaves, in stones selected to match exactly the colour of each object represented. These are chosen with great care and skill, somewhat as in the Florentine mosaics, not to produce a flat inlaid picture, however, but a perfect reproduction of form, size and colour. These groups are carved and polished from hard stones, whereas the Florentine mosaic work includes many substances that are much softer, as glass, shell, &c.
Enormous masses of material are brought to these works; the supply of rhodonite, jade, jaspers of various colours, &c., sometimes amounting to hundreds of tons. One mass of Kalkansky jasper weighed nearly 9 tons, and a mass of rhodonite above 50 tons; the latter required a week of sledging, with ninety horses, to bring it from the quarry, only 14 m. from the works. About seventy-five men are employed, at twenty-five roubles a month (£2, 11s. 6d.), and ten boys, who earn from two to ten roubles (4s. to £1). A training school is connected with the works, where over fifty boys are pupils; on graduating they may remain as government lapidaries or set up on their own account.
There are two other great Russian imperial establishments of the same kind. One of these, founded by Catherine II., is at Peterhof, a short distance from the capital; it is a large building fitted up with imperial elegance. Here are made all the designs and models for the work done at Ekaterinburg; these are returned and strictly preserved. In the Peterhof works are to be seen the largest and most remarkable achievements of the lapidarian art, vases and pedestals and columns of immense size, made from the hardest and most elegant stones, often requiring the labour of years for their completion. The third great establishment is at Kolyvan, in Siberia, bearing a like relation to the minerals and gem-stones of the Altai region that the works of Ekaterinburg do to the Ural. The three establishments are conducted at large expense, from the private revenue of the tsar. The Russian emperors have always taken special interest in lapidary work, and the products of these establishments have made that country famous throughout the world. The immense monolithic columns of the Hermitage and of St Isaac’s Cathedral, of polished granite and other hard and elegant stones, are among the triumphs of modern architectural work; and the Alexander column at St Petersburg is a single polished shaft, 13 ft. in diameter and 82 ft. in height, of the red Finland granite.
The finest lapidary work of modern France is done at Moulin la Vacherie Saint Simon, Seine-et-Marne, where some seventy-five of the most skilful artisans are engaged. The products are all manner of ornamental objects of every variety of beautiful stone, all finished with absolute perfection of detail. Columns and other ornaments of porphyry and the like, of ancient workmanship, are brought hither from Egypt and elsewhere, and recut into smaller objects for modern artistic tastes. Here, too, are made spheres of transparent quartz—“crystal balls”—up to 6 in. in diameter, the material for which is obtained in Madagascar.
A few words may be said, by way of comparison and contrast, about the lapidary art of Japan and China, especially in relation to the crystal balls, now reproduced in France and elsewhere. The tools are the simplest, and there is no machinery; but the lack of it is made up by time and patience, and by hereditary pride, as a Japanese artisan can often trace back his art through many generations continuously. To make a quartz ball, a large crystal or mass is chipped or broken into available shape, and then the piece is trimmed into a spherical form with a small steel hammer. The polishing is effected by grinding with emery and garnet-powder and plenty of water, in semi-cylindrical pieces of cast iron, of sizes varying with that of the ball to be ground, which is kept constantly turning as it is rubbed. Small balls are fixed in the end of a bamboo tube, which the worker continually revolves. The final brilliant polish is given by the hand, with rouge-powder (haematite). This process is evidently very slow, and only the cheapness of labour prevents the cost from being too great.
The spheres are now made quite freely but very differently in France, Germany and the United States. They are ground in semicircular grooves in a large horizontal wheel of hard stone, such as is used for grinding garnets at Oberstein and Idar, or else by gradually revolving them on a lathe and fitting them into hollow cylinders. Plenty of water must be used, to prevent heating and cracking. The polishing is effected on a wooden wheel with tripoli. Work of this kind is now done in the United States, in the production of the spheres and carved ornaments of rock-crystal, that is equal to any in the world. But most of the material for these supposed Japanese balls now comes from Brazil or Madagascar, and the work is done in Germany or France.
The cutting of amber is a special branch of lapidary work developed along the Baltic coast of Germany, where amber is chiefly obtained. The amber traffic dates back to prehistoric times; but the cutting industry in northern Europe cannot be definitely traced further back than the 14th century, when gilds of amber-workers were known at Bruges and Lübeck. Fine carving was also done at Königsberg as early as 1399. The latter city and Danzig have become the chief seats of the amber industry, and the business has increased immensely within a recent period. Articles are made there, not only for all the civilized world, but for exportation to half-civilized and even barbarous nations, in great variety of shapes, styles and colours.
Diamond Cutting.—On account of its extreme hardness, the treatment of the diamond in preparation for use in jewelry constitutes a separate and special branch of the lapidary’s art. Any valuable gem must first be trimmed, cleaved or sawed into suitable shape and size, then cut into the desired form, and finally polished upon the faces which have been cut. The stages in diamond working are, therefore, (1) cleavage or division; (2) cutting; (3) polishing; but in point of fact there are four processes, as the setting of the stone for cutting is a somewhat distinct branch, and the workers are classed in four groups—cleavers, setters, cutters and polishers.
1. Cleaving or Dividing.—Diamonds are always found as crystals, usually octahedral in form, though often irregular or distorted. The problem involved in each case is twofold: (1) to obtain the largest perfect stone possible, and (2) to remove any portions containing flaws or defects. These ends are generally met by cleaving the crystal, i.e. causing it to split along certain natural planes of structural weakness, which are parallel with the faces of the octahedron. This process requires the utmost judgment, care and skill on the part of the operator, as any error would cause great loss of valuable material; hence expert cleavers command very high wages. The stone is first examined closely, to determine the directions of the cleavage planes, which are recognizable only by an expert. The cleaver then cuts a narrow notch at the place selected, with another diamond having a sharp point; a rather dull iron or steel edge is then laid on this line, and a smart blow struck upon it. If all has been skilfully done, the diamond divides at once in the direction desired. De Boot in 1609 mentions knowing some one who could part a diamond like mica or talc. In this process, each of the diamonds is fixed in cement on the end of a stick or handle, so that they can be held firmly while one is applied to the other.
When the stone is large and very valuable, the cleaving is a most critical process. Wollaston in 1790 made many favourable transactions by buying very poor-looking flawed stones and cleaving off the good parts. In the case of the immense Excelsior diamond of 971 carats, which was divided at Amsterdam in 1904, and made into ten splendid stones, the most elaborate study extending over two months was given to the work beforehand, and many models were made of the very irregular stone and divided in different ways to determine those most advantageous. This process was in 1908 applied to the most remarkable piece of work of the kind ever undertaken—the cutting of the gigantic Cullinan diamond of 30253 English carats. The stone was taken to Amsterdam to be treated by the old-fashioned hand method, with innumerable precautions of every kind at every step, and the cutting was successfully accomplished after nine months’ work (see The Times, Nov. 10, 1908). The two principal stones obtained (see Diamond), one a pendeloque or drop brilliant, and the other a square brilliant, were given 72 and 64 facets respectively (exclusive of the table and cullet) instead of the normal 56.
This process of cleavage is the old-established one, still used to a large extent, especially at Amsterdam. But a different method has recently been introduced, that of sawing, which is now generally employed in Antwerp. The stone is placed in a small metal receptacle which is filled with melted aluminium; thus embedded securely, with only the part to be cut exposed, it is pressed firmly against the edge of a metallic disk or thin wheel, 4 or 5 in. in diameter, made of copper, iron or phosphor bronze, which is charged with diamond dust and oil, and made to revolve with great velocity. This machine was announced as an American invention, but the form now principally employed at Antwerp was invented by a Belgian diamond cutter in the United States, and is similar to slitting wheels used by gem cutters for centuries. Two patents were taken out, however, by different parties, with some distinctions of method. The process is much slower than hand-cleavage, but greatly diminishes the loss of material involved. It is claimed that not only can flaws or defective portions be thus easily taken off, but that any well-formed crystal of the usual octahedral shape (known in the trade as “six-point”) can be divided in half very perfectly at the “girdle,” making two stones, in each of which the sawed face can be used with advantage to form the “table” of a brilliant. By another method the stone is sawed at a tangent with the octahedron, and then each half into three pieces; for this Wood method a total saving of 5% is claimed. Occasionally the finest material is only a small spot in a large mass of impure material, and this is taken out by most skilful cleaving.
After the cleaving or sawing, however, the diamond is rarely yet in a form for cutting the facets, and requires considerable shaping. This rough “blocking-out” of the final form it is to assume, by removing irregularities and making it symmetrical, is called “brutage.” Well-shaped and flawless crystals, indeed may not require to be cleaved, and then the brutage is the first process. Here again, the old hand methods are beginning to give place to mechanism. In either case two diamonds are taken, each fixed in cement on the end of a handle or support, and are rubbed one against the other until the irregularities are ground away and the general shape desired is attained. The old method was to do this by hand—an extremely tedious and laborious process. The machine method, invented about 1885 and first used by Field and Morse of Boston, is now used at Antwerp exclusively. In this, one diamond is fixed at the centre of a rotating apparatus, and the other, on an arm or handle, is placed so as to press steadily against the other stone at the proper angle. The rotating diamond thus becomes rounded and smoothed; the other one is then put in its place at the centre and their mutual action reversed.
At Amsterdam a hand-process is employed, which lies between the cleavage and the brutage. This consists in cutting or trimming away angles and irregularities all over the stone by means of a sharp-edged or pointed diamond, both being mounted in cement on pear-shaped handles for firm holding. This work is largely done by women. In all these processes the dust and fragments are caught and carefully saved.
2. Cutting and Setting.—The next process is that of cutting the facets; but an intervening step is the fixing or “setting” of the stone for that purpose. This is done by embedding it in a fusible alloy, melting at 440° Fahr., in a little cup-shaped depression on the end of a handle, the whole being called a “dop.” Only the portion to be ground off is left exposed; and two such mounted diamonds are then rubbed against each other until a face is produced. This is the work of the cutter; it is very laborious, and requires great care and skill. The hands must be protected with leather gloves. The powder produced is carefully saved, as in the former processes, for use in the final polishing. When one face has been produced, the alloy is softened by heating, and the stone re-set for grinding another surface; and as this process is necessary for every face cut, it must be repeated many times for each stone. An improved dop has lately been devised in which the diamond is held by a system of claws so that all this heating and resetting can, it is claimed, be obviated, and the cutting completed with only two changes.
3. Polishing.—The faces having thus been cut, the last stage is the polishing. This is done upon horizontal iron wheels called “skaifs,” made to rotate up to 2500 revolutions per minute. The diamond-powder saved in the former operations, and also made by crushing very inferior diamonds, here comes into use as the only material for polishing. It is applied with oil, and the stones are fixed in a “dop” in much the same way as in the cutting process. Again, the utmost skill and watchfulness are necessary, as the angles of the faces must be mathematically exact, in order to yield the best effects by refraction and reflection of light, and their sizes must be accurately regulated to preserve the symmetry of the stone. In this process, also, the old hand method is already replaced in part by an improved device whereby the diamond is held by adjustable claws, on a base that can be rotated, so as to apply it in any desired position. By this means the time and trouble of repeated re-setting in the dop are saved, as well as the liability to injury from the heating and cooling; the services of special “setters” are also made needless.
The rapid development of mechanical devices for the several stages of diamond cutting has already greatly influenced the art. A very interesting comparison was brought out in the thirteenth report of the American Commissioner of Labour, as to the aspects and relations of hand-work and machinery in this branch of industry. It appeared from the data gathered that the advantage lay with machinery as to time and with hand-work as to cost, in the ratios respectively of 1 to 3.38 and 1.76 to 1. In other words, about half the gain in time is lost by increased expense in the use of machine methods. A great many devices and applications have been developed within the last few years, owing to the immense increase in the production of diamonds from the South African mines, and their consequent widespread use.
History of Diamond Cutting.—The East Indian diamonds, many of which are doubtless very ancient, were polished in the usual Oriental fashion by merely rounding off the angles. Among church jewels in Europe are a few diamonds of unknown age and source, cut four-sided, with a table above and a pyramid below. Several cut diamonds are recorded among the treasures of Louis of Anjou in the third quarter of the 14th century. But the first definite accounts of diamond polishing are early in the century following, when one Hermann became noted for such work in Paris. The modern method of “brilliant” cutting, however, is generally ascribed to Louis de Berquem, of Bruges, who in 1475 cut several celebrated diamonds sent to him by Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy. He taught this process to many pupils, who afterwards settled in Antwerp and Amsterdam, which have been the chief centres of diamond cutting ever since. Peruzzi was the artist who worked out the theory of the well-proportioned brilliant of 58 facets. Some very fine work was done early in London also, but most of the workmen were Jews, who, being objectionable in England, finally betook themselves to Amsterdam and Antwerp. Efforts have been lately made to re-establish the art in London, where, as the great diamond mart of the world, it should peculiarly belong.
The same unwise policy was even more marked in Portugal. That nation had its colonial possessions in India, following the voyages and discoveries of Da Gama, and thus became the chief importer of diamonds into Europe. Early in the 18th century, also, the diamond-mines were discovered in Brazil, which was then likewise a Portuguese possession; thus the whole diamond product of the world came to Portugal, and there was naturally developed in Lisbon an active industry of cutting and polishing diamonds. But in time the Jews were forced away, and went to Holland and Belgium, where diamond cutting has been concentrated since the middle of the 18th century.
It is of interest to trace the recent endeavours to establish diamond cutting in the United States. The pioneer in this movement was Henry D. Morse of Boston, associated with James W. Yerrington of New York. He opened a diamond-cutting establishment about 1860 and carried it on for some years, training a number of young men and women, who became the best cutters in the country. But the chief importance of his work lay in its superior quality. So long had it been a monopoly of the Dutch and Belgians that it was declining into a mere mechanical trade. Morse studied the diamond scientifically and taught his pupils how important mathematical exactitude in cutting was to the beauty and value of the gem. He thus attained a perfection rarely seen before, and gave a great stimulus to the art. Shops were opened in London as well, in consequence of Morse’s success; and many valuable diamonds were recut in the United States after his work became known. This fact in turn reacted upon the cutter abroad, especially in France and Switzerland; and thus the general standard of the art was greatly advanced.
Diamond cutting in the United States is now a well-established industry. From 1882 to 1885 a number of American jewelers undertook such work, but for various reasons it was not found practicable then. Ten years later, however, there were fifteen firms engaged in diamond cutting, giving employment to nearly 150 men in the various processes involved. In the year 1894 a number of European diamond workers came over; some foreign capital became engaged; and a rapid development of diamond cutting took place. This movement was caused by the low tariff on uncut diamonds as compared with that on cut stones. It went so far as to be felt seriously abroad; but in a year or two it declined, owing partly to strikes and partly to legal questions as to the application of some of the tariff provisions. At the close of 1895, however, there were still some fourteen establishments in and near New York, employing about 500 men. Since then the industry has gradually developed. Many of the European diamond workers who came over to America remained and carried on their art; and the movement then begun has become permanent. New York is now recognized as one of the chief diamond-cutting centres; there are some 500 cutters, and the quality of work done is fully equal, if not superior, to any in the Old World. So well is this fact established that American-cut diamonds are exported and sold in Europe to a considerable and an increasing extent.
In the Brazilian diamond region of Minas Geraes an industry of cutting has grown up since 1875. Small mills are run by water power, and the machinery, as well as the methods, are from Holland. This Brazilian diamond work is done both well and cheaply, and supplies the local market.
The leading position in diamond working still belongs to Amsterdam, where the number of persons engaged in the industry has trebled since about 1875, in consequence of the enormous increase in the world’s supply of diamonds. The number now amounts to 15,000, about one-third of whom are actual cleavers, cutters, polishers, &c. The number of cutting establishments in Amsterdam is about seventy, containing some 7000 mills.
Antwerp comes next with about half as many mills and a total of some 4500 persons engaged in all departments, including about seventy women. These are distributed among thirty-five or forty establishments. A majority of the workers are Belgians, but there are many Dutch, Poles and Austro-Hungarians, principally Jews. Among these numerous employees there is much opportunity for dishonesty, and but little surveillance, actual or possible; yet losses from this cause are almost unknown. The wages paid are good, averaging from £2, 9s. 6d. to £2, 17s. 6d. a week. Sorters receive from 28s. to £2; cutters from £2, 9s. 6d to £3, 6s., and cleavers from £3, 14s. upwards.
With the recent introduction of electricity in diamond cutting there has been a revolution in that industry. Whereas formerly wheels were made to revolve by steam, they are now placed in direct connexion with electric motors, although there is not a motor to each machine. The saws for slitting the diamond can thus be made to revolve much more rapidly, and there is a cleanliness and a speed about the work never before attained. (G. F. K.)
- The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure for 1749 states that diamond dust, “well ground and diluted with water and vinegar, is used in the sawing of diamonds, which is done with an iron or brass wire, as fine as a hair.”—Ed.