Been a while since our last interview came in. Sorry about that, we got busy with your jewelry and other gem hunts. Nevertheless, I think today’s interview will be a treat! The interview that we promised for so long about gem cutting is finally in and we have none other than Nomad’s Josh Saltzman to talk to us about it! Buckle up and enjoy the show guys!
Photo of Josh Saltzman in the Nomad's Bangkok office.
Photo Credit: Prangpak Ruahong and Maria Arkhipova
Asia Lounges: Hi Josh, thanks for accepting Asia Lounges' invitation today and to have agreed to help us answer to the Loungers’ curiosity! First thing first though, who are you Josh Saltzman? Tell us about you:
Josh Saltzman: I grew up in California and always had a bit of an interest in gems and minerals, when I was in elementary school I had an awesome collection of little piece of amethyst, geodes, slices of agate and other little mineral samples and had a little rock tumbler where I would wait for days at a time to see what would come out of the drum. My dad would take me to the mineral exhibits down in Balboa Park and at the museums and I still remember the day he took me to “mine” through the tailings of one of the mines out in Pala, finding little crystals in the gravel. I studied Environmental Sciences at the University of California in San Diego and after I graduated, I worked for a time as a biologist in San Diego. Then spent a year and a half backpacking around Asia in India and China before eventually starting to work in the environmental field in the region. About 12 years ago While living in Bangkok which is a center for the colored stone trade, I became interested in gemstones and had decided to take my knowledge of tumbled agate and quartz a step further and enroll in a gemology course. I chose AIGS’s accredited gemology course as it was the best value for the money and the classes were set in the heart of the gem/jewelry district in Bangkok. Soon after that I began working with Nomad’s.
AL: Seeing how you’ve always been around gems and minerals I guess it is fair to call you a genuine gem lover. No wonder you ended up working with the guys over at Nomad’s! Speaking of which, who are you guys? What is Nomad’s, their philosophy? Can you tell us more about your company?
JS: Twenty years ago, before Nomad's was Nomad's, a group of young men from Southern Ukraine looked at the Beryl [Family of Aquamarine, Heliodor and Emerald to name only them], Topaz, and Quartz crystals discarded from the mining of optical Quartz and saw potential to turn them into faceted gemstones. They knew there was beauty and value in those crystals but had to learn how to transform them so they bought all the lapidary books they could get their hands on and set out to learn the art of gem cutting.
Over the years, this team explored techniques of sculpting light and matter, creating unique works of art in the process. This allowed them to develop and progress in a business that is forever challenging and complex. The newly formed business allowed them to discover and work through hurdles of unknown territory. The success of these early projects and relationships made along the way became the foundation of Nomad's today. From Ukraine to Bangkok, Switzerland and New York, Nomad's has grown into a tribe of artists, scientists, gemologists, traders and explorers.
Nomad's cutter inspecting a yellow beryl while realizing the cut of the pavillion.
Photo Credit: Prangpak Ruahong and Maria Arkhipova
AL: Nomad’s is not only a team of visionaries when it comes to using roughs that noone used before, they are also famous for the excellence of their cut and the purity of their gems. Can you tell us more about Gem cutting? Can you tell us more about what makes Nomad’s so different in that regard? But perhaps it would be good to let our audience know a thing or two about the evolution of cutting through the ages according to you first?
JS: The history of gem cutting is not really in my area of expertise, but the technology of faceting has continued to move forward as technology advances. In recent times, some local cutters (those in gem producing countries) have moved from a jam peg type of machine, where the angles of the facets are not precise, to basic index machines where the angles are more precisely controlled by a geared angle index (machines used in Sri Lanka and other places) some are handheld and some are attached to a mast. Some more advanced cutters and hobby faceters are using the latest round of tech where the angles can be viewed on a digital display out to the tenth decimals place. This new tech allows gem cutters to control their angles exactly and to have all of their facet meet points come together cleanly, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a more beautiful and aesthetically pleasing stone. Proportion, facet size, curved facets and poor polishing still are a major issue. Simply being more accurate and following a diagram doesn’t make a better stone, you also have to take into account how the cut will affect the color how the facet shape, position and size will affect the overall appearance of the stone.
AL: Considering what you just said I guess we can assume that differentiating commercial and precision cuts, visually speaking, shan’t be too difficult. But do they address, in your opinion the same market needs?
JS: I think it is interesting to look at the differences between this mass market commercial cutting and pretty much everything else, from native cutting, to small local (in the country of origin) cutting workshops, to precision cutting.
The comparison between commercial vs precision is the difference between a cafeteria and a fine dining restaurant. These two areas serve different markets, and both have their place in industry, as the entire goal of the jewelry industry is to make people happy. This is the bottom line. If the customer is happy then you have done your job well, if they are not then you have not. Everyone on the planet has a different threshold for what will make them happy. Some people will be happy with a poorly cut irradiated blue topaz pendant set in a sterling silver mount. Some people won’t be happy unless they have an unheated Burmese “Pigeon’s Blood” ruby set in platinum ring on their finger (though something like this is also often poorly cut). [“Pigeon’s Blood” is often referred to as the top red color for ruby. On occasion, labs will disagree on what can and cannot be awarded such tittle. It may depend on origin, crystal clarity, whether the stone has been treated or not etc.]
I think that, generally speaking, commercial cutting is for people who don’t know about gemstones and aren’t concerned with what type of stone they are buying or its overall quality. The goal of commercial cutting is to facet the maximum amount of material in the least amount of time at the lowest cost. This can be done either manually or mechanically depending on a number of factors such as financial investment, the cost of labor, the cost of the rough, etc. Commercial cutting is necessary for the jewelry industry, it allows the industry to maintain the large amount of goods that it needs to survive. The jewelry industry, like pretty much every other industry is shaped like a pyramid, with the inexpensive mass market segment serving as the base, with each increase in the price/quality of the goods, the market shrinks.
The term precision cutting refers to the cutting style where, using an index cutting machine, the angles of the facets can be precisely controlled and the meet-points of facets accurately come together at a single point.
Ignoring specimen grade material, when a crystal comes out of the ground, generally speaking, that crystal will be worth less than a cut stone, even if the stone is poorly cut, because there is a huge amount of risk in that first step, inclusions, color, stone breakage, etc. Faceting the stone, removes much of that risk and shows the buyer what the nature of the stone is. A piece of alluvial rough is a gamble, with its worn outer skin, what is inside can only vaguely be determined in the best circumstances and with a torch light as bright as the sun. Why don’t the rough sellers facet a small window into the rough? Because this would more likely decrease the value of the piece/lot of rough as clean stones are much rarer and when you can visibly see the crystals, veils, fractures, etc then you have a bargaining chip to lower the price.
Typical example of a rough Morganite (pink / peach colour beryl) here, only the top right corner section would be of interest to companies such as Nomad's or Asia Lounges for cutting clean material. Photo Credit: Josh Saltzman
Therefore, so much material comes to those first few local markets as a native cut stone, poor polish with lines visible, facets askew, huge bottom with a chunk out of the side, culet somewhere off towards the right corner, funky crown, kind of an oval shape, a body shape that is just slightly smaller than the rough crystals’ shape, etc. Generally, all that first cutter is trying to do is increase what they can ask for the stone.
Recutting a piece like this into a better cut or a precision type cut can sometimes be done as at this first stage of the market cycle, close to the source, the price of the stone hasn’t begun to climb that much (excluding things like ruby, sapphire, emerald, spinel) even with a large amount of weight loss from closing a window, a reasonable selling price can still be asked.
In this picture you can see how gems are being held on the dop while being slowly shaped on the cutting machine.
Photo Credit: Prangpak Ruahong and Maria Arkhipova
One step up from this are the smaller local workshops which, generally, try to produce a higher quality of stone. Though they are generally using less precise cutting machines, they can still produce relatively good results. Many of these cutters, such as those in Sri Lanka, Colombia and elsewhere are extremely skilled at what they do particularly with things like ruby, sapphire and emerald. While a western buyer might look at the finished product and complain about the slightly off shape or a pavilion that bulges slightly to one side, what they might not notice is that much of the color of the stone is contained in that area or a crack or veil is less visible. These cutters know just how to get the results that they want, which is a stone that has a nice face up color, and hides most of the most glaring flaws of the stone. Recutting a stone like this in the “precision cutting” style can just as easily (and often times does) result in a stone that is less beautiful and less valuable on the market than the original piece even though it becomes more aesthetically proportioned and has straight facets. The color can lighten or mostly disappear, an inclusion that wasn’t noticeable before is now perfectly reflected across all of the aligned facets turning one small crystal into twenty, or some other flaw that is now clearly visible face-up.
That being said, a large portion of this type of cutting is focused solely on weight retention, where as much of the gem material as possible is retained to increase the carat weight and thus the overall price. A good example of this is tourmaline which, due to its crystal shape, tends to be cut into long baguette or rectangular cuts which have huge pavilions. Recutting stones at this stage is more difficult. The weight loss to make the stone more attractive wouldn’t justify the increase in the stone cost. Most of the time, it can be partially fixed, straightening up the shape, or the table or cleaning up the facets, but closing a large window or fixing other issues can result in huge loss, which would then push up the asking price.
Find more about the story behind this gem here!
This type of cutting accounts for much of the gem material above the mass market commercial quality range. These types stones which are sold at shows around the world and put into jewelry make up a large part of the jewelry trade in the midrange and even “lower” high end markets.
For a company specializing in cutting precision gemstones, and there are only a few, the most effective method is also the riskiest, buying the rough and cutting from this material. Only in this way you are not fixing other peoples mistakes and making corrections to make the stone look better. You start with a blank canvas and the cutter is free to release the true potential that is inside the piece. [See our article on gem cutting for more information here]
Nomad’s goes even a step further, the rough selection process which, for us, is the most important step. We see large quantities of rough on the tables in our office every day, and only a fraction of it is potential Nomad’s material. Of this we painstakingly go through every piece examining even the smallest for inclusions, cracks and other potential problems. These pieces are sorted out and only the finest pieces of rough in a parcel are purchased. This drives the price of that rough up, because when any dealer puts together a parcel of gem rough, they mix the good stones with the low-quality stones, mixing them together in proportions that will result in the highest per gram price. Take out all the best pieces and you are left with off color, included stones which in some cases are unsellable or can only fetch a fraction of the price that was originally asked. This obviously drives up the price for the selected material. In some cases, dealers will not allow selection, forcing the buyer to buy everything because they know that they will have a very difficult time selling the lower quality material. In cases like this Nomad’s will generally pass on the lot offered, because small amount of better quality material in a parcel like this doesn’t justify buying the whole parcel. It’s a numbers game.
A selection of Mozambique Purple "Grape" Garnet offered to our friends over at Nomad's, Purple is the color of 2018 yet, finding a single clean gem above 3 carats can prove to be a real headache.
Photo Credit: Josh Saltzman
AL: A numbers game indeed and a tough one to boot! We are no strangers to this issue at Asia Lounges and it is good to remind our readers what we all go through to find the best possible gems for them. At this point though, I am convinced that many must be wondering how does one decide what type of cutting should be used? Could you perhaps tell us more about it?
JS: Both the shape of the stone and the type of cut varies on what the cutter wants to achieve and what the rough will allow. Generally the shape of the stone is determined by the shape of the rough, or where the high quality material is inside the rough. A master cutter looks at a piece of rough 3 dimensionally, and sees the faceted stone inside the crystal. They see the cracks, the inclusions and visualize what shape stone the rough holds inside: an oval, a pear, a cushion etc. The crystal habit of a stone can also affect what the shape will be. Why is so much tourmaline a long rectangular shape? Because this is the shape of the rough. Bicolor stones generally have steep end facets so the colors are not reflected across and through the stone and thus muddled together.
The end result is also important of course, does the cutter want a brilliant sparkly stone with a large amount of scintillation as it is turned or rich bright flashes of color. If the first case, many small facets will be used, if the second just a few larger facets. What kind of jewelry will it be set in, is the customer looking for a modern looking stone or a more traditional style? There is a wide range of factors that influence which shape and cut style is chosen.
AL: You guys, at Nomad’s, are know to be among the best cutters in the industry and as such I always wondered how a lapidary expert comes up with a new cutting style?
Here you can see the cutter inspecting the quality of his work.
Photo Credit: Prangpak Ruahong and Maria Arkhipova
JS: Inspiration can be found anywhere at any time. Often times the rough material itself is inspiration of what can be done, a master cutter can see the shape in the rough, visualizing the stone inside. As for a new cutting style, inspiration comes from all directions, from nature, from geometry, from art and images, from music, it comes from inside the cutter’s heart, they see something and it makes them think: “hmm, what if I did X, with a stone, will I get Y? what would happen?” Old styles come back into popularity. Risk-taking is a must. Some things work, while some things don’t but it is that first step that puts you on the path. Try, and try again, and again, and again.
AL: Would you consider the creation of brand new shapes / styles a common occurrence?
JS: Coming up with a new style that is commercially viable is not common, people have been stone cutting for a long time and have tried many many different styles and in the end just a couple have taken hold. In the early days when faceting was extremely difficult it was a simple polishing of the rough, or a rose-cut. As new ways were found to cut stones, the popular style of cutting changed. Now overall the markets are quite traditional, and can have a hard time accepting new styles. The classic cuts like step, brilliant, and mixed cuts make up the vast majority of gemstones on the market. That being said there occasionally there are new cuts that come along that appeal to one segment of the market or another. Our modified kite cut is a good example, it is one of our signature cuts that one of our master cutters came up with, and provides a unique look for a simple traditional shape.
AL: Thanks a lot for your time and involvement Josh, I’m sure the Loungers enjoyed going through this interview as much as we did! Guys, as per usual, should you wish to learn more about something in particular about the gem and jewelry industry feel free to let us know in the comments, by mail or by contacting us directly on Facebook or Instagram. We’ll see you again soon with some interesting article about gem treatments and as well as the path a gem takes when going through the gem “certification” process.
See you soon in the Lounges,
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A special thanks to team member for the photographic items provided (unless branded by AsiaLounges). Photo credits to: Prangpak Ruahong and Maria Arkhipova, find more about their photos on Instagram here.