Secrets Of The Gem Trade:

Margaret De Patta
 and The American Lapidary Renaissance

  by Richard W. Wise, G.G.


The art of lapidary developed over a long period.  As early as the 4th century BC, certain of the softer gem materials were polished to improve their luster and transparency.  Gradually, methods were developed to improve and perfect the  natural shape of harder crystalline gemstones.  Early writers noted that the more perfect the natural crystal, the more beautiful the stone.  As technology advanced, the next logical step was to tinker with the angle of the crystal faces, and with that the art of faceting was born!  This development took a long time, as crystalline gemstones are, generally speaking, rated seven or harder on the Moh’s scale (steel is rated between six and six and one half).  The  technology necessary to cut diamond, for example, did not exist prior to the fourteenth century.                             
The evolution of the modern brilliant cut, the ubiquitous round diamond that has become the indispensable first step in the matrimonial mating dance,     began when some enterprising lapidary sawed the point off a natural         bipyramidal diamond crystal, thus creating the table cut.  Over the centuries, the focus of gem cutting had continually narrowed so that by the beginning of the last century, lapidary arts were concerned almost exclusively with cutting gemstones to maximize the stone’s refractive qualities--what we call brilliance. 
In the early 1980s a new concept in gem cutting was introduced to the American market by the German master lapidary Bernd Munsteiner.  Called "Munsteiner’s" or "Fantasy Cuts", these gemstones were fashioned with asymmetrical outlines and faceting  patterns that more resembled optical sculptures than settable gemstones. Though sneered at by conservatives, innovative designers and consumers embraced Munsteiner's fantasy cuts and these oddball cuts sold, and sold well. The market was hungry for something new. Though unrecognized at the time, a revolution had begun!  This signaled a cutting renaissance, and the only major change in the objective of gem cutting in the four hundred years since the cabochon gave way to the Point cut. 

In the past two decades a whole generation of new cutters has emerged.  I say "new cutters" for lack of a better term. These are craft artists whose objective is not the cutting of a well-made brilliant stone, but the making of a work of art.  The technologically advanced Germans, originally the leaders of this movement, have, since the early nineties, been surpassed by a group of mostly self-taught Americans who, in a burst of exuberant creativity, have thrust themselves into the forefront of this cutting renaissance. Artist-cutters like Michael Dyber, Glenn Lehrer, Steve Walters and Larry Winn, to name a few, have shown that America is still the world’s leader in innovation.      

Given recent history, it is natural to conclude that this lapidary renaissance had its roots in Germany.  But, this would be incorrect!  Creative cutting began in the early 1940's. The father of the New Cutting was not a German, but an unassuming  American pioneer by the name of Francis J. Sperisen.
Francis Sperisen (1900-1986) was a lapidary active in the San Francisco bay area from the 1920s into the 1970s. In the early 1920’s, he opened his shop at 166 Geary Street after working as an apprentice for four years at Moser Brothers, a local lapidary firm. Sperisen was a self-taught faceter.                         

In 1939-40, Sperisen began an artistic collaboration with Margaret De Patta, a metalsmith who is today considered the doyenne of American Art-Jewelers.  San Francisco was, at this time, a hotbed of innovative handcraft.  Sperisen worked with De Patta, cutting unusual gemstones to complement her metalwork.  De Patta was, herself, a student of the Constructivist artist and founder of Chicago's New Bauhaus, Laszlow Moholy-Nagy.  Moholy-Nagy, an important Hungarian born artist, is known for his interest in light.  He created large shiny metal sculptures that were always exhibited under strong lighting. 

     De Patta called these unusual stones "opticuts."  Although most writers give her sole credit for the concept, the evidence suggests that De Patta's pieces were the result of a true collaboration between jeweler and lapidary.  And, like many of the great artistic partnerships, it is difficult to determine where De Patta's concept ends and Sperisen’s influence begins.  According to Sperisen's son, Richard, De Patta knew nothing about lapidary or the optical possibilities inherent in gemstones. She would bring Sperisen models (often made of opaque metal or balsawood), to show the shapes she wanted to complement her metalwork. Sperisen would then experiment with the optical potential inherent in the shapes.  However, statements by De Patta strongly suggest that though she may not have fully understood the craft of the lapidary, she possessed a very sophisticated understanding of both the history and objectives of the lapidary arts.

     “For centuries the transparent stones have been cut to produce brilliance and sparkle, finally coming to the ultimate scientific calculation of  maximum angle of reflection.  The consideration of transparent stones as ‘transparencies’ bring about an entirely new type of design for their shape and use.”1

De Patta well understood that in the development of what she called “opti-cuts,”she and Sperisen were breaking new ground. The title of Moholy-Nagy’s 1942 book,  Vision in Motion, sums up De Patta’s objective.  For De Patta, a piece of jewelry was a dynamic object.  The wearer moved and the spectator moved, creating dynamic visual effects.  She was excited by the possibilities of creating “optical and visual effects…reflection, illusion, distortion, etc."2                        

Around the beginning of World War II, Sperisen developed the Lens Cut, (a precursor of the Opposed Bar), which was designed to distort light as it passed    through a gemstone.3  The lens effect, though considered a fault in traditional gem cutting, was a conceptually radical departure that crossed the boundary from craft into art. 
One of De Patta's most famous pieces is a pendant currently part of the De Patta Memorial Collection in the Oakland Museum of Art. In this piece she crafted a "Y" like shape in white gold and ebony, mounted behind, and meant to be seen as distorted through, a Sperisen Double Lens Cut quartz.  The effect was a conceptual tour de force. A realization of what art critic Norbert Lynton calls "the Constructivist ideal of massless sculpture inserted into space."4 As the viewer’s eye moves, the metal mounted behind the stone also moves, and the metal appears to move and change shape.                            


De Patta brooch with a Sperisen double lens “opti-cut” smoky quartz. When observed by a spectator, the stone creates a “see through” effect that distorts and gives the illusion of movement to the chased decorated  surface behind the gemstone. 

 Photo by Margaret De Patta.   


This photo taken by Margaret De Patta also included her handwritten description on a sheet attached to the photograph: “Flat topped crystal with four back facets converging on center facet (culet), which is parallel to top.  Two facets polished, two frosted.  Black enamel beneath tiny bottom plane (culet) gives effect of  extended perspective.” 


     We can trace a direct link from the radical innovations of Francis Sperisen and Margaret De Patta to the work of some of the most important contemporary American art-cutters.  
The New  Cutters may be roughly divided into two groups: faceters and carvers.  I  say roughly because often one artist will work in both disciplines.  Faceters such as Michael Dyber, Larry Winn, Arthur Anderson and  Sherris Cotter Shank are concerned with optical possibilities of the  materials and tend to work in transparent materials such as amethyst,  tourmaline and ametrine.  Carvers like Glen Lehrer and Stephen Walters are more concerned with shape, color, texture and luster and favor opaque to semi-translucent gem material such as banded agate, gem silica and chrysoprase.  

Glen Lehrer is a California native and the only artist among the New Cutters to receive some formal training in Europe. He began cutting in 1975 and taught himself many of the  techniques he used before going to Idar-Oberstein.  Lehrer also acknowledges a debt to Henry Hunt who, in turn,  counts Sperisen as his technical mentor.

     Lehrer's wing forms, executed in agates, show a deft mastery of flowing line as well as an inherent feeling for his material.  Although well grounded in art history, Lehrer says that most of his inspiration and influence comes directly from organic forms.  He looks into the agate and visualizes in his imagination the  gem's proto-form as it emerges from the super hot magmatic soup.  Many of his pieces retain sections of drusy--tiny clusters of quartz crystals that are part of the original skin of the rough agate.  These carefully outlined clusters form a counterpoint to the sensuous flow of his carving, and serve as a focal point completing the; composition.

Lehrer wing form executed in gem chrysocolla (chalcedony)5

Photo: Glenn Lehrer


      Lehrer's pieces are complex and self-contained; his finished work rarely needs more than the addition of an accent stone, which he always seems to leave room for, and a bit of gold framing to create a beautiful piece of jewelry.     
     Carver Steve Walters, also a California native, grew up around the family gem business.  He spent most of his early years working as a production cutter.  In the early 1980s  he first saw the composition pieces of the German cutter Dieter Lorenz.  He considers Lorenz's carved onyx pieces to have been a major  inspiration. 

Walters is a craftsman who sees his work as a component of the  jeweler’s process.  Where  Lehrer is a conceptualist who shapes his pieces, sensitively molding the  agate to complete his vision, Walters works without preconceptions and  goes where the material takes him.  His curves are soft, flowing, feminine and melodic.  His best work reminds you of the overlapping currents of a fast  moving stream.  His favorite  media is opaque to semi-translucent onyx and agate.                 
Steve Walters gem sculptures in Mojave blue agate.6 

 Earrings by Douglas Canivet. 

Courtesy R. W. Wise, Goldsmiths, Inc. 

Photo:  Jeff Scovil  



There are many notable lapidary artists working in faceting.  Space restrictions limit our discussion to just two of the most  representative.  The term "faceter" itself is something of a misnomer, as much of their work bears little resemblance to traditional faceting and its overriding concern with refraction and brilliance.  
  Contemporary faceters are still working with light, but are often more interested in producing  holographic and other types of internal effects, which draw the viewer toward and into the gemstone, rather than simply refracting or projecting light toward the viewer.  Munsteiner’s earlier work, for example, was, despite the non-symmetrical outline and facet patterns, still very traditional in its concern with producing brilliance.  In a major break with Sperisen-De Patta, most contemporary “opti-cuts” are self-contained optical sculptures. Although designed to be used in jewelry, they are not subservient to the art of the goldsmith.  All the optical effects are visible within the stone.  In this sense they are less of a radical departure and are very much in sync with the traditional objectives of the lapidary art. 

One artist whose work stands squarely in the European tradition is Larry Winn.  Like most of the New Cutters, Winn is a westerner hailing from West Texas.  His immediate mentors were Lou Wackler and Arthur Anderson, both gifted Americans who in turn drew technical inspiration from Sperisen and Henry Hunt. 

Following an initial flirtation with Munsteineresque free forms, which Winn says were part of his learning experience, he has returned to symmetry.  His stones have girdles and are easily set.  Winn's award winning "Cosmos cut" is an octagon, which combines  facets, narrow slash-like cuts and concave cuts, sometimes called  negative facets.  This combination makes his stones dance with brilliance, and at the same time draws the observer toward the center of his composition.  His singular approach has brought him no less than five major cutting awards.                   

Unconventional techniques such as concave and negative faceting juxtapose holographic effects against brilliance and scintillation in this 52-carat aquamarine gem sculpture by Larry Winn.7 

Photo:  Helen Constantine Shull        

    No article on the new cutters would be complete without a discussion of the work of Michael M. Dyber.  Dyber, considered by many to be the preeminent American faceter, is a New Englander, born in Connecticut and currently a resident of Rumney, New Hampshire.  He began cutting  in 1983 after working as a goldsmith for several years.  He, like most of the other New Cutters, is almost entirely self-taught.  

Dyber works exclusively in translucent gem material such as quartz and aquamarine, but some of his most dramatic pieces are executed in ametrine, a naturally occurring bi-colored quartz that contains both amethyst and citrine in the same crystal.    
Dyber’s compositions are best described as cool and cerebral.  When asked about his artistic inspiration he immediately mentions the work of another Constructivist, Alexander Calder.  As a teenager, he admired the way Calder's curvilinear-shaped  mobiles "floated in air."  Dyber made mobiles of his own in high school and sold several of  them.

Dyber via Calder is a true heir of the Constructivist aesthetic.  It is interesting to note that he was completely unaware of  Sperisen.  His work resembles a miniature holographic mobile.  Moholy-Nagy spoke of elements suspended in space; Dyber defines his own space, and his negative faceting technique creates icons suspended in their own self-contained universes.  Yet Dyber maintains that he has no grand artistic plan.  Rather he talks about an emotional response to the rough.  Like Michelangelo, his gemstone compositions are the result of a continuing dialogue between himself and his material.   
Michael Dyber gem sculpture in amethyst (48.85 carats).  The holographic effects are a result of facets ground into the back or pavilion of the gem which is roughly triangular, similar to the pavilion of a standard faceted gemstone.8

 Photo: Jeff Scovil

Dyber's work, like Lehrer's, reverses the traditional relationship between the designer and cutter.  These sculptures are not accents, but are small works of art complete in themselves.  Yet many designer-goldsmiths purchase his works and set them into jewelry.  Dyber himself calls them "miniature gem sculptures suitable for jewelry." 

      The work of these New American Cutters is every bit as diverse as the personalities that create them.  Yet, they have a number of things in common.  None is menu driven.  They have no aesthetic agenda, write no artistic manifestos.  Some call themselves artists, others prefer the term craftsmen.  Like most real craftsmen, their works are the result of a  creative conversation between themselves and their material.  Like most true artists, their aim is to create an object of  beauty.  For the most part  they are willing to work in an unusual subconscious collaboration with metalsmiths whom they may never meet, to create a finished piece of jewelry that they may never see.  In all these senses their work is revolutionary.  

We are in the midst of a cutting renaissance, the results of which will define American jewelry design in the twenty-first century.  

Cutters throughout the world are exploring new cutting styles in both  traditional and non-traditional gem materials.  New cuts have provided an opportunity for designers to expand  their own creative potential.  Traditional lapidary has improved because the new  cutters have focused attention on the importance of fine technique.  It is indeed an exciting time.    


This article is excerpted in part from Secrets of the Gem Trade; the Connoisseur’s Guide to Precious Gemstones by Richard W. Wise, published by Brunswick House  Press, 2003 ISBN; 0-9728223-9-9.  For  further information including sample chapters visit the publisher’s website:                            

Richard W. Wise is a Graduate Gemologist and president of R. W. Wise, Goldsmiths, Inc., Lenox, Massachusetts.  His numerous articles on jewelry and gemstones have appeared in Gems & Gemology, National Jeweler and Lapidary Journal.  Secrets Of The Gem Trade; The Connoisseur’s Guide To Precious Gemstones is his first book  




1Statements of Margaret De Patta ‘on jewelry’ Statement 3 On Stones: (Unpublished typed manuscript provided to the author by Richard Sperisen, 1996)
3Sperisen, F. J., The Art of the Lapidary, The Bruce Publishing Co., N. Y. 1961 .p.  223) 
4Lynton, Norbert, The Modern World. McGraw Hill, New York, 1965, p.133
5Wise, Richard W., Secrets Of The Gem Trade; The Connoisseur’s Guide to Precious Gemstones.  Brunswick House, Press, 2003. p. 114.
Ibid. p. 34
7Ibid. p.32          
8 Ibid. p. 94



Article by Richard W. Wise
Web design by Marbeth Schon
 Copyright © 2003 Richard W. Wise
Modern Silver Magazine

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