Not all gems are the same. If you’ve only ever seen factory-cut gems, the techniques, styles and qualities of renowned lapidary artists will blow you away. It’s one of the ways that top jewellery artists stand out — world-renowned lapidary artists have developed new techniques to bring out the best in rare gems, with passion and a focus on quality.
If you visit the private studio of Robin Callahan Designs on Bainbridge Island, you’ll not only see one-of-a-kind gems cut by award-winning lapidary artists, you’ll also hear the adventurous stories of how each piece came to be.
“When I first started in the jewelry business I would buy ready-cut stones. I didn’t have an appreciation for it yet. Now I work directly with miners and lapidary artists, and every gem has a story,” Callahan says. “Many jewellers have started sharing the journey of each rock, from mine to cutter to maker to client. It takes on a very different feel than just buying a piece from a case.”
The transfixing beauty of Oregon Sunstone
Found right here in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon Sunstone was Robin Callahan’s first love.
“The color combinations are mind-blowing. With no heat and no treatments you can find rich reds, white like a diamond, champagne yellow, rose gold, green with bits of mahogany. The teal just touches me, it’s so rare. There are absolutely gorgeous bi-colors and tri-colors. Many Oregon Sunstones are dichroic, so you’ll see different colors from different angles.”
It also has schiller, suspended particles of copper that can create gorgeous patterns across a gem.
“A good lapidary artist will give that huge consideration — you don’t want to cut it so that the schiller blocks all the color, you want those streaks of gorgeous rose gold running across it,” Callahan says.
So every year she makes the trek on dirt roads into the desert to visit her friends at the Oregon Sunstone mines. She picks through heaps of rock and gravel, looking for a hint of sparkle. And she has special tricks to find the very best.
“All of the miners have special gems that they’ve pocketed. And they all know that I’m looking for the best. So when I visited Chris Rose, the owner of Spectrum Sunstone Mine, I asked him, ‘Are you hiding anything special?’ He gets this smirk, and pulls this Oregon sunstone out of his pocket — he’d been carrying it in his pocket for months,” Callahan says. “I gasped when I saw it.”
The gem had already become the stuff of legend in the industry — others had tried to purchase it from Rose but he wasn’t ready to part with it.
“I guess I was the lucky one, I just caught him on the right day.”
Callahan knew it was special, and she selected a special lapidary artist to cut it.
“Dalan Hargrave has probably won over 90 Spectrum Awards. He’s created his own unique style of fantasy cutting. I knew immediately that I was going to give this particular gem to Dalan.”
Callahan works with dozens of exceptionally talented lapidary artists around the world, and matches the character of the gem rough to the character of the artist. One lapidary artist jokingly threatened to lick one of her gem roughs like you’d lick a brownie, staking his claim so he’d be the one to cut it. Callahan is also a talented lapidary artist herself — she studied with Smithsonian multi-award-winning artists Dalan Hargrave and Larry Woods, and was one of twelve lapidary artists selected to cut a piece for the renowned Somewhere in the Rainbow Sapphire Collection in 2020.
“I don’t always have time to do the cutting, and I enjoy working with other artists. Just like my clients give me creative freedom, I share my idea with the lapidary artist and leave it to them. I want to be blown away,” she says. “Every gem has its ‘sweet spot’ to bring out the light, shine, shimmer, sparkle and color.”
Callahan sent the Oregon Sunstone from Chris Rose’s pocket to Dalan Hargrave for cutting, and then she crafted it into a pendant. The results were so spectacular it was quickly snapped up by the Somewhere in the Rainbow collection, which has a travelling exhibit as well as permanent exhibition space in the new Alfie Norville Gem & Mineral Museum at the University of Arizona and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum.
“They have an ‘Oh-my-God’ collection of Oregon Sunstone, and my piece is now part of it.”
Pulled rough from the earth, so much beauty to discover
Oregon Sunstones are just one aspect of Callahan’s artistry. She’s inspired by Montana Sapphires, the huge variety of garnet gems, tourmalines that touch your heart, ametrine (a mixture of amethyst and citrine that grows together at only one mine in the world) and many other beautiful gemstones. She’s planning to create a bridal collection from high quality moissanite, which looks like diamond, and is newly obsessed with Tahitian South Seas faceted pearls.
“And of course we also love diamonds! We’ll talk about those gems in the next article, as well as go into more detail about the difference between natural and lab-grown gems.”