Gem-cutting design workshop – Lapis Lazuli

Gems - Lapis Lazuli gemstones finished and in the process of being cut.

Gem-cutting at the Institute here at Turquoise Mountain is carried out using both  modern and traditional equipment.  It’s difficult to know where to start with the gem-cutting students because they truly blow me away whenever I visit them. I haven’t gotten to spend as much time with them as the jewellery students as my expertise does not lie in gem-cutting but I did get the opportunity to do a design workshop with them due to the openness and enthusiasm of the head of the Gem-cutting department, Ustad Azim.   The students in the Jewellery & Gem-cutting department start out learning both disciplines before settling on either Jewellery or Gem-cutting which means that all of the 3rd year students although having a specialty in one or the other have knowledge of both skills upon graduating.

A student using traditional gem-cutting equipment to cut lapis lazuli.

On my first extended visit to the dept. following an extensive explanation of the equipment used, the techniques they were developing and examples of the students work as they progressed through the programme, the Ustad and myself ended up discussing the design implications of a particular cut of stone with one student and were giving some suggestions as to how he might proceed. Following our discussion Ustad Azim was very keen for me to do some design development with the students. I mentioned the design workshop that I had done with the jewellery students and whether he thought that a similar workshop would be suitable. He was very supportive of this and his view was that it would be very good for the students to have a design project. We discussed what type of workshop might benefit the students and off I went to discuss this idea with the head and deputy head of the Institute who it turns out were happy for me to proceed.

Selected sheets from the Gem-cutting design workshop handout.

After looking at examples of various gem cuts that the students had worked on I developed an exercise for the 3rd year gem-cutting students that had them pick one or two shapes to cut from a selection of fifteen with a view to cutting between five to eight stones of at least two different sizes to use in a multiple stone bracelet or necklace design. They were encouraged to take careful consideration of the proportions of the stones so that the balance was right in the finished jewellery piece. Students also had the option to work in pairs if they wanted to cut more than eight stones. They were provided with a handout with the instructions of the exercise which included drawings of the fifteen different stone cuts and several images of multiple stone necklace or bracelet designs or suitable multiple stone combinations drawn by myself to give them some examples and ideas to get started. Lapis Lazuli, which is one of the many gem resources to be found in Afghanistan and has been mined here in the mountains of Badakhshan for over 6,500 years, was decided upon as the gem material for cutting. The idea was for the gem-cutting students to think about how to use their gem-cutting skills to create multiple stone pieces that demonstrate the extent of their ability to work with incredible precision and consistency.

Work in Progress - One student's lapis lazuli inlay work for one of the jewellery students suite of jewellery.

The gem-cutting students consistently work with the jewellery students on projects however, generally the jewellery student makes the piece first and the gem-cutting students cut the stone/stones to fit with the exception of the jewellery students making simple settings to showcase complex individually cut stones. (I don’t think the jewellery students here realize how incredibly blessed they are by this arrangement as most jeweller’s that I know working with stones have to make the settings to fit the stone and not vice versa!) So ideally this project would have a secondary phase which entailed the gem-cutting students collaborating with the jewellery students to create a finished piece of jewellery (dependent on how willing the jewellery students were to tackle this project…) My hope was that in addition to a design-led gem-cutting exercise from which students would have a group of stones ready to serve as an example for commission purposes we might end up with some finished pieces of jewellery from which the design was lead or at the least heavily influenced by the gem-cutting students as opposed to the jewellery students. I know, rather subversive of me but the gem-cutting students and Ustad were right behind me on this one trust me!

Gem-cutting student working on one of the stones for a bracelet design.

My approach to this workshop was much more informal than my previous workshop. The students after some initial meetings were left to work on this project at their own pace with their Ustad’s guidance, fitting it around other projects. Whenever I visited the workshop another student would quietly come over to show me their works in progress or their finished stones. This approach worked particularly well with the gem-cutting students as they are incredibly self-motivated and without any prompting on my part have produced some excellent outcomes to this exercise!

Set of lapis lazuli stones for use in a bracelet.

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