Monday, August 29, 2011

Mookaite Cabochon

I recently posted about one of my first stone-setting experineces, with the Biggs Jasper Cab. My next class project was to step things up a bit with an irregularly shaped stone. These are a little harder to set because any stone with "corners" requires more fitting of the bezel, and a slightly different method of setting the stone. I am also not very good at generally designing with asymmetrical shapes. It's a bit more involved to have the finished piece look intentional and balanced. PLUS we had to add embellishments to our jewelry item...this is a big step up from the quote-unquote simple cab setting of the last post!

I went through my stash, looking for a stone with *semi*corners...a stone that didn't have hard points but would still allow me to practice setting corners. I found exactly what I wanted in a piece of Mookaite. A member of the jasper family, Mookaite is found only in Australia. It's named after Mooka Creek, the local area where it's found in Western Oz.  Its colors are so intriguing to me - I love the lush pinks and burgundy hues mixed yellows and whites. I've never seen another stone like it. Here are some examples from my stash:

GORGEOUS, no? I was fortunate to purchase some of these beauties from one of the stone sellers who regularly come to the Spruill Center where I take fabrication classes. The cab on the left is probably the best example of what I mean by "soft" corners.

And for fun, here's a big ol' slab of Mookaite

 TRULY amazing. Look at those purples! I have never seen Mookaite with purple in it, but you can bet that if I do I'll be buying whatever I can of it.  :)

Side note: I am often asked at festivals if I cut my own stones. And my typical answer is some version of "Hell no!" (depends on the customer, of course). I leave the stone cutting to those who can do it far better than I. I'd much rather buy the cut and polished pretties and then set them!

Anyhoo, I sat down with my sketchbook and doodled around with this project for a bit. I always trace around the exact stone I'm going to be setting (so I have a size reference) and then start adding things around that until something looks right. Here's a shot of my sketch:

And the piece in progress:

The above was a quick and dirty picture taken at the bench. The trick with soldering all of these extra embellishments on is that they don't always stay in place. Usually you have to do more than one round of soldering to get them all adhered and in the right spot. So I like to take a photo to remind me of what the end result should look like. Otherwise I'll end up with little bits of metal on the soldering block and I can't remember exactly where they should go!

You'll also notice that it's a bit different from the original sketch. Usually I use the sketch as a preliminary design idea, and then I tend to adapt (read:  punt!) as I go along. Sometimes the original design looks "off" when I start fabricating it. Too many details, too few, or the wrong detail in the wrong place. Or I just start playing around with silver and realize I like what I'm doing better than the original sketch. It's the magic of creating! Even I don't always know what the end result will be until I get there.   :)

There are many more steps left in the process after the above photo, but I'll spare you the details and show you the finished piece:

Stone setting is a whole new mountain for me to climb. It requires me to plan ahead - not my strength! -  in my designs (at least initially, before the "punt" phase), and it is trickier work than almost anything I've evah done in jewelry design / creation. But the results are so, so gratifying. I can't wait to make more.  :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Natural Wonders: Dendritic Agate

When is an agate not an agate? When it's dendritic agate. These beautiful landscape-like stones are technically a form of chalcedony. Like a carnelian, but translucent. Most agates have some sort of banding that are characteristic of the stone, but dendritic and moss agate, for example, though they bear the "agate" moniker, are a different breed entirely.

The "dendritic" part of the name comes from the dendrites within the host stone, often looking like trees, shrubs, and branches Though these look like plants, they are actually manganese and iron trails that form within the stone. Rust trails, in essence. Which make some gorgeous patterns:

All the dark spots are the manganese and iron trails. This stone really shows the translucency of the chalcedony (the top part that looks so blue is very translucent - you can almost see into the stone, but not quite).

Here's another:

This cabachon is amazing! Brett is from Colorado and he just loves the dendrite stones. He says they remind him of snowy mountaintops. And I think this one shows that effect perfectly.

One more:

I love this too. It's got a bit more of a graphic look, with the white flecked part at the bottom giving an almost 3-D effect. It's as if the top part of the stone is being cradled by the bottom part. Pretty cool, eh?

Dendritic agate can be difficult to cut from the rough slabs, because the dendrites within the stone are not always at the same depth. So some of the visual effects can be lost if the cutter doesn't know how to cut the rough.

Though popular, dendritic agate is found in many locales and can be purchased fairly inexpensively. The trick is finding the right stone shape and patterning. When I find these at a stone seller's table, I tend to spend a long time sorting through all of their cabochons looking for the ones I really consider spectacular. No two are ever alike, and I always want to choose the ones with the best visual effects.  :)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Meet the Kingmans

I recently made a purchase that got me very excited. Partly because I am from the Southwest (I grew up in Arizona) and have an enduring love affair with turquoise, and partly because I am a crazy girl for rarities. And natural Kingman turquoise is pretty rare these days. So rare that it tends to be too high-priced for my budget.

On my last trip to the Tucson Gem Show I ran across some stunning Kingman turquoise cabochons. Priced way out of range. I lingered over them but simply could not justify the purchase. So I went on my way and found other lovelies, but I kept thinking about those cabochons.

Later in the year, I went to another gem show, and I ran into one of the stone sellers from Tucson. I'd purchased from them months before, and we'd chatted about a number of things. I always like to know how their business is going and I like to get to know my sellers because often I buy from the same sellers every year. So we were talking, and I was sorting stones, and then I went around the corner of their table to pay. And - whoa! - I saw these gorgeous cabs. And I asked what they were.*

The answer? Kingman turquoise. The price? Out of my budget. But the price was retail. It's a wholesale show, so the price was half of that. STILL out of my budget. But then one of the sellers came over, and told me that if I wanted to take a couple of them (there were four), he'd make me a good deal. And he sold them to me for almost half of the wholesale I took all four. It just didn't seem right to separate them, y'know?  :)

*The reason I asked what they were, though I had a pretty good idea, is twofold:

First, some stones look a lot like other stones. So it never hurts to know for sure what you're buying. Both to make sure you are not overpaying for a lookalike, and because how would I sell them if I didn't know what they were? I know my customers like to know about stones, and so do I. So I always want to know what I'm actually purchasing.

Second, I don't buy from sellers who don't know what stones they're selling. Sometimes those sellers are inclined to make up an answer. I've had stone sellers tell me something was utterly different than what I know it is. Or I'll hear them tell the wrong answer to another customer. This can be done maliciously (what? lying and manipulation in the gem industry? Yeah, it definitely happens, unfortunately) or merely because they're guessing. Saying "I don't know" won't help them close the sale or make them look very knowledgeable! I'd rather buy from people who love stones as much as I do, and trust me, the people who live and breathe these stones every day typically know what they're talking about.  :)

So, are you dying to see them, or what??

And no, the photo does not do them justice at all. They are just as gorgeous as my beloved chrysocolla, but in a softer, paler blue way.  :)  Like Caribbean water blue. They are divine.
Side note: many of the turquoise mines in Arizona and Nevada produce (or used to produce) turquoise with a very distinctive look. Sleeping Beauty turquoise, for example, is a bright, robin's-egg blue with no matrix (matrix is the term for the lines / spots within many turquoise stones). The Fox mine in Nevada produces a soft colored, paler greenish tinged turquoise. Morenci, Bisbee, Easter Blue...they all have their own "look" and it's fascinating (well, at least *I* am fascinated) by the individual characteristics.

If you want to learn more about the different types, here are a couple of links to keep you busy:

Arizona Turquoise:  Here  and Here

Nevada Turquoise:  Here

Once I have some of them set, I'll post again to show you how they've turned out. I just hope my metal designs can do these beauties justice!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Autumn Encroaching (Pietersite) Pendant

Say hello to Pietersite. Found in two places in the world, Africa and China, it's a fairly plentiful material, but the colors can vary greatly from stone to stone. At its rarest, it is a lovely deep steely blue color, but it is far more often found with combinations of red, orange, yellow, brown, and black.

This particular cab has a richness almost impossible to capture with the camera, but this photo does so pretty well. There are some small flashes of blue to the right side of the photo but mostly this pendant is deep orangey-brown and red.

While it doesn't have "a lot" going on, like some other stones I own (in which case I like to keep the metal designs clean so as not to detract from the stone), its subtle glow and color changes called for a fairly unadorned setting. I decided to set it horizontally, rather than vertically, and this back plate is probably my favorite or the crazy curvy plates I have done. It has a light texturing on the back plate and the bezel - just enough to give some depth.

Another shot which better shows the hints of blue in this stone.

Those blue flashes made me think of the Aurora Borealis, flickering through the night sky. But the rich, autumnal browns and deep burgundy-reds made the naming of this pendant pretty easy.  :)

I don't buy a lot of Pietersite, but when I find exceptional stones, I *know* they will make it to a good home, and I just can't turn them down. This is one of those.  :)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Gem Quality and Costs, Starring The Lovely Chrysocolla

How do you know what a gem cabochon is worth? There's no real grading scale, like there is for diamonds, but when I source cabs I look for several things.*

- Color is first and foremost. I like saturated stones and so do most of my customers. I look for consistent coloring. If the coloring is not consistent - many stones are multicolored - then consistent saturation or vibrancy of color.

- Cut, or technically, shape, is the second determinant. I like unusual stone cuts, but even if the shape is not symmetrical, the stone needs to look "balanced" to my eye. Otherwise it will likely look unbalanced when I try to set it.

- Quality. This sounds vague, but it really isn't. I define overall quality by the polish (or lack of), the regularity of the finished stone (for example, are the edges a consistent height? Is the back flat? Is the stone cut to show the best advantage of its qualities (transparency, luminescence, color)?

*Okay, it does kind of sound like a diamond grading scale. But there are no hard factors to compare the stones, just what I prefer.  :)

I'm going to use some chrysocolla examples to illustrate the points above. Chrysocolla is often confused with turquoise but its coloring tends to be more diverse and vivid, and it's often more "teal" than turquoise. In fact, much of it comes from Arizona, from copper mines. It gets its bright coloring from copper, as does turquoise.


Looking at the stone, I can see that there are uneven color patches. The upper left corner, for example, has a clear patch that will show when the stone is set. (Note: the two white patches on the top of the stone are from the lighting, but the area under the left side white patch is actually part of the stone). It also has a black stripe down one side. This will likely not be noticeable when the stone is set, but that in addition to the clear patch tells me that this is a stone I would not expect to pay big money for. Also, while it has good color, it has a more mottled effect than I would normally prefer (this will become more obvious when you see the next photos). There also some dark / black patches within the stone. Again - that is very subjective, but I prefer (and will pay more) for a stone without these dark bits. This stone is a nice quality, but not superb. Also, it's an asymmetrical stone - it's oval-y, but not really a true oval. That is not a detraction either, but the more cuts on a stone (i.e. sides of a triangle, rectangle) typically cost more money than a stone with less cuts, like an oval or round. And the non-symmetrical shape will definitely figure into design deliberations.

Side note: chrysocolla by itself is often too fragile to set in jewelry, but it is cut into cabochons when it is found mixed with quartz (the clear patches you see in some of these examples are the quartz).


More cuts:  higher price. More unusual shape:  higher price. What I consider better coloring:  higher price. And can you see the slight line running through the left side of the stone, to the bottom? I don't mind that in certain stones; however, I will pay more for stones without any kind of "fault" lines in them. The other thing you can't see from the angle of the first photo is that the semi-oval stone is of uneven height...more work when I set it. This stone has very consistently even sides. More labor / skill to make that happen:  higher price.


Another triangle. Notice that the edges of this stone are all a bit cleaner than in the triangle above it. The stone in the second photo has what I would consider "softer" corners. Usually, but not always, this speaks a bit to the skill of the cutter. And of course, more skilled labor costs more. Also there is no "fault line" running through this stone. It does have a bit of a clear patch on the left side but that will likely not show when the stone is set. If it does, it will not detract from the stone (I suspect it will be barely or un-noticeable). The two in the upper left are more noticeable on camera than in person. And the coloring and "definition" of the stone - by definition I mean the detail - is much sharper here.

And finally, the piece de resistance (of course I saved the best for last)!

Asymmetrical, again. But, to my eye, more "balanced" than the stone in the first photo.This has even more sides, so a higher price for that. Its coloring is not as consistent as in the second or third photo, but it has a wider color range. That is a very subjective point; I bought both stones, so obviously whether I want more consistency or more color overall varies.  :)  But notice the the colors on this stone are much deeper and richer than on any of the others (at least, I hope that comes through on your monitor). That will also typically bump up the price.

What's also interesting about this stone, though you probably can't see much of it in the photo, is that the edges are sort of beveled. The sides don't rise straight up toward the top of the stone; they slant inward a bit. See the two white streaks on the top sides of the stone? That's caused by the lighting hitting on those beveled edges. That's also a money factor. How it will work out as a setting factor remains to be seen. I have never set a stone (yet!) with edges like this. I'm guessing they will be a bit of a challenge. And you know how I feel about those!  :)

It's also really hard to tell from photos, because any polish I try to *not* have show so that you can see the full coloring of the stone. But the last two stones have a much more finished look than the second. The first one is also more highly polished, but because of the less vivid coloring it doesn't show that as well. In most cases, I am going to look for and purchase the stones with a better polish...probably because that usually coincides with a more sophisticated cut or shape, and typically a better color saturation.

So what are they worth? The first stone was less than half the price of any of the others. No surprise there. It's smaller in addition to the other aspects I mentioned. The second stone was a little more than double the first, and the last two were more than that. Chrysocolla is very prized for its vivid coloring, and tends to bring a commensurate price. Some of these cabs cost more than other lovelies twice their size. Partly this is because of the cutting and polishing, but partly it's just because it's chrysocolla. Such are the ways of the gem world...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Slippery Slope! Turquoise (and a Bonus Stone)

In my previous post I mentioned setting stones that are not a consistent height from bottom to top. The second or third stone I ever set was one of these. It's a piece of turquoise my father found on my parents' property in Arizona.

The way the stone was cut meant that one side of it is higher than the other. Which doesn't mean it's un-settable, but it requires a bit more work on both the front and the back end of setting.

The reason this is tricky is because you usually need only 1 mm (that's all!) of bezel wire above the rim of your stone. With a stone that has different heights, you must measure the wire to the highest part and leave 1mm for setting....which means you will have excess wire for the shorter parts. If you measured to the shorter part, you wouldn't have enough wire to cover the stone and keep it in place in the high spots.

You can see the uneven-ness of the stone best in this shot:

The left side is definitely higher than the right. And yeah, more curvy-ness on the back plate. Part of that same learning experience I had with the Biggs Jasper of my earlier post.

For fun, more photos:

This turned out to be one of my favorite pieces, even though it was a bit of a ball-buster to set. I struggled to get the stone set without it rattling / moving within the setting (a BIG fabrication no-no). It took a long, long time to get the bezel pressed up against the stone without any looseness. But now I have beautiful ring that showcases one of my Dad's found stones. Bonus: Dad loves it too!

Here's an example of an uneven stone before it's set. Check it out:

You can really see how the right side is lower than the left. So the bezel wire will have to be measured for the left side and then "finagled" during the stone setting process. 
And in the above shot, it's quite clear that the back of the stone - bottom of the photo - is very uneven as well! Fun, fun, FUN during setting...well, I always like a challenge.  :)

So what's this stone? Lapis? Nope. Kyanite?'s a little beauty called Cavansite. A not-very-common stone first discovered in Oregon in the 1960's. Since then it has only been found in a few other locations, like a place called Deccan Traps, in India. So there's not too much of it and it's apparently valuable to specimen collectors (which sounds terrible but simply means the geo-freaks* who collect rock specimens). The stone's name is a combination of its materials: Calcium, Vanadium, and Silicate. Its color is always a deep blue and unlike any other stone I've seen.

Now I know you're dying to see the front of this bad boy, right? Well first let me disclaim by saying that my cabochon isn't probably the best Cavansite, nor is it very big...but it IS pretty and it was almost UNaffordable even in this tiny size (about the width of my thumbnail at its widest). But I couldn't resist it...I, too, am a geo-freak at heart!

That dark spot down the bottom of the stone is from the camera. Otherwise, all-natural sea-blue coloring. Yummy!

*geo-freaks:  I use the term very fondly as I have been a rock and gem girl since...well, since I was a girl. And I have been known to buy rock specimens to use as bookends, coasters, paperweights...I'll use almost any excuse to get them into my home.   :)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Biggs Jasper Cabochon

This is one of my first bezel-set stones. It's a piece of Biggs Jasper, from Oregon. Biggs is pretty rare (and pricey!) these days, as it is no longer being mined. A highway is being built over the mine location - it is *only* found in Oregon - and the mine is pretty inaccessible. I free-handed the back plate shape and then cut it out with a jeweler's saw. Once the stone was set, I satin-finished the front because the stone is so eye-catching but in such subtle colors. A shiny finish would have detracted from the stone. It looks a lot more "high-shine" in the picture (the actual metal finish is pretty subtle) because I wanted to get the stone details to come out, so the photo is a little over-lighted.

What I learned:

- less frou-frou on the edges of the back plate. It took me FOREVER to get all those little curvy parts shaped right and then sanded. I still like the curvy idea, but next time will dial down the amount of curves.

- sometimes soldering is just a mystery. I had trouble setting the stone (it's not as easy as you might think for a beginner!) and when I was setting it, the bezel (the part that holds the stone in) SPLIT and had to be re-soldered. See?

there's the back plate, and the bezel after I removed the stone (also NOT easy!) and stripped off the busted bezel. I made this piece in jewelry class and my instructor told me she'd never seen that happen before...I'll add it to my long list of firsts (like having a piece explode...a story for another day). So no explanation for why, but I had to make a new bezel, solder it to the back plate again, and then re-set the stone.

What you may not know about stone setting is that round and oval stones are considered the easiest to set. Odd shapes, anything with corners (which sucks for me, as I am especially drawn to triangles!), and stones that are not even (not a consistent height from the flat (bottom) back of the stone to the top dome) are harder. I think the second stone I set was a doublet turquoise...I'll save that for another day as well...I don't like to start out with anything *too* easy, y'know!

Next time I'll post about my next step in the stone-setting projects: an oddly-shaped stone, with embellishments on the sides of the pendant. A bit trickier but infinitely more satisfying...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

To Have the Wolf by the Ear

Somehow "between a rock and a hard place" was not nearly as evocative as the synonym Wikipedia gave me, "to have the wolf by the ear". I definitely prefer the more colorful phrase.  :) 

Yeah, it's been since February that I posted. A long, long time. And a lot of changes in my life...some of which are still ongoing. So as August opens to more hot-hot-hot days in Georgia, I am feeling a bit caught in between, and probably will be for a while. I'll try to give you the nutshell version of why:

- I am no longer doing wholesale in any great way. I stopped doing wholesale shows after the utter disaster that was Baltimore last year. Too many years, too much money, too little profit. So I regrouped and left my ego on the wholesale floor. If this was playing with the big kids, I'd rather play in a smaller sandbox. Or another sandbox entirely.  :)

But even though I no longer have the wholesale show expenses, we're still in a recession, y'all, and revenues are not what they used to be. So the first order of business was to increase cash flow.  This meant that I took on more festivals this year. Where I usually begin the festival circuit in April, this year I began in February, traveling to Miami for my first show of the year. And I have added in more shows than I usually I have been either away from home more or busier than ever trying to keep up with production so that I have enough inventory for these events. Doing so has made me feel like I couldn't take a deep breath for most of 2011.

- I am still climbing the fabrication mountain. I persevered with fabrication classes at the Spruill Center through May, but with traveling to festivals, I missed a fair number of classes. And I didn't have any spare time to work on the projects at home, so I was constantly behind and couldn't keep up. I learned a lot and I do feel more confident about my skills, but after the Spring session, I needed a break, for two reasons. First I needed some downtime to really work on designing, not just fabricating projects that the instructor gave us, and second:

- I had major surgery in mid-June. Some of you know that I have been in braces since December 2009. The braces are not meant to straighten my teeth but to align my jaw (as much as possible) prior to having this surgery. If you're squeamish, maybe you should stop reading now...I won't bore you with all the gory details, but I had both jaws surgically broken and re-aligned. The upper jaw was not straight (it sloped to one side) so it was made level and also moved horizontally because it was not aligned evenly with the rest of my face. The lower jaw was pushed back because I had a fairly strong underbite. I'm skipping the details (honestly, most of them even *I* didn't - and don't - want to know) but essentially that's what occurred last month.

So now I'm in a bit of a waiting period...the bones will not be fully healed until mid-August, and then I can start physical therapy because all the facial muscles have been realigned too.And they are NOT happy about it. They want to go back to their original positioning, and they are stiff, sore, and really giving me grief. So in about a week, PT begins in earnest. I am not excited about it because I still have plenty of pain daily and I am not looking forward to adding more...but right now I still can't open my jaw wide enough to eat a sandwich, I can't really chew well, and I need to get the range of motion back at some point. Otherwise I am going to look pretty funny (and have limited food  choices) at restaurants for the rest of my life...

The additional problem with the surgery (and not being back on my regular diet) is that my energy is exceptionally low. I am tired all the time and I sleep a lot. And I don't feel rested when I wake. Some of that is pain, some I assume is lack of exercise (no exercise until the bones are healed), and some of course is that I am on a diet that is not really about eating healthy. It's not about eating un-healthy either, but I usually eat a lot of protein and fiber and for months now I've been having soft foods and carbs. So I feel very lethargic overall.

And the odyssey isn't over yet, kids! Next week I go back to the orthodontist to get rubber bands put on my braces. Why? Because my bite is still not aligned. Despite the 18 months in braces, AND the surgery, my back teeth still don't meet at all. This is partially normal for most jaw surgery patients, and partially an issue because I have a bridge on my upper jaw that is now obstructing the back teeth, since the jaws have been re-aligned. Eventually it will have to be removed and replaced with one that now fits my new the time this is all over I will have a $10,000 mouth. It had better be worth it! And I can't really say that it's worth it...not yet.

So that's the scoop on my 2011 so far! If anyone wants more details on why I had the jaw surgery in the first place, feel free to contact me directly or leave a comment and I'll answer back.  Otherwise, I am communing with my sketch book, working (at least on paper) on new designs, as part of this summer was intended for just that purpose. Unfortunately, the surgery recovery is much more involved than I first anticipated, but I'm doing what I can, when I can.  In the meantime, I leave you with something new (completed in my spring fab class):

A deeply patinated wrap ring with some fun elements on it!