A lapidary (the word means “concerned with stones”) is an artisan who practices the craft of working, forming and finishing stone, mineral, gemstones, and other suitably durable materials (amber, shell, jet, pearl, copal, coral, horn and bone, glass and other synthetics) into functional and/or decorative, even wearable, items (e.g. cameos, cabochons, and more complex faceted designs). The adjectival term is also extended to refer to such arts. Diamond cutters are generally not referred to as lapidaries, due to their highly specialized techniques which are required to work diamond successfully.
The arts of a sculptor or stonemason are generally too broad in scale to fall within the definition, though chiseling inscriptions in stone, and preparing laboratory ‘thin sections’ may be considered lapidary arts. The term is most commonly associated with jewelry and decorative household items (e.g. bookends, clock faces, ornaments, etc.) A specialized form of lapidary work is the inlaying of marble and gemstones into a marble matrix, known in English as “pietra dura” for the hard stones like onyx, jasper and carnelian that are used, but called in Florence and Naples, where the technique was developed in the 16th century, opere di commessi. The Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo in Florence is completely veneered with inlaid hard stones. A lapidary specialty developed from the late 18th century in Naples and Rome are the “micro-mosaics” assembled out of many minute slivers of stone to create still life, cityscape views and the like.
There exist three broad categories of lapidary arts. These are the procedures of tumbling, cabochon cutting, and faceting. The distinction is somewhat loose, and leaves a broad range within the term cabochon.
San Juan Gems stocks or has access to all the equipment needed for pursuing the various categories. Please call for information or visit our online ordering pages.
At present, most lapidary work is accomplished using motorized equipment and resin or metal bonded diamond tooling in successively decreasing particle sizes until a polish is achieved. Often, the final polish will use a different medium, such as tin oxide, glasitite or cerium(IV) oxide. Older techniques, still popular with hobbyists, used bonded grinding wheels of silicon carbide, with only using a diamond tipped saw. Diamond cutting, because of the extreme hardness of diamonds, cannot be done with silicon carbide, and requires the use of diamond tools.
There are also many other forms of lapidary, not just cutting and polishing stones and gemstones. These include: casting, faceting, carving, jewelery, mosaics (eg. little slices of opal on potch, obsidian or another black stone and with a clear dome (glass or crystal quartz) on top. There are lapidary clubs through-out the world and in Australia there are numerous gemshows including an annual gemshow, the Gemborree which is a nation-wide lapidary competition. There is a collection of gem and mineral shows held in Tucson, Arizona at the beginning of February each year. This group of shows constitutes the largest gem and mineral event in the world. The event was originally started with the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society Show and has now grown to include dozens of other independent shows.
The secondary meaning of lapidary is pertaining to, about, “of inscriptions.” Since inscriptions were laboriously chiselled to stone, a “lapidary” writing style is crisp, accurate, formal, and condensed. Only the most accomplished can express themselves verbally in a lapidary style: “Brevity is the soul of wit,” as Polonius told Claudius.
The term Lapidist is used to describe the person who practices the art of lapidary, which may include cutting, carving,faceting or polishing rocks or gemstones.