Rocks and gems are a great hobby but

Was: SNAG’s Metalsmith and non-metal objects

Rocks and gems are a great hobby, but the average lapidary will
never get back the money they put into it.

I am wondering what the reason might be for this: Two proposed ideas
or answers are as follows but I would like to hear what others

(1) Jewelers us more foreign produced cabs. (This is US jewelers.)

(2) Jewelers do not use as many of the kinds of stones an average US
lapidary will produce.

I would appreciate others ideas. (An average Lapidary hopeful.)

Larry E. Whittington

I am an average lapidary- and most of the people in any of the gem
and mineral or rock clubs to which I belong are also average or above
average in terms of skill and making a business out of the art. While
I may have missed the initial point regarding investment in a
lapidary set up and recouping it (ROI):

I lost everythinhg I owned in Hurricane Katrina, I have almost
entirely replaced the bulk of my studio’s equipment, tools, business
equipment related to the studio and also most of our school’s equip.
As for the lapidary equipment- I spent collectively $4800 thus far on
some new some used cabbing and faceting equipment, and perhaps $2000.
on gem rough, and have in 3 years, trained a particularly adept
student to facet with at least acceptable result (* the entire
training I estimate would be valued at $35,000 over 24 months and the
student now repays me in work exchange for the skill and studio space
and any materials we purchase jointly he rettaining his and I mainly
selling my portions wholesale or setting the materials in jewelry
that is then sold as a majority, in one off pieces custom designed
and not inexpensive).

From the processed rough I have generated over $60,000 in profit
from a single 1/4 kilo of parcel of alexandrite rough, some african
mined tanzanite material and drilling (and in some cases polishing a
bit) candian various fancy (g-m colours) and fruit salad coloured raw
diamonds for wholesale over a period of 18 months (to date). From
Cabbing, i have sold over $5,000 of covellite material from a 2 kilo
parcel given to me in exchange for 30% of the finished material. I
alsoupply a school in the southeastern US and one in Great Britain
with cabachons that they use in classes (stone setting) - it saves
them money and class time providing students the material on site as
opposed to having students bring in god knows what to learn basic
techniques on and somewhat standardizes their lesson plans… I must
disagree with the statement that "one never will recoup the
investement of lapidary even as a hobby, the potential to produce
salable material is a given, and with experience and a marketing
strategy (even if it’s letting someone else in the rock club handle
your material for sale on an on-line auction site) the possibility or
rapidly recovering and generating a profit from the less than $5,000
it takes to set up a relatively small basic operation in a few
months and with a few good parcels of material that are in demand
from whatever market you choose to target when approaching purchasing
the material in the first place!

However, If you buy material which is produced in abundance and
cheaper in foreign factory situations, then you are approaching the
entire ROI situation incorrectly - that is, not assessing how to
maximize your initial outlay and time it takes to learn the art of
cabbing or faceting. If you considered all the possibilities and
identified your target market from the beginning (if you want to
profit from the hobby, or make it a business) and already have the
skills it takes to produce quality products then in a few months
time you should see a good profit and have covered your initial

That is the consensus and experience of the lapidaries i presented
this topic to at a meeting of our gem and mineral club Monday
evening. They all said that with the skill already learned and even
faceting with tools such as the "lap Lap " a small lap sized indexed
unit that allows you to facet stones while watching television!, or
riding a train or bus as it’s compact size, manual operation and low
mess (since ideally you have pre-formed your rough or it requires
nothing more than some basic shaping with a dremel or flex shaft) and
relatively inexpensive price tag unless you make one yourself- allows
you to take it anywhere and do it like one would practice knitting as
a hobbyist.

All of the experienced lapidaries that have equipment dating to the
50’s or earlier in some cases say they wouldn’t part with their
machinery for newer and more compact models or ‘swap-top’ systems and
those realitvely new lapidaries said they love their pricey but
condensed all-in-one units just the same- Unanimously though,
everyone said that recouping their initial outlay was accomplished in
under a year once they had the basic pricioples down and profit
turned once they added fancier cuts to their repertoires. Some of
them even quit their jobs of at least, over 20 years because they are
making more at selling on-line and to a specific clientele (one man
supplies a large jewelry supply vendor with Maine tourmaline and
another supplies by contract and approval a large jewelry
manufacturing concern with all the Opal material he or his wife can
cut, and another supplies a few nationally recognized jewelry
artisans, and 3 of that group of people having quit their “day jobs”
sell on-line as well citing that people gravitate to the less
polished photography and potential of good deals from small scale
home produced material no matter with the price or, in some cases,
the reserve on a stone, or parcel may be.

I personally have gotten some of my better quality opal from auction
sites posted for sale by 'average lapidaries (in fact that is how I
met my now main supplier of australian oriigin opal and hyalite from
NC and N GA. as well as Montana sapphires, Maine tourmaline, matched
sets of western us agate material and Mexican fire agate and faceted
bytownite that i resell online and to individuals. Sites like facet allow even ‘average lapidaries’ access to high quality
material at a low price and then after processing the gemmy material
is sought after by jewelry designers around the world. So whomever

Rocks and gems are a great hobby, but the average lapidary will
never get back the money they put into it. must not have a good

of the cost over return possible, or is buying way overpriced rough
without a market in which to sell it- or they haven’t the
experience, drive or whatever you’d call it to make the hobby into a
business- a quite profitable one at that and a lifelong skill that
can be utilized in any number of ways toward making it a right
livelihood… rer

Rocks and gems are a great hobby, but the average lapidary will
never get back the money they put into it. 

That is if you buy all new equipment. If you are reasonably handy
and can locate bearings and parts most used lapidary equipment is
easy to restore if not make yourself. There were a lot of quality
machines made back in the 1970’s that just need a little TLC.

(1) Jewelers us more foreign produced cabs. (This is US jewelers.) 

A lapidary can’t compete on price with the foreign cut calibrated
stuff. What they can compete with is freeform shapes and different
stones you don’t see every day. And the can compete with honesty by
selling a stone for what it is not what it’s dyed to look like.

(2) Jewelers do not use as many of the kinds of stones an average
US lapidary will produce. 

When you introduce yourself as a lapidary to most jewelers they
think you produce calibrated cabs that you snap into pot metal
settings like bolo neck ties and belt buckles, like back in the
1970’s. The trick is to get them to look at your stuff.

Unless you are moving a ton of product nobody’s getting rich in the
rock business. Especially in today’s economy.

Rick Copeland
Silversmith and Lapidary Artisan

Rocks and gems are a great hobby, but the average lapidary will
never get back the money they put into it. 

Well, Larry, that statement is true but at the same time not. Most
people (“the average lapidary”) just aren’t smart / talented / able /
connected / ambitious enough, or something like that. Most people
enjoy whacking up rocks and polishing them - agates and others, and
good for them. That doesn’t mean there’s no money in it, overall,
though. Kevin Kelley does a fine job with opals - I did pretty well
with inlay and hard-stone carving. I got out of it because there was
money but not enough for the time I put out.

There are two cutting shops here in our building - they do faceting,
facet repair and repolish, inlays like jade and black onyx, usually.
And custom cutting… I think it’s a pretty general thing: the
nearer your material is to dirt the harder it is to make money with
it. Putting out 3 hours to polish a $15 agate is very different from
putting out the same for a $5,000 opal… When you get into inlay
and carving, it’s art, which carries it’s own issues, as always…

Larry & all -

“Free trade” has radically changed the dynamics of commercial
lapidary work in the United States. Bottom line issues generally
revolve around what stones folks want to have in their jewelry, and
how they can get them. For many lapidary materials the source is
limited; whoever controls access controls the marketplace for that
material. One result is that jewelry buyers can purchase
massw-produced sterling silver jewelry with stones like larimar or
charoite at TJ MAXX for less than an American lapidary can purchase
rough material to cut gems. There are Orchid members who are
surviving in lapidary in the US by specializing and buckling down and
marketing themselves very actively. However, as long as bulk
cabochons are available from China and other “industrial” producers,
fewer people will buy relatively more expensive American produced

This trend is not limited to lapidary stone work; architectural
stone production in the US has been devastated in the past 20 years!
It is now cheaper to purchase semi-finished stone countertops or
tombstones which are produced in China, even though the rough
material must be shipped to China and the “finished” product shipped
back. In 2002 when I moved my lapidary shop from NYS to TN it was
possible to purchase huge cutting and finishing equipment in used
condition for about what a small lapidary unit cost. I expect by now
the equipment has largely been shipped overseas to wherever the rough
gets processed.

Can you make a living doing lapidary work? An unqualified "yes."
Will it be easy, convenient, or “comfortable?” Not likely.

Jim Small, lapidary since 1960, full time from 1993 to 2004
Small Wonders Lapidary
Church Hill, TN

I am not a lapidary and OhManPleaseDon’tLetMeTryItAndGetSuckedIn, but
I have paid up to $35 for funky, unique cabs made out of non-precious
stones. I will say, if I want just a small perfectly round cab that
will fit in a tube/bezel that’s way to small to bother making - I
will not go to my local lapidary. However, for really cool, funky
pieces, you bet I will.

However, I have passed many sellers by online because they don’t show
a side view to let me see what the girdle is like (got one once with
sides straight up - what fun to bezel set :confused: Also, dark lighting
etc… if I can’t be there in person, I would really like to see it.

I certainly hope lapidary artists can make a living, because I sure
like what they make!


With 50 plus years of cab cutting experience behind me I can still
remember the first time as a university student having cut a really
nice opal from a piece that I purchased for $8 and having spent about
11/2 to 2 hours cutting this stone— I walked into a jewellry store
and offered it to him —he bought it for $60 —I knew that I could
make money doing ths. That was 1962 and I am still making money doing
one of a kind, unique pieces( ever seen jade with relict or phantom
quartz crystals in it–sold 4 pieces of that for $400 each from
apickup load of estate rock that I paid $900 for— one days cutting
to recover my whole outlay plus a profit plus awhole lot of other
stuff which is all free stock material now) It is all about reaching
the user who wants a unique piece. I have found, bought been given
many very many wonderful pices of rock over the years and from even
fairly common material such as agate jasper petrfied wood etc., if
there are wonderful patterns and you cut a high quality one of —it
will sell.

(Anyone inteested in an 11.43ct- 13.7x17.7 green cushion square
MAINE tourmaline!!}

Dave Barclay —Lapidary slablicker gem dealer etc

Buying quality rough from the source, or as close to the source as
you can get, would certainly increase one’s profit margin - I would
think… some sound advice (and hand picked gems) may be available
from David Epstein in Brazil… he has a website and a book on gem
buying… usual disclaimer… just found him extremely
helpful in sourcing some aquas recently.

A lapidary can make money by saving money. Similar to the way ‘you
make money buying.’ This is a slightly different spin on the subject.

In recent years, I primarily live and work from Asia. I like to deal
with higher end stones ie $5000+/ct.

Having rough or recuts done in Asia is like playing Russian
Roulette. Switching stones seems more probable on this side of the
world. It is similar to having rough heat treated by 2nd or 3rd party
cookers. If you don’t physically sit with the cutter/heater you can’t
be certain the same stone returns.

You lose big money when a Kashmir sapphire is switched with a Sri
Lankan. The price difference can be 2 or 3 times. Or a stone
“supposedly” blasts in the furnace and you get chips in return.

The only absolute way to prevent this is to facet yourself and heat
treat yourself. Sure a bench cost you $2500 or an furnace $25,000,
but you recoup the money in what you don’t lose.

Increasing control,
Ed Cleveland

Buying quality rough from the source, or as close to the source as
you can get, would certainly increase one's profit margin 

That depends. How many cutters can buy in carload quantities? For
the average cutter, or even most dealers, the old saying is often
true - the closer you get to the source, the more expensive it is.

Al Balmer
Sun City, AZ

I’ve been watching this thread with interest because I am in the
process of setting up a web site to display and offer the nephrite
jade that I am cutting.

The solution, it seems to me, is to offer a selection of calibrated
stones and a selection of unique stones. Original cutting and the
work of other sources based on availability. And other things.
Books. Finished jewelry. Maybe some original settings to satisfy
beaders who have limited resources for manufacturing. Eventually I
expect to go in all of these directions and more because variety is
the manna of retail sustenance.

Cate’s note was especially interesting tonight. With limited
photographic resources a small site can do just so much in providing
a range of exposures for a stone. I have been shooting for my TEST
SITE here:
Use the item image link for the image selection.

There is just so much I am willing to do to mess with over and under
exposure or brightness changes in Photoshop as a means of showing
the depth of a stone. It quickly becomes misrepresentative. Good
presentation is a lighting issue ultimately and that means an
investment of time for each stone.

I am willing to try and have been thinking about just these issues
so it was affirming to see Cate articulate a thoughtful consumer
perspective. Thanks.


I think the way you’ve got the images now is nice. The different
backgrounds are great. Being able to enlarge each view makes it easy
to see the difference.


two good carts are Mal’s e-commerce and zen cart.I use both on
different sites and both are free, fully integrate with PayPal and
are secure and easy to install ( zen cart is a bit more automated
than Mal’s but I have used it for a long while and saw no need to
change it when i went with zen cart on the newest site).

one thing i notice on my site - and i don’t mean to be discouraging,
but jade generates the least sales in green colours regardless of
shape ( pendeloque being the best selling over a year)- the lavender
seem to be moving somewhat faster but clear materials in free form
and cabs, then round cabs selling better than ovals as the market is
glutted with ovals, and trillions selling out in any material I offer
with sunstone and tourmalines seemingly moving best these
days.Let me know when you get it up and running… rer


Thanks for the input on the multiple views. I intend using as few
differing backgrounds as possible just to minimize visual confusion.
But I’ll do what makes sense to display the piece. I put another oval
and a round stone up, with still improving organization, Sunday


I am not easily discouraged. If you had meant to discourage you
would need to try harder. (; ^)

I’m trying to learn more from both Mal and Zen regarding back shop
inventory controls for limiting volumes, tracking and turn around
fulfillment. I wish they provided better test carts to demonstrate
the merchant side features. My past experience with carts is with
intellectual property, (my wife’s editing per word site, physical inventory control is a different
animal. I could get away with PayPal links stand alone for her. I
can’t do that with real things.

The items on the TEST SITE are mostly from a discard box and used
for quick convenience. I am building a round inventory now and a
“pendeloque” shape makes lots of sense to start into the shapes
group that will be used for trim saw odd shapes, small ear ring
things and ideas that a piece of stone suggest.

I have gone into faceting and am not largely equipped for it so the
tourmalines will be off in the future. The Sunstone is something
that I have had my eye on but haven’t had time to research, find a
steady source for of gain experience with. It was reaffirming to see
you mention it. Thanks.

Thanks again.