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I just returned from a quick trip to Arizona for the annual Gem and Mineral show. Each year, thousands of jewelers, collectors, and rockhounds alight on the city of Tucson in search of the new. It’s a bit ironic, considering the material in question is hundreds of millions of years old, that we show up hunting for novelty each year.

Sometimes the newness is true - someone found a previously untapped mining deposit, or unearthed a cache of hard-to-find material from a collector’s archive. But the newness is mostly internal: each year I return to Tucson with fresh eyes, not because earth’s offerings have changed much, but excited to see how a year of life, of making, of new creative preoccupations, has changed how I see, not just what I see. Designers come to the shows to do basic things like replenish stock and reconnect with friends and professional contacts. We also come for the esoteric thing, a fresh view of “old” material.

Because I hand-cut most of my own stones, I shop for rough rock instead of finished gems. Each year I learn so much more about how to buy wisely and make the most out of these precious materials, but I always come back to these 3 core rules:

1. Get it wet!

Polychrome Jasper rough material at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show
Gems are a gorgeous way to expose the world beneath our feet. Sometimes, staring down a sea of dirty buckets, it’s hard to imagine the beauty hidden within these rocks. Water is the first step; it mimics a polish, and helps expose hidden veins of color. Water is the seed of my imagination - when I spray down a tray of rough stones, I start to envision what they may become.

2. Find your light

A bloodstone slab shown in different light conditions at the Tucson Gem Show
Color is a sensitive thing. Like the Bloodstone pictured above, what looks unexciting in shadow comes alive in the sunshine, and I take every possible opportunity to look at my material in the best conditions. When I cut, I’m thinking about how a color will complement one’s skin, how the tone will affect your mood. So I always find the light to imagine how a color will play in my palette. When buying translucent or transparent stones like quartz or topaz, I shine a flashlight through the material to better understand its structure and weaknesses. This helps me maximize the material as I cut it, and play to its natural strengths.

3. Learn the story

Two books about geology and mineralogy: Golden Guide Geology and National Audubon Society Field Guide to Gems and Minerals
My fascination with stones began with color, but I’m increasingly curious about the geology, structural attributes, history, and politics of stones. I love talking to dealers and miners about where and by whom stones are mined, learning the geological processes that create unique colors and patterns, and researching the ancient and symbolic history of certain stones. All of it enriches my experience as an artist, and hopefully makes wearing it more fun for you too.

Obviously the game changes if you’re shopping for cut stones or faceted gems, and I’m learning so much about those as my work evolves. Stay tuned! Maybe soon I’ll have fresh lessons there too.

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