Professional Jeweler Archive: Heart of the Matter

January 2002

Gemstones & Pearls/Gemology

Heart of the Matter

This cutter's attention to detail is present in every facet junction

For Stephen M. Avery, gem cutting means getting to the heart of a gem’s quality and enhancing it with perfect facet alignment and optics that showcase the best possible color, shape and brilliance. It’s not an easy job.

A few years ago, when a new find of Nigerian rubellite tourmaline reached its peak, Avery secured a parcel of 33,000 carats of rough. “Massive pieces of rough came apart at the cutting wheel, most of them unusable for lapidary purposes,” he recalls. “I blasted through, coming up with a top-quality yield just short of 2,000 carats. I was also covered head to foot in abrasive powder, powdered tourmaline and oil.”

That 6% yield might have discouraged some cutters. “But I was looking for the hardcore top-quality gems,” he says. “If I’m working with beautiful, gemmy rough, my yield is very competitive – as high as 40%.” But if the rough isn’t eye-poppingly pretty, it’s subjected to Avery’s unforgiving grinding wheels.

Rough to Polished

Avery spent a good deal of his childhood in Yosemite National Park, where his appreciation for natural beauty grew. In 1975, while still a teenager, he enrolled in a diamond cutting school, graduating as the youngest person in the school’s history.

He cut diamonds for a lapidary in Colorado, but cutting rounds bored him. After a day spent cutting rough sapphire, his boss switched him to the colored gem bench. Avery perfected his skills for several years while percolating plans to go into business on his own. He systematically acquired the tools he needed and opened his own business in 1980 with a $40 parcel of Madeira citrine rough.

With cutting skills well-developed, Avery focused on developing new contacts for different rough and finding ways to sell the finished product. “I learned a lot of expensive lessons about buying rough, about looking for what will yield consistent cut material,” he says.

Avery practiced on the gems that were popular and plentiful at the time, including tanzanite (his favorite) and other African gems. Over time, he started to specialize in East African gems, often traveling there to buy them. “East African gem material that reaches world markets has already been picked over,” he says. “Going to the source isn’t always the most lucrative approach, but you get first pickings.”

Devil in the Details

While the trillion cut has long been known, his admirers say Avery elevated it to perfection. “I saw what was out there and knew it could be done better,” he says. Peridot is one example. “You see all this peridot lying around on paper plates at shows – no wonder people dislike it. But well-cut peridot can be beautiful.”

Avery is also known for diamondback and triangular-opposed-bar cuts (or tri-ops). He compares the diamondback cut to the geometric pattern on a rattlesnake’s back. Tri-ops, meanwhile, have corners as graceful as the curved fins of a manta ray. He discovered the cut while working with a standard trillion citrine. “I was almost done and noticed an inclusion in one corner,” he says. “I rolled down that corner and then rolled down the other two, and a new gem cut was born.” His tri-opp gems won Cutting Edge and Spectrum awards from the American Gem Trade Association in 1995 and 1997. (Avery has earned six Cutting Edge Awards since 1991.) Gems with curvilinear girdles also are part of his regular inventory.

Avery doesn’t trademark his unique cutting styles – he says it’s his duty to create new cuts and go on. “Anyway, I don’t have time to police it. I get recognition from competitions and customers. That’s all I need.” Neither is he interested in mass production, through there is enough demand for his work to make that a viable option. Instead, he cuts an average 35-45 gems a month and dedicates some time to selling his production and looking for new rough.

Avery specializes in unusual colors of sapphire – mostly Tunduru sapphire from Tanzania and the wide palette of colors from Madagascar. Other favorites include spessartite garnet, rubellite and indicolite tourmaline from Nigeria, tourmaline from Afghanistan, peridot from Pakistan and Myanmar, rhodolite garnet from Tanzania and tsavorite garnet from Kenya.

Stephen M. Avery, Lakewood, CO; (303) 985-4005.

– by Robert Weldon, G.G.

A cross-section of gems cut by Stephen Avery includes his signature cuts – the trillion-opposed-bar cut and the diamondback.

Photo by Robert Weldon.

Avery’s expertise in African gemstones and his ability to cut matched pairs is evident in these tanzanites and spessartites.

Photo by Robert Weldon.

Top two matched cuts: a 5.79-ct. tourmaline and 6.48-ct. spessartite garnet. Bottom two match cuts: a 1.95-ct. chrome green tourmaline and 3.21-ct. rubellite.

Photo by Robert Weldon.

Stephen Avery holds two AGTA Cutting Edge Awards.

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