Professional Jeweler Archive: Curving Light

July 2002

Gemstones & Pearls/News

Curving Light

Sherris Cottier Shank involves retailers in a creative effort to sell her avant-garde gem carvings

Few are as blessed in their chosen professions as Sherris Cottier Shank. Once a goldsmith, she switched to gem carving some 20 years ago and has never looked back. “Gem carving was like an epiphany for me,” she says. “The more I did it, the more inspired I became.”
Her one-of-a-kind inspirations have won awards and elicited the delight of legions of retailers and consumers. She carves dreamy, sensuous grooves into a gem’s front and juxtaposes them with counter-directional lines in the pavilion. This flaunts each gem’s most vivid natural colors and reflects light in unusual, often dazzling, wavy configurations.

Cottier Shank credits much of her initial inspiration as a gem carver to Henry Hunt, who she calls the patriarch of American carvers. She read his book Lapidary Carving for Creative Jewelry (Desert Press, 1980) and had a chance to meet him one year at a Tucson gem and mineral show. “Henry Hunt, you’ve changed my life!” she gushed. To which he reportedly deadpanned, “Well, what were you before?”

Today, she still gets excited picking up new gemstone rough and visualizing how to unlock its beauty.

The Process

Her first step is to cut away any part of the rough with inclusions. “I want people to see color and form and not be distracted by anything else,” she says. (She makes exception for transparent gems such as rubellite, which tends to be included: “Strong color can overcome everything.”)

Next, she preforms the gem. “At that point, the material ‘speaks’ to me and I draw a line on it with a pencil – just a suggestion. Free-form carving is a thinking process that leads me to find the suggestion I like best.”

Cottier Shank developed a gem-shorthand for the steps that follow. “A squiggle here means a groove, while a squiggle somewhere else might mean another thing,” she explains. Would she ever design gems on a computer? She doesn’t want to undertake the learning curve. “Besides, by holding the preform in my hands, I can clearly predict how it will look finished.”

Cottier Shank calls the carvings on the front of the stone gem art. “The fronts are planned chaos, while the backs are organized, sometimes in rounded shapes but more often in a normal pavilion shape that includes keel lines for transparent gems. My goal is to make a gem appear beautiful from all angles, but with different kinds of beauty emerging as the gem is rotated.” Opaque gems often get flat backs because they don’t reflect light and color in the same manner as transparent ones.

Perhaps the most important steps are sanding and polishing. “I use 1200-1800 grit abrasives to prepare the gems to see what the lights are doing,” she says. She polishes gems multiple times freehand, rendering the grooves smooth and the lines crisp. “The more you polish, the clearer and more beautiful the gem gets until you think, Oh my God! It is going to work! By then you’re working on faith and knowledge fueled by obsession.”

For Retailers

The acceptance of her carvings is due in part also to her previous experience as a goldsmith and her understanding of what’s involved in setting gems into jewelry. “I understand gem-setters don’t want knife-edged girdles or big bellies; as a result, any jeweler who makes custom jewelry can design around my stones.”

Retailers say they also like the unique impression of her gems. Each one has a serial number and independent grading report from Charles M. Elias, G.G., ISA, Certified Appraiser of Personal Property, North American Lapidary Laboratories, Birmingham, MI. The gem’s characteristics – including identification, serial number, weight, color and cut grade – are clearly detailed on each report.

Cottier Shank helps jewelers to market her gems with promotions called roundtables. Jewelers send postcards announcing she will visit the store for several roundtables. Each session involves store associates and eight to 12 customers who have a chance to meet the artist and hold more than 100 of her gems. “I encourage everyone to touch and feel the stones!” she says. Over time, customers often ask to be in the first session so they don’t miss out on any gems that are sold before they see them. This exposure educates customers to the rich possibilities of color and develops colored gemstone collectors, say retailers.

“Selling unusual gems is fun,” Cottier Shank says of her first-hand experience with customers. “We often see jewelry through our own filters. Customers, however, tend to be far more open to something new than we think.”

Cottier Shank’s work is recognized internationally. She has earned multiple AGTA Cutting Edge Awards and in 1996 won a prize at the Competition for the Advancement of Gemstone Engraving in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. Her work has been exhibited at museums around the world. Her good fortune with independent jewelers also led to her recent association with the Independent Jewelers Organization.

• Sherris Cottier Shank, GEMSCAPES, Southfield, MI; (248) 352-7820.

– Robert Weldon, G.G.

Carvings by Sherris Cottier Shank include (from top) a 6.37-ct. aquamarine, 7.32-ct. aquamarine, 7.07-ct. citrine, pair of green tourmalines totaling 20.04 carats, pair of rubellite tourmalines totaling 10.76 carats, 9.54-ct. tanzanite, 8.70-ct. rubellite tourmaline, 6.98-ct. rhodolite garnet and 5.94-ct. green tourmaline.
The wavy play of light and color are accentuated by the curved grooves carved into the front of this rubellite tourmaline, contrasted by counter directional grooves carved into the gem’s back.

Photo by Robert Weldon.

This 36.15-ct. citrine quartz carving is by Sherris Cottier Shank.
Sherris Cottier Shank

Copyright © 2002 by Bond Communications