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Cutting corners leads to a brilliant hobby

Gemstones attract attention with captivating color and sparkle. Beauty, rarity and durability are the three main attributes that can qualify a simple mineral as a gemstone.

One resident of Pagosa Springs has taken his passion for natural rocks and minerals to the highest level of beauty by transforming pebbles from the earth into dazzling works of art.

The word “lapidary” refers to the art of cutting gems, as well as to the cutter and polisher of precious stones. Although Brian Fulbright was not a lapidary when he moved here in 1993 with his wife, Holly, he was already an avid rockhound. Since moving to Pagosa Springs to work for his father-in-law, he is now in business for himself and has managed to incorporate rock and minerals into his work as a contractor. Brian has taken several classes in cutting-edge concrete techniques where, among other things, he has learned how to use polished fossil and rock specimens as part of his clients’ countertops, tables and walls.

At one jobsite several years ago, the homeowner introduced Brian to his neighbor, Hubert Rackets, an internationally renowned gemstone cutter and judge. Brian was enthralled with the process of taking a raw stone from the earth and turning it into a beautiful, sparkling gemstone, and Hubert, a youthful and enthusiastic nonagenarian, was glad to share his lifetime of knowledge with such an eager learner.

Hubert Rackets had been taught the lapidary trade by his father-in-law in the 1940s and spent his life studying and perfecting the artistic and technical aspects of cutting the perfect gemstone. Still a judge and speaker at international shows, Hubert is known in the lapidary world for his collection of hand-cut replicas of famous gems.

Brian had never known anyone who did gem cutting and was intrigued by seeing the work that went into the process of selecting the stones, determining the best size and way to cut, and using geometric formulas to design the finished stone. Hubert was impressed with Brian’s willingness to learn and began to act as a mentor, starting with lapidary classes free of charge.

Brian’s first lessons were working with cubic zirconia, a durable, optically flawless and low cost substitute for diamonds. Cubic zirconia is the synthetic form of a naturally occurring mineral, and knowing the structure and traits of minerals is an integral part of lapidary work. Every stone has a critical angle that will reflect the most light. The angle is determined by the naturally occurring properties of the stone and can be looked up on a chart. With his first stone, Brian learned how to do a round, brilliant cut. Hubert then took him through progressions of styles and shapes of cuts to learn how to use the specialized equipment and tools. For each stone, the shape is first charted out on paper to determine the placement and number of facets that the stone will have. The stone is then glued to a holding post which is inserted into the grinding and polishing machine. Dials are used to set the exact angle and rotation for the facet that is being worked on.

The cut angle and index of each facet of the stone is carefully documented so when the stone is left sitting for a while, the lapidary can return to the project and continue where they left off. Hubert then had Brian progress through different types of stones so he could get the feel for the material and experience how the surfaces polish differently. When Hubert moved to Tyler, Texas, a few years into his training, Brian would send the completed pieces to Hubert for review and critique. As he started getting better at the craft, Brian began trading his cut stones for more rough product and the specialized tools and equipment he would need to progress.

After cutting 19 stones that took between 20 and 30 hours each, Brian was ready for a big project. With a referral from Hubert, he ordered a large piece of rough topaz from a reputable dealer.

“I requested a good size of a decent quality stone,” Brian recalls, and he was sent a beautiful piece of “Swiss blue” topaz. An issue that gem cutters face is calculating the time it will take to create a piece and hoping that the finished gemstone will be worth the time put into creating it. The piece of topaz that Brian received was large and had good color, but it was $800, a big chunk of money for the hobby of a man with a wife and three kids. He chose to purchase the piece with the hope of creating a gemstone that would give him a return on his investment.

Brian spent hours studying the topaz to determine the shape and size of the final gem. By knowing the critical angle and refractive index, as well as closely inspecting the stone for any unwanted inclusions or air pockets that needed to be cut away, Brian was able to come up with measurements and a plan that he thought would work. He drew up a small template that he taped to the surface of the stone to make sure it fit. He enlarged the template on paper and mapped out the facets, always referring back to his knowledge of angles and the refractive index of topaz to make sure the cuts would reflect light back to the eye and not simply through the bottom of the finished piece. Brian re-worked his numbers to make sure the facets and the shape would work on the piece and he made a final decision to choose a brilliant cut, as opposed to a traditional step cut.

“I like the kaleidoscope effect of the brilliant cut,” Brian says.

He also decided to make the finished piece a bit smaller to accommodate the correct angle that the topaz could be cut to, in order to keep the light reflected back out of the gemstone.

“I wasn’t going to sacrifice brilliance to keep weight,” he said. When Brian was satisfied with all of the initial decisions, he mounted the stone to the machine and began his first cuts. While one technique to getting the starting shape of a stone is to just start grinding away the material, Brian chose to cut the largest chunks away from the topaz to create “sister stones” that could be used to make matching pieces, such as earrings.

After 111 1/2 hours of actual work on the stone, Brian was finally ready to say the piece was complete. The large open crown accepts light that is reflected off of 144 facets, all precisely calculated to direct the light back to the viewer. Brian began work on the topaz in February of this year and after a long break during the summer, it was completed at the end of November.

“I did four hours here, eight hours there,” Brian says of his work. It took 36 hours alone just to get the one face of the immense crown polished satisfactorily.

“I would spend hours rubbing and polishing and then a little scratch would appear,” Brian laments. He would then turn the face to a slightly different angle and rub and polish that scratch out, only to find another scratch appear.

The first facets of the stone were ground with 100 grit laps and then polished with 600, 1200, 3000 and finally 50,000 grit. With the higher grit laps, a special polishing medium is used on the diamond impregnated discs to ensure smoothness. During the polishing process, the dimensions of the facets are constantly moving and changing. Brian says he erased and rewrote the numbers on his detailed progress chart four or five times to keep the measurements accurate as they changed throughout the progression of the piece. During the very last stage, every point was brought together by precisely polishing each of the 144 facets to the correct angles.

“This stuff takes so much patience — I realize it’s not for everyone,” Brian says.

After spending the past year on the one piece alone, he was ready to go back to smaller pieces for a while. The finished topaz was taken to local goldsmith Summer Phillips who created a custom gold basket to hold the gemstone. To keep with the high quality of the cut stone, Summer used hand-pulled wire that she created in her shop. Judging from the actual weight in grams, the gem is estimated to be around 125 carats. (In comparison, the Hope diamond is 45 carats.) Because of the hours put into creating the gem, as well as specialized polishing tools, the cost for the gold setting, and the cost for the stone itself, Brian has set a price of $10,000 for his finished piece. The next step will be finding a buyer.

Brian doesn’t have any set plans for his next piece, but he knows he wants to continue cutting and polishing gemstones as a hobby well into the future.

“Hubert set a level in my mind as to where the perfection standard should be,” Brian notes. “The standard is probably higher than most.”

Although Brian doesn’t know if he’ll ever achieve the competition caliber level that his mentor Hubert has achieved, he has found a rewarding hobby that turns his appreciation for the natural gifts from the earth into sparkling gemstones that can be worn and admired for ages.