Lapidary (from the Latin lapidarius) is the practice of shaping stone, minerals, or gemstones into decorative items such as cabochons, engraved gems (including cameos), and faceted designs. A person who practices lapidary is known as a lapidarist. A lapidarist uses the lapidary techniques of cutting, grinding, and polishing. Hardstone carving requires specialized carving techniques.
In modern contexts, a gemcutter is a person who specializes in cutting diamonds, but in older contexts refers to artists who produced hardstone carvings; engraved gems such as jade carvings, a branch of miniature sculpture or ornament in gemstone.
By extension, the term lapidary has sometimes been applied to collectors of and dealers in gems, or to anyone who is knowledgeable in precious stones.
The etymological root of the word 'lapidary' is the Latin word 'lapis', meaning "stone". In the 14th century, the term evolved from 'lapidarius', meaning "stonecutter" or "working with stone", into the Old French word 'lapidaire', meaning "one skilled in working with precious stones".
In French, and later English, the term is also used for a lapidary text, which was a treatise on precious stones that details their appearance, formation, and properties - particularly in terms of the powers believed to be held by some stones - as believed in medieval Europe. The beliefs about the powers of stones included their ability to prevent harm, heal ailments, or offer health benefits. 'Lapidary' appeared as an English adjective in the 18th century.
The earliest known lapidary work likely occurred during the Stone Age. As people created tools from stone, they inevitably realized that some geological materials were harder than others. The next earliest documented examples of what could be considered lapidary arts came in the form of drilling stone and rock. The earliest roots of drilling rocks date back to approximately one million years ago.
The art of lapidary was relatively well-developed in the Indian subcontinent by the early 1st millennium CE. The surviving manuscripts of the 3rd century Buddhist text Rathanpariksha by Buddha Bhatta, and several Hindu texts of mid-1st millennium CE such as Agni Purana and Agastimata, are Sanskrit treatises on lapidary arts. They discuss sources of gems and diamonds, their origins, qualities, testing, cutting and polishing, and making jewelry from them. Several other Sanskrit texts on gems and lapidary arts have been dated to post-10th century, suggesting a continuous lapidary practice.
According to Jason Hawkes and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, archaeological evidence suggests that trade in lapidary products between Africa and India was established in the 1st millennium CE. People of the Deccan region of India and those near the coast of East Africa had innovated their own techniques for lapidary before the 10th century, as evidenced by excavations and Indian and non-Indian texts dated to that period.
Lapidary was also a significant tradition in early Mesoamerica. The lapidary products were used as status symbols, for offerings, and during burials. They were made from shell, jade, turquoise, and greenstones. Aztec lapidarists used string saws and drills made of reed and bone as their lapidary tools.
Cutting of harder stones is done with a diamond-edged saw. For softer materials, a medium other than diamond can be used, such as silicon carbide, garnet, emery, or corundum. Diamond cutting requires the use of diamond tools because of the extreme hardness of diamonds. The cutting, grinding, and polishing operations are usually lubricated with water, oil, or other liquids. Beyond these broader categories, there are other specialized forms of lapidary techniques, such as casting, carving, jewelry, and mosaics.
While the gemstone in the rough state may be trimmed to remove undesirable material or to separate it on a cleavage line with a diamond bladed saw, accurately described as cutting and once done by the use of a chisel or similar tool to simply break off pieces that were usable as single gemstones, the actual shaping and polishing of a gemstone is a grinding or sanding process. This grinding and sanding is done using a lap, a precision metal plate embedded with grit similar to the more familiar embedding of grit on paper the lap is of high precision particularly for flatness and turned by a motor. The grit material is normally diamond and sometimes corundum for their hardness. Only diamond is hard enough on the Mohs scale to shape and polish a diamond.
Faceting requires equipment allowing for very precise adjustment of angle and location around the gemstone for facet-placement, a process sometimes referred to as indexing. The design may be computer-generated or left up to the skill and expertise of the individual cutting the gemstone.
During the process of grinding, faceting, and lapping, the gemstone is usually affixed ("dopped") to a rod (frequently referred to as a "dop" or "dopstick") made of wood, or perhaps brass or steel, with dopping cement, a specialized thermal adhesive. The dopstick can be hand-held or inserted into the indexing equipment for more precise faceting. A coolant then needs to be constantly applied to prevent softening of the cement. Diamonds, however, are held mechanically, or with low-melting point tin-lead solder, since the resultant heat generated by friction can be extreme, thus preventing the use of thermal adhesives.
Cabochons - smooth-shaped gemstones without facets such as jade or turquoise, and indeed most gemstones - are instead shaped and polished in much the same manner. They are usually left up to the skill and expertise of the individual cutting the gemstone and to similar equipment such as the lapping equipment.
Most modern lapidary work is done using motorized equipment. Polishing is done with resin- or metal-bonded emery, silicon carbide (carborundum), aluminium oxide (corundum), or diamond dust in successively decreasing particle sizes until a polish is achieved. In older systems, the grinding and polishing powders were applied separately to the grinding or buffing wheel. Often, the final polish will use a different medium such as tin oxide or cerium(IV) oxide.
The initial shaping and facet placement may be done using laps with grits of 220, 600, 1200. The polishing step, however, requires grits of a much higher grade, such as 8,000, 14,000, 50,000 and even 100,000. This grit is also embedded into a metal lap, but sometimes applied manually to the lap during polishing.
Another specialized form of lapidary work is the inlaying of marble and gemstones into a marble matrix. This technique is known in English as pietra dura, for the hardstones that are used, like onyx, jasper and carnelian. In Florence and Naples, where the technique was developed in the 16th century, it is called opere di commessi. The Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo in Florence is completely veneered with inlaid hard stones. The specialty of micromosaics, which developed in the late-18th century in Naples and Rome, is sometimes covered under the umbrella term of lapidary work. In this technique, minute slivers of glass are assembled to create still life, cityscape views, and other images. In China, lapidary work specializing in jade carving has been continuous since at least the Shang dynasty.
There are lapidary clubs throughout the world. In Australia, there are numerous gem shows, including an annual gem show called the GEMBOREE, which is a nationwide lapidary competition. There is a collection of gem and mineral shows held in Tucson, Arizona, at the beginning of February each year. The event began with the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society Show and has now grown to include dozens of other independent shows. In 2012, this concurrent group of shows constituted the largest gem and mineral event in the world.
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