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Why Raw? Why Re(de)fined? The challenge and joys of working with natural, rough, uncut gems and crystals

Posted by Christine Barbour on


Why Raw? Why Re(de)fined?  The challenge and joys of working with natural, rough, uncut gems and crystals

Why Raw? Why Re(de)fined?

Raw, organic gemstones speak to me in a way faceted “civilized” stones do not. The fissures and sparkles and internal structures capture my imagination; they tell tales of their years in the earth and of barely measurable time long, long past.

When I see a faceted stone, my primary reaction is to admire the stonecutter’s work, and it can indeed be impressive. But take away the fancy cuts and what stands out is the color, the shape, the texture --the imperfections to be sure -- but the absolute awesome beauty that nature produced, something glorious all on its own. It’s organic, real, authentic and powerful in a way faceted stones can never quite be for me.

Much of the beauty of a raw stone can be preserved but enhanced with a bit of polish on one side, a slice to allow the light through, a setting so simple that the silver, gold, or other metal provides a frame for nature’s handiwork.

Sometimes a pendant is polished, in whole or part, to reveal unbelievable color, patterns and design. I hang those from necklaces made from beads, raw as well as polished, to make something special. It is like painting with rocks as the pigment and texture.

Re(de)fined refers to the those touches that refine the raw stone, that provide smooth to contrast with the rough, that add light to shadow, that take a hunk of craggy rock and turn it into wearable art.

It also refers to the redefinition of jewelry wearing that is part of today’s less fussy and ostentatious world – a world that is concerned with sustainability and integrity and authenticity in everything that touches our lives, from what we wear to what we eat. Wearing raw gems is wearing jewelry, redefined: organic, natural, real.

How it’s done

Working with raw gems is not the same as working with the faceted stuff, or with tidy cabochons. Those can be difficult but there are rules and guidelines. Fabricating a pronged or bezel setting for a cut stone is an essential skill to have and I have sweated and cursed while learning and practicing.

I don't do this, nor does any jewelry artisan I know, but you can even buy prefab settings in precious metals and calibrated gemstones that make jewelry making a matter of assembly, not art. Often that's what you find mass marketed in large jewelry stores and chains. That’s how you find cheap jewelry. In this business as in so many others, you get what you pay for,

Working with raw crystals is not assembly. It's tricky. Stones without flat bottoms roll around (and fall off the bench. You spend a lot of time on your knees making raw stone jewelry.) Oddly shaped stones require the most custom of settings. Every design is a puzzle to be solved, every finished piece truly one of a kind because the rocks themselves are not like any other. There are not calibrated natural crystals.

For me, designing with raw stones begins with finding a stone that speaks to me, and listening to what it says. (I know, "woo woo," right?) But it's true. I find a gorgeous stone and hold it in my hand and feel the texture, feel the rough, feel the glassy bits. I look deeply into it, as if it were a tiny crystal ball, and learn the inclusions, the imperfections, the mysterious internal fissures that reflect light and color. And as I hold the rock I start to design, to imagine in what way the stone can be displayed to best show off its beauty. And the process goes from there.

Sometimes it turns out I've miscommunicated with the stone. What I thought would be a work of art is pedestrian, or the stone refuses to sit, or it breaks, or the prongs won't hold it, or something else happens to make you realize that this stone and this setting do not a happy marriage make. That's when I wing it, rooting around for another stone that might fill the gap. Some of my favorite pieces were serendipitous accidents of grace I never would have imagined until they came to be.

That's how it's done.

Are you laughing? You should be. I find myself laughing a lot in the process of jewelry design and creation. It's a joyful business. Thanks for stopping by to share it.

All my best,


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