goldsmiths • jewelers • gemologists

Margaret De Patta and The American Lapidary Renaissance

The art of lapidary developed over a long period. As early as the 4th century BC, certain of the softer gem materials were polished to improve their luster and transparency. Gradually, methods were developed to improve and perfect the natural shape of harder crystalline gemstones. Early writers noted that the more perfect the natural crystal, the more beautiful the stone. As technology advanced, the next logical step was to tinker with the angle of the crystal faces, and with that the art of faceting was born! This development took a long time, as crystalline gemstones are, generally speaking, rated seven or harder on the Moh's scale (steel is rated between six and six and one half). The technology necessary to cut diamond, for example, did not exist prior to the fourteenth century.

The evolution of the modern brilliant cut, the ubiquitous round diamond that has become the indispensable first step in the matrimonial mating dance, began when some enterprising lapidary sawed the point off a natural bipyramidal diamond crystal, thus creating the table cut. Over the centuries, the focus of gem cutting had continually narrowed so that by the beginning of the last century, lapidary arts were concerned almost exclusively with cutting gemstones to maximize the stone's refractive qualities--what we call brilliance.

This photo taken by Margaret De Patta also included her handwritten description on a sheet attached to the photograph: "Flat topped crystal with four back facets converging on center facet (culet), which is parallel to top. Two facets polished, two frosted. Black enamel beneath tiny bottom plane (culet) gives effect of extended perspective."

In the early 1980s a new concept in gem cutting was introduced to the American market by the German master lapidary Bernd Munsteiner. Called "Munsteiner's" or "Fantasy Cuts", these gemstones were fashioned with asymmetrical outlines and faceting patterns that more resembled optical sculptures than settable gemstones. Though sneered at by conservatives, innovative designers and consumers embraced Munsteiner's fantasy cuts and these oddball cuts sold, and sold well. The market was hungry for something new. Though unrecognized at the time, a revolution had begun! This signaled a cutting renaissance, and the only major change in the objective of gem cutting in the four hundred years since the cabochon gave way to the Point cut.

In the past two decades a whole generation of new cutters has emerged. I say "new cutters" for lack of a better term. These are craft artists whose objective is not the cutting of a well-made brilliant stone, but the making of a work of art. The technologically advanced Germans, originally the leaders of this movement, have, since the early nineties, been surpassed by a group of mostly self-taught Americans who, in a burst of exuberant creativity, have thrust themselves into the forefront of this cutting renaissance. Artist-cutters like Michael Dyber, Glenn Lehrer, Steve Walters and Larry Winn, to name a few, have shown that America is still the world's leader in innovation.

Given recent history, it is natural to conclude that this lapidary renaissance had its roots in Germany. But, this would be incorrect! Creative cutting began in the early 1940's. The father of the New Cutting was not a German, but an unassuming American pioneer by the name of Francis J. Sperisen.

Francis Sperisen (1900-1986) was a lapidary active in the San Francisco bay area from the 1920s into the 1970s. In the early 1920's, he opened his shop at 166 Geary Street after working as an apprentice for four years at Moser Brothers, a local lapidary firm. Sperisen was a self-taught faceter.

In 1939-40, Sperisen began an artistic collaboration with Margaret De Patta, a metalsmith who is today considered the doyenne of American Art-Jewelers. San Francisco was, at this time, a hotbed of innovative handcraft. Sperisen worked with De Patta, cutting unusual gemstones to complement her metalwork. De Patta was, herself, a student of the Constructivist artist and founder of Chicago's New Bauhaus, Laszlow Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy, an important Hungarian born artist, is known for his interest in light. He created large shiny metal sculptures that were always exhibited under strong lighting.

De Patta called these unusual stones "opticuts." Although most writers give her sole credit for the concept, the evidence suggests that De Patta's pieces were the result of a true collaboration between jeweler and lapidary. And, like many of the great artistic partnerships, it is difficult to determine where De Patta's concept ends and Sperisen's influence begins. According to Sperisen's son, Richard, De Patta knew nothing about lapidary or the optical possibilities inherent in gemstones. She would bring Sperisen models (often made of opaque metal or balsawood), to show the shapes she wanted to complement her metalwork. Sperisen would then experiment with the optical potential inherent in the shapes. However, statements by De Patta strongly suggest that though she may not have fully understood the craft of the lapidary, she possessed a very sophisticated understanding of both the history and objectives of the lapidary arts.

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