goldsmiths • jewelers • gemologists

Margaret De Patta and
The American Lapidary Renaissance


"For centuries the transparent stones have been cut to produce brilliance and sparkle, finally coming to the ultimate scientific calculation of maximum angle of reflection. The consideration of transparent stones as 'transparencies' bring about an entirely new type of design for their shape and use." 1

De Patta well understood that in the development of what she called "opti-cuts,"she and Sperisen were breaking new ground. The title of Moholy-Nagy's 1942 book, Vision in Motion , sums up De Patta's objective. For De Patta, a piece of jewelry was a dynamic object. The wearer moved and the spectator moved, creating dynamic visual effects. She was excited by the possibilities of creating "optical and visual effects...reflection, illusion, distortion, etc." 2

Around the beginning of World War II, Sperisen developed the Lens Cut, (a precursor of the Opposed Bar), which was designed to distort light as it passed through a gemstone. 3 The lens effect, though considered a fault in traditional gem cutting, was a conceptually radical departure that crossed the boundary from craft into art.


Photo by Margaret De Patta.

De Patta brooch with a Sperisen double lens "opti-cut" smoky quartz. When observed by a spectator, the stone creates a "see through" effect that distorts and gives the illusion of movement to the chased decorated surface behind the gemstone.

One of De Patta's most famous pieces is a pendant currently part of the De Patta Memorial Collection in the Oakland Museum of Art. In this piece she crafted a "Y" like shape in white gold and ebony, mounted behind, and meant to be seen as distorted through, a Sperisen Double Lens Cut quartz. The effect was a conceptual tour de force. A realization of what art critic Norbert Lynton calls "the Constructivist ideal of massless sculpture inserted into space."4 As the viewer's eye moves, the metal mounted behind the stone also moves, and the metal appears to move and change shape.

We can trace a direct link from the radical innovations of Francis Sperisen and Margaret De Patta to the work of some of the most important contemporary American art-cutters.

The New Cutters may be roughly divided into two groups: faceters and carvers. I say roughly because often one artist will work in both disciplines. Faceters such as Michael Dyber, Larry Winn, Arthur Anderson and Sherris Cotter Shank are concerned with optical possibilities of the materials and tend to work in transparent materials such as amethyst, tourmaline and ametrine.

Carvers like Glen Lehrer and Stephen Walters are more concerned with shape, color, texture and luster and favor opaque to semi-translucent gem material such as banded agate, gem silica and chrysoprase.



Glen Lehrer is a California native and the only artist among the New Cutters to receive some formal training in Europe. He began cutting in 1975 and taught himself many of the techniques he used before going to Idar-Oberstein. Lehrer also acknowledges a debt to Henry Hunt who, in turn, counts Sperisen as his technical mentor.

Lehrer's wing forms, executed in agates, show a deft mastery of flowing line as well as an inherent feeling for his material. Although well grounded in art history, Lehrer says that most of his inspiration and influence comes directly from organic forms. He looks into the agate and visualizes in his imagination the gem's proto-form as it emerges from the super hot magmatic soup. Many of his pieces retain sections of drusy--tiny clusters of quartz crystals that are part of the original skin of the rough agate. These carefully outlined clusters form a counterpoint to the sensuous flow of his carving, and serve as a focal point completing the; composition.


Photo: Glenn Lehrer

Lehrer wing form executed in gem chrysocolla (chalcedony) 5

Carver Steve Walters, also a California native, grew up around the family gem business. He spent most of his early years working as a production cutter. In the early 1980s he first saw the composition pieces of the German cutter Dieter Lorenz. He considers Lorenz's carved onyx pieces to have been a major inspiration.

Walters is a craftsman who sees his work as a component of the jeweler's process. Where Lehrer is a conceptualist who shapes his pieces, sensitively molding the agate to complete his vision, Walters works without preconceptions and goes where the material takes him. His curves are soft, flowing, feminine and melodic. His best work reminds you of the overlapping currents of a fast moving stream. His favorite media is opaque to semi-translucent onyx and agate.


There are many notable lapidary artists working in faceting. Space restrictions limit our discussion to just two of the most representative. The term "faceter" itself is something of a misnomer, as much of their work bears little resemblance to traditional faceting and its overriding concern with refraction and brilliance.


Photo: Jeff Scovil

Steve Walters gem sculptures in Mojave blue agate.6

Earrings by Douglas Canivet.

Courtesy R. W. Wise, Goldsmiths, Inc.

Contemporary faceters are still working with light, but are often more interested in producing holographic and other types of internal effects, which draw the viewer toward and into the gemstone, rather than simply refracting or projecting light toward the viewer. Munsteiner's earlier work, for example, was, despite the non-symmetrical outline and facet patterns, still very traditional in its concern with producing brilliance. In a major break with Sperisen-De Patta, most contemporary "opti-cuts" are self-contained optical sculptures. Although designed to be used in jewelry, they are not subservient to the art of the goldsmith. All the optical effects are visible within the stone. In this sense they are less of a radical departure and are very much in sync with the traditional objectives of the lapidary art.

One artist whose work stands squarely in the European tradition is Larry Winn. Like most of the New Cutters, Winn is a westerner hailing from West Texas. His immediate mentors were Lou Wackler and Arthur Anderson, both gifted Americans who in turn drew technical inspiration from Sperisen and Henry Hunt.

Following an initial flirtation with Munsteineresque free forms, which Winn says were part of his learning experience, he has returned to symmetry. His stones have girdles and are easily set. Winn's award winning "Cosmos cut" is an octagon, which combines facets, narrow slash-like cuts and concave cuts, sometimes called negative facets. This combination makes his stones dance with brilliance, and at the same time draws the observer toward the center of his composition. His singular approach has brought him no less than five major cutting awards.


Photo: Helen Constantine Shull

Unconventional techniques such as concave and negative faceting juxtapose holographic effects against brilliance and scintillation in this 52-carat aquamarine gem sculpture by Larry Winn 7

No article on the new cutters would be complete without a discussion of the work of Michael M. Dyber. Dyber, considered by many to be the preeminent American faceter, is a New Englander, born in Connecticut and currently a resident of Rumney, New Hampshire. He began cutting in 1983 after working as a goldsmith for several years. He, like most of the other New Cutters, is almost entirely self-taught.

Dyber works exclusively in translucent gem material such as quartz and aquamarine, but some of his most dramatic pieces are executed in ametrine, a naturally occurring bi-colored quartz that contains both amethyst and citrine in the same crystal.

Dyber's compositions are best described as cool and cerebral. When asked about his artistic inspiration he immediately mentions the work of another Constructivist, Alexander Calder. As a teenager, he admired the way Calder's curvilinear-shaped mobiles "floated in air." Dyber made mobiles of his own in high school and sold several of them.

Dyber via Calder is a true heir of the Constructivist aesthetic. It is interesting to note that he was completely unaware of Sperisen. His work resembles a miniature holographic mobile. Moholy-Nagy spoke of elements suspended in space; Dyber defines his own space, and his negative faceting technique creates icons suspended in their own self-contained universes. Yet Dyber maintains that he has no grand artistic plan. Rather he talks about an emotional response to the rough. Like Michelangelo, his gemstone compositions are the result of a continuing dialogue between himself and his material.


Photo: Jeff Scovil

Michael Dyber gem sculpture in amethyst (48.85 carats). The holographic effects are a result of facets ground into the back or pavilion of the gem which is roughly triangular, similar to the pavilion of a standard faceted gemstone. 8

The work of these New American Cuttersis every bit as diverse as the personalities that create them. Yet, they have a number of things in common. None is menu driven. They have no aesthetic agenda, write no artistic manifestos. Some call themselves artists, others prefer the term craftsmen. Like most real craftsmen, their works are the result of a creative conversation between themselves and their material. Like most true artists, their aim is to create an object of beauty. For the most part they are willing to work in an unusual subconscious collaboration with metalsmiths whom they may never meet, to create a finished piece of jewelry that they may never see. In all these senses their work is revolutionary.

We are in the midst of a cutting renaissance, the results of which will define American jewelry design in the twenty-first century.

Cutters throughout the world are exploring new cutting styles in both traditional and non-traditional gem materials. New cuts have provided an opportunity for designers to expand their own creative potential. Traditional lapidary has improved because the new cutters have focused attention on the importance of fine technique. It is indeed an exciting time.


1_Statements of Margaret De Patta 'on jewelry' Statement 3 On Stones: (Unpublished typed manuscript provided to the author by Richard Sperisen, 1996)
3_Sperisen, F. J., The Art of the Lapidary , The Bruce Publishing Co., N. Y. 1961 .p. 223)
4_Lynton, Norbert, The Modern World . McGraw Hill, New York, 1965, p.133
5_Wise, Richard W., Secrets Of The Gem Trade; The Connoisseur's Guide to Precious Gemstones. Brunswick House, Press, 2003. p. 114.
6_Ibid. p. 34
7_Ibid. p. 32
8_Ibid. p. 94


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