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The cutting edge
Are machines that cut gemstones the wave of the future or an unnecessary expense?
By D. Douglas Graham
Until fairly recently, gem cutting was one of the few areas of the world economy to remain uncontaminated by the computer revolution. All of that changed with the proliferation of personal computers in the 1980's and 90's Since that time, new computer based technologies have trickled to all segments of the trade from huge, commercial gem cutting operations to thousands of semi-professional faceters and hobbyists at work around the globe. Nowadays, gem cutters from Boston to Bangkok work hand in hand with computers, software, sophisticated instrumentation, and robotic automation to maximize efficiency and reduce waste.
The area where gem cutting technology has the biggest potential is in high volume cutting. The vast majority of commercial cutting done today is labor intensive and low tech, and the business goes to the country with the lowest labor costs.
Robotic cutting has been adopted in countries with high overhead and labor costs, although it is still far from common. One success story has been Israel, which has built a reputation on precision cutting of emeralds, precision which was achieved through the use of computerized gem cutting machinery.
As labor costs continue to rise even in historically inexpensive countries like Thailand , more gem cutters are beginning to explore high tech solutions.
"We are a volume producer and recently decided to introduce two pieces of robotic technology into our facility," says Eunsok Lee, vice president of Paramount Gems Trading Inc., a volume cutting house based in Manhattan.
"The up side of the technology is that it allows me to produce more product less expensively and more efficiently. The down side is the fact that labor and operational costs in New York City are killing me. Even though I don't have to hire a big staff of cutters, I still have to pay technicians more than $100 an hour to maintain the system. There are other costs too, most of them the result of just being in Manhattan. It's hard to tell at this point whether it will turn out to be cheaper to cut the stones in house using robotic technology or to import them from some country in Asia where wages and overhead are low and prices follow suit."
For others, the costs outweigh the potential benefits. "We are one of the largest colored stone cutters in the business," says Bart Curren, cutting manager at Columbia Gem House in Vancouver , Washington . "We looked at robotic cutting and pretty much decided against it. Each piece has to be individually worked, and the problem is volume level.
The machines are only effective if you're cutting one type of stone in one shape and size. Once you finish a run you can change it, but you have to have enough rough available In the next run to justify it. You couldn't do blue tourmaline, for example, because you could never put enough volume together in an automated machine.
"It's really a matter of cost," he continues. "For all the, work you have to do to get the machine set up it costs same to cut five stones as it does 50. We found that we could do as good a job without robotic machines as with them. us, the technology just doesn't cut the mustard. Why spend more money when you don't have to?"
New innovations in computerized cutting systems change the equation, however. One promising system has developed by Sri Lanka based Cambridge Gemonics Pvt. "While there are other companies that have multi spin technology and are cutting gems in large quantity, they do not have true robotic technology," says company President Sivam Krish. "They are stuck with hard automation, though they claim to be doing robotic cutting. They cannot do small quantities without having to reset the machine manually, they cannot do fancy cuts."
Gemonics' system will cut gems that normally fall beyond the boundary of machine cutting, automatically processing complex fancy shapes and very small stones as tiny as 1.5 That's a new wrinkle on a technology that some industry players still consider too costly to be viable.
"The difficulty was in achieving extremely high precision at high speeds and very low costs, which was developed our system] over long periods of time and continuous improvements over previous machines," says Krish. In that aspect, he adds, Gemonics' soon to be releaseded robotic cutting system will be unique, and may bring computerized cutting into factories where it was never feasible before.
Human vs. Machine
From the perspective of the independent gem cutter, whether amateur or professional, technology has its good and bad point. Some faceters, especially hobbyists, shy away from technology of any kind in the belief that machines and software somehow diminish the gem cutter's art. Others take the opposite view, re, lying on software and hardware to enhance their own talents. Recent decades have seen the development of a wide range of hardware and software that hone the art of faceting to a cutting edge. Most are designed to eliminate guesswork and keep accidents to a minimum.
One of the more popular programs is GemCad, Software package created Gemsoft Enterprises of Austin, Texas. With GemCad, a cutter can build a virtual model of a faceted stone before cutting begins. Another Gemsoft product, GemRay, evaluates the optical performance of a given gemstone and creates an image of the stone reflecting light. A third program uses computer imaging to help users select the combination of angles most appropriate for the material about to be cut.
"I strongly advocate the use of a CAD program to obtain gemstone designs," says amateur faceter Jerry L. Capps, who has competed in a number of world class competitions and is currently working on a book on computer aided design. "The contemporary approach, CAD designs, can analyze brilliance through each gem material. Angles can be changed to reach whatever goal is desired before actual faceting takes place. Even the dispersion can be analyzed something the 'old master cutters' could not do."
Augmenting software packages are faceting machines that achieve accuracies within millionths of an inch. Some are computerized, though most are not. The key advantage is the ability to accurately repeat a facet pattern, thus saving time and reducing waste.
"We make the Facetron, a non automated faceting machine without a protracted angle," says Betty Jarvi, president of Jarvi Tool Co. "With it you can set the angle to a tenth of a degree, just like you do with an automobile odometer. That makes it very easy to get back to the exact angle. There are lots of good faceting machines out there, but the best of them allow you to duplicate the tiniest facet each and every time. That's repeatability, and the high quality of the manufacturing makes that repeatability possible."
As with the commercial robotic cutting systems, the big is with faceting machines is the price. Depending on their Sophistication, faceting machines can run between $500 and 5,000, says Nancy Attaway, newsletter editor of the New Mexico Faceters Guild and president of High Country Gems, Cutting house in Albuquerque . That's quite a pile for an amateur whose commitment to the craft may be only part time. "The bulk of American gem cutters work either as amateurs or in small, professional studios," Attaway says. "While most enjoy comfortable working conditions and have good machines to work with, many are stymied by the amount of money they have to put out for instrumentation, software, laps, or what have you."
"The only objection I have to cutting technology is the high cost, not necessarily for faceting machines but for all the accessories that go with them," says Ron Campbell, a professional faceter and custom cutter in Santa Maria , California . "You don't just buy a faceting machine and go to work. You also have to buy laps, alignment tools, and polishing equipment, and that stuff can really kill you. You can usually pick up a standard faceting machine at a decent price, but when you combine that with the cost of everything else you wind up with a really hefty investment. Maintenance is also a factor. Our machines run an average of eight to 12 hours a day."
And despite the advantages of computerization, industry experts agree that when technology competes with talent, talent wins every time. However advanced it may be, a machine can only be as good as the operator.
"The usefulness of any technology is directly proportional to the quality of the cutter the level of his experience and his understanding of the craft," says Attaway. "A device or program equipped with lots of bells and whistles may or may not do a fabulous job, depending on who's using it and why. I have known lots of faceters that do magnificent work with very simple machines, while some of the faceters I know who cut at competition level feel they have to invest in binocular microscopes and other extremely expensive technologies to get optimum results. [But] in the end, it's the quality of the cutter that counts."
"The finest cutters in the world are American hobbyists, because they literally spend hours working a single stone," adds Lance Kanaby of Mine Design, a gem cutter in Clarence , New York . "Many use machines and software designed to cut one stone at a time, and that is where you get your best results. There are some faceting machines that do mass production, but more often than not the quality suffers. Using good instrumentation and software, the proper angles, and polish, an individual cutter will yield a well cut gemstone. Basically, we're talking here about a cooperative effort between the right equipment and a talented cutter."