Goldsmiths sometimes do a little rough and ready lapidary work with emery and leather sticks or even polishing compounds on a hard buff. Some goldsmiths, however, are lapidaries as well as jewelers.

Lapidary work involves the grinding of gem materials on a series of grinding wheels and belt sanders, usually wet, with water cycling in the system. Polishing compounds and pastes are made of various chemicals and abrasives.


Stone dusts as well as organic material dusts can be very hazardous, even deadly. Tver and Anderson note silicosis and silicotuberculosis are noted as occupational disorders for people who cut and polish stones (169). Oils, lubricants, water, and soaps can foster dermatitis. The water in lapidary cutting systems often sits for periods of time and can grow fungus and molds. Lapidaries have even gotten Legionnaires’ disease from this. Diamond-saw cutting of rough material can produce oil mists and chemical exposures. Oil mists from cutting gemstones can form aerosols that are breathed in and can cause severe lung injuries (Crumley 128).


Oils used for cutting saws. They may contain nitrosamines, which McCann notes cause cancer in animals (AB! 447). Rocks are chemicals and some materials are dangerous, especially as cutting residues. “Cutting fluids may also cause dermatitis” (AB! 447). Do not use antifreeze as a lubricant or coolant-it is dangerous (Crumley 124).


Silicosis. McCann lists the following stones as containing the free silica that causes silicosis: quartz (which is silica), granite, sandstone, brownstone, slate, jasper, opal, onyx, amethyst and soapstone. There may also be silica in diabase and serpentine. In addition, “soapstone, serpentine, and greenstone often contain asbestos as a contaminant. Inhalation of asbestos can cause lung cancer, mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavity), and asbestosis” (Health Hazards 41). Dusts. Flying chips can damage the eyes. “Electric tools produce large amounts of dust” but “hand tools can slip” (Rossol 251). Electrocution is a danger. Rossol notes the occurrence of “white fingers” disease or “vibration syndrome,” caused by continued use of electric tools, which cuts off the blood supply to the hands (and possibly to the feet) (251).


Set up working heights carefully, change position and/or working height during the work day. Choose a chair carefully; if you are sitting a lot you want the best. Fire: See “Fire Safety Rules” and “Fire Safety.” Electrical fires can happen. Oils and cutting fluids may be flammable. McCann observes that “organic oils slowly oxidize in air and release heat. Rags and paper towels soaked with these oils can spontaneously catch fire if the heat cannot dissipate” (Health Hazards 99). He suggests storing such rags in “approved oily waste cans that allow air to circulate around the can to dissipate heat” (99), and which you empty daily. You can also hang them up separately, or keep them in water (McCann, Health Hazards 99)

Exposure Routes

Inhalation, skin contact, eyes.

Safety Precautions to Use

Know the dangers of your materials and tools. Get MSDS sheets for products and look up the dangers of the stuff you are cutting. Hobbyists who carve stones while working wet sometimes use Dremel tools. They should purchase the flexible shaft attachment in order to get the Dremel tool itself away from water splashes, as there is an electrocution hazard if the tool gets wet (Joe Bokor, Orchid list, 1/3/97, “Re: Dremel tool”). Get a ground fault interrupter for the wiring to your equipment. Wear work clothing and if it gets contaminated with oils, change it immediately and have it dry cleaned.

Rossol says: “Purchase electric tools with low vibrations amplitude and comfortable hand grips. Do not grip tools too tightly, take frequent work breaks, and do not work in cold environments to reduce risk from vibration syndrome” (253). Wear hearing protection if necessary. Wear eye protection. Use cutting oils that don’t contain amines or nitrates. “Other precautions should include wearing impervious clothing, washing exposed areas with soap and water, frequent showering, and use of nonamine barrier creams” (McCann, AB! 447). Change water frequently to prevent bacteria and mold build-up. Keep a tidy workshop. Wet- wipe surfaces where dust might form. Be especially careful of silicosis-causing dusts. Tver and Anderson recommend routine chest X-rays for lapidaries (Tver and Anderson 169).

Substitution Options to Reduce Risk

Outsource. Buy ready-made. Note: Ron Arney writes of someone who came up with a way for preparing abalone shell for inlay. “A few months later, as I recall the tale, 3 of the 7 people he employed were dead. They went into the hospital and were treated for pneumonia, and as the problem was pus sacks in the lugs, and not pneumonia, it killed them. Simple as that” (Ron Arney, Orchid list, Jan 4, 98).

  • Crumley, Oran. “Shop Safety.” Lapidary Journal April 1990:
  • McCann, Michael. Artist Beware! Rev. ed. New York: Lyons and Burford, 1992.
  • Health Hazards Manual for Artists. 4th rev. ed. New York: Lyons and Burford, 1994.
  • Rossol, Monona. The Artist’s Complete Health and Safety Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Allworth Press, 1994.
  • Tver, David, and Kenneth Anderson. Industrial Medicine Desk Reference. New York: Chapman and Hall, 1986.