Stones · Studio

Jewelry Axis of Evil: new member

Blogosphere, the Jewelry Axis of Evil has a new member.  Today, opals join silver, my camera, and white gold on the list of Stuff I Really Hate.  White gold moves up a spot on the list, because I was using it in combination with the opal.  My camera jumps two spots, because it’s very frustrating to be unable to show you a quality image of that which deeply offends me.

I’m pretty sure that the opal would have behaved nicely if not for the bad influence of the white gold.  Similar to my stance on teenagers, I expect white gold to behave like white gold; it is what it is, and it can’t help its nature. Foolishly, I expected better of the opal.  If only I had listened to the rumors about opals and their sluttish ethics, I never would have left the two alone together.

Opals, white gold, and my camera: dead to me.

This morning, as I sat polishing up this pretty opal ring, I mentally wrote a very different post; a post extolling the virtues of opals and expounding upon my new, improved relationship with white gold.  Then,  I noticed the bezel was a speck loose, on the left.  Back in the vice it went, one gentle press on the bezel’s edge, and CLICK: the unmistakable sound of an expensive stone fracturing.   A unique stone, a match for which will be difficult to find.  CLICK: the sound of yesterday’s work, wasted.

Now I have nothing nice to say about opals and white gold. Not. One. Thing.

Stones · Studio

New Ruby pendant

Look!  Look at the new pretty!


A 1.52 ct  SI Ruby, set in a slightly Etruscan-looking handforged setting. I’m not sure “Ruby” should be capitalized, but I’ve decided that’s how we’re going to roll at Vaka Design.  Rubies deserve it.

Beautiful Rubies glow.  That, with their color, is what they are prized for (is there any royal crown, in the history of ever,  which doesn’t include a ruby?).  The silky glow for which rubies are famous is caused by tiny threads of the mineral rutile, which  are naturally occurring in the stone.  Rutile is terrifically refractive and highly dispersive.  In common speak?  Rutile does awesome things with light.  Rutile’s natural inclusion in Ruby turns a red stone into a glowing, silky, gorgeous thing.  Thank you, rutile.

 I am really pleased with this, and have several other stones I intend to set similarly. In fact, I’ve decided to have a sapphire pendant in this style be the carrot for the Monster Bling contest.  More on that soon…..

Stones · Studio

Opals: who knew?

I’ve never been the slightest bit interested in working with opals.    The hue of old milk with bits of anemic color feebly attempting to glimmer through?  Petrified yak snot would probably be more interesting.

But recently a client asked me to design a pendant with opal, and so I went researching, hoping to come up with something, anything,  I could use to create a beautiful piece for her.  I wasn’t optimistic, but boy, was I wrong about opals.  I’m in love.

Black opal 7 x 5 mm
Black opal 7 x 5 mm

At first glance, the gem world breaks down roughly into diamonds and colored gems.  Dealers of one rarely specialize in the other, too.  Colored gem dealers might carry a few opals, and those are usually of the underwhelming milky type.  Go digging, though, and you’ll come across the world of opal dealers, who cut and carry a range of opals most of us don’t know exist.  My client wanted an Australian opal, a distinct subtype of the gem, and within this category?  Even more subtypes.

Opals, unlike most other precious gems, are not colored by mineral coloring, and are not crystalline in structure.  Opal is hydrated silica, and when viewed under magnification opal’s structure is that of tightly packed strings of spheres.  Opal’s color play is due to how these spheres reflect the light spectrum. Larger spheres reflect the longer wavelengths of oranges and reds, smaller spheres reflect the shorter wavelengths of blues and greens.


Semi-black opal 11x 7
Semi-black opal 11x 7 mm

The stones I’ve fallen in love with are the black and semi-black Australian opals.  These stones are among the rarest of opals, and offer intense, brilliantly flashing color: cherry reds, peacock blue, acid greens and fiery oranges.  Black opals have a “body tone” of deep gray to black (a base layer of dark stone) and the color-play of the opal is made more visible because of this dark background.  The milky-white opals most of us are most familiar with are on the opposite end of this spectrum.

Alright, so I’ve fallen in love with opals…..what about that old superstition: Opals are bad luck to wear if they aren’t your birthstone?  Opals were bad luck.  To gem cutters.  Historically, gem cutters were required to pay for any stones which broke during cutting.  Opals are rat bastards to cut.  Remember their structure?  Hydrated silica.  They don’t cleave (split) along straight lines.  Cutting opals could result in a gem cutter owing a lot of money in damages, and that’s bad luck.   Most superstitions begin with the tiniest grain of truth, and this truth was probably the grain which got that tale started.  That, and stingy people born in October who don’t share well.

In Australia, the Aboriginal folklore says that opals were created when a rainbow fell to earth, and that’s not bad luck at all.


Semi-black opal 8 x 5.5
Semi-black opal 8 x 5.5 mm
Semi-black 9x 5 mm
Semi-black 9x 5 mm

Thanks to for the wonderful information on opals they provide on their webstie.  These images are stones from their stock, and were available for purchase at the time this article was posted.  If you have an hour or five to get lost in the world of opals, this is where I fell in love:

Personal Entries · Stones

New Diamond

While  I’m not fond of white diamonds, I was intrigued by this one.  It’s peppered with the carbon that, when heavily present, makes a diamond black.   But this has just a bit of it….and I like it! 

.57 ct, 5 mm diamond
.57 ct, 5 mm diamond

 If we called this a white diamond, then these flecks would be seen as a detriment to the stone’s beauty;  they’d make it subpar, too heavily included to be valuable.  But if we call it a galaxy diamond (the name for this stone which is gaining ground in the world of alternative diamonds), or a dalmatian diamond (my own tag)?  Then it’s mysterious and cool, and somehow brings our minds back to how diamonds form.  They are of the earth, and as individual as you and I.   It’s unlikely you’d confuse this stone with another once you’d worn it and memorized it.

I think it all comes back to what we’ve been taught we’re supposed to value in diamonds, and I think that’s just silly.  That’s an idea which banks on us not thinking, and we like to think, don’t we?  Yes.  Yes, we do.

Stones · Studio

Jesus hates fossil coral

Karen called me, excited, because one of my vendors had just posted their new stones.  New stones!  We love new stones, right?  Right!

Our professional take on some of the gems we perused:


Strawberry Quartz
Strawberry Quartz

“This strawberry quartz looks like a murder scene.” Karen tells me. ” It looks like somebody exploded.    And the other one that kind of freaks me out is the bloodstone. Those bright spots of red,  it looks like the stone is wounded.”

“Do you think that may be why they call it Bloodstone?” I ask,   “some people dig that.”



“Well, the coral looks like salmon,” says Karen

“It has the same look…… It would look like you’ve set a teeny tiny salmon steak.”



 “Now this is a neat one…..Charoite, kind of a creamy purple.”

“Oh, Karen that’s horrible!  It looks like a half-eaten gob stopper!”

“It does look like a Tums.”



 “Clinohumite sounds like a gynecological problem.,” I say,”it’s a pretty orange but….”

“It does, it sounds like something you might need some yogurt for.”


Fossil Coral
Fossil Coral

 “Fossil coral……this one gives me the creeps,” I say, ” Ew Ew EW!  It gives me the heebie jeebies!”

“It looks like egg sacks.”

“It looks like these worms we used to have on the dock up in Maine–”

“Yes!” says Karen, ” we had them at the lake, they look like they’re made up of cells.  I remember brushing up against them and practically walking on water to get out of the lake fast enough.”

“Just like Jesus!  Jesus must hate fossil coral.”



“Here’s the one,” I say, “that looks like petrified snot…..Sphene.”

“Oh, it sure does.  It’s probably from the same age as amber.  It’s probably petrified dinosaur snot.”

“You’d think they’d market it as such,” I say, “that might be a good selling point.”

“Maybe not as much as we think.”



“Huh, ” Karen said. ” I don’t know how I feel about this.”

“Which one?”  I asked.

“The rhodochrosite.  The pink is sort of a raw, fleshy color.  It looks like a cross section of tissue.”

“Ew!”  I say, as I scroll through the new selection of rhodochrosite.  “It does.  It looks like tissue samples.”

“It looks like I’m looking at row after row of things that need to be biopsied.”

Stones · Studio

Ruby and Aquamarine

Look at the new pretties!

Aquamarine cabochon and Ruby
Aquamarine cabochon and Ruby

I am so excited, and I know just what I’m going to do with these two.  I’m not going to tell you though, because I worry it would be too much for you.  You’d be so overwhelmed by all the potential awesomeness that you would fall to the floor, convulsing,  saying,  “No Katie!  The world can’t handle that awesomeness!  Don’t do it!”  I don’t want to do that to you, because I love you, blogosphere.  You’re welcome.

First, the aquamarine.  3.5 ct, glowy and the loveliest color.  I’ve been keeping my eye out for aquamarine cabochons, and loved this one.   A faceted aquamarine is all about cut and clarity and depth of color, but cabochons are about personality and color.  This one reminds me of the sea, and isn’t that what aquamarines are supposed to do?  A beautiful oceanic color, flecked with tiny swirls of minute black speckles.  It looks like a ladleful of ocean scooped up and turned to stone. Love. It.

The ruby. A 2.18ct Vs-SI Ruby.   My beautiful niece picked this out while I was up north.  She is seven, and after I ran down cut and color basics, I told her my price range and set her searching.  When she came up with this stone, I had to agree it was gorgeous.

(Thanks to Jake for the photo.  I was fixin’ to start swearing in frustration [which is good, as we now know], when Jake kindly took over the Vaka photography department.)

The challenge when stone shopping is finding a good mix of size, quality and price.   If I spent a thousand dollars per stone, I’d have an easy choice to make;  2 carat, thousand dollar rubies are all gorgeous.  But I want the stones I purchase to allow me to keep my prices reasonable, and most people can’t afford a piece of jewelry which holds a thousand dollar ruby.  I want my jewelry to be an attainable luxury.

While some of my pieces might be quite expensive, I want the majority of my collection to be affordable to a woman buying something beautiful for herself.  It may take her several months of saving before she can treat herself,  but she can purchase something of quality and beauty if she wishes to do so.  This means, at least for my ready-to-purchase designs, that a 2 ct thousand dollar ruby is out of the question.

I spend hours and hours searching the stock lists of vendors who I’ve found, through trial and error, to be reliable and honest.

This ruby has great color, but the cut is crooked….

That ruby has a terrific cut, but the color just doesn’t pop….

This one  has a gorgeous cut and gorgeous color, but a visible crack…

This one has great cut and color, but it’s too small for what I have in mind…

The process is a treasure hunt, and one I really enjoy.

After finding the best stone, I need to design the setting in a way which minimizes  the flaws, and maximizes the stone’s attributes. The designer’s job would be a no-brainer if every stone was a perfect 2 ct ruby, and cost was no matter!

This ruby is  lovely, but at 6.5 x 6.5 x 4.95 mm it is quite deep. That 4.95 mm means it will need a setting which allows for its depth, but also remain fairly open in the back.  If I closed in the back of the bezel, it would dramatically darken the stone’s gorgeous color, and that’s one of the best things about this stone, isn’t it?  I need my design to allow as much light as possible, hold the stone high, be sturdy (it’s holding a 2+ carat ruby for heaven’s sake), be comfortable to wear daily (I want my jewelry wearable), and be relatively affordable.  And while it’s meeting all those demands I want it gorgeous, too.  I want the wearer to be unable to take their eyes off it; I want it to be their perennial favorite.

It’s that problem-solving which makes my job so much fun.  I really love it.

Stones · Studio

So pretty

Look at what I ordered!   I love it so much I’m going to marry it.

1.24 6.1 rose cut

This stone is rose cut, 1.24 ct, and 6.1 mm across.

I only purchase natural diamonds;  treated and irradiated diamonds lack nuanced color variations, and this is why I’ve not purchased black diamonds before.  Most blacks are irradiated and are simply opaque jet black in color, and I don’t see the point of that.  The beauty of diamonds, to me, is the color play.  Natural “black,” like this one,  is really a very dark variation of the natural diamond color range:  browns, reds, purples, greens.

Rose cut  is a lovely antique cut which has had a resurgence of popularity recently.  Briefly used, rose cut fell out of favor because it doesn’t optimize a white diamond’s assets.  A good cut allows light to enter the stone and play, and light play is what allows you to see a white diamond’s fire and brilliance. Rose cut allows some light to enter, but more simply reflects off the domed surface.  You’ve just defeated the purpose of a white diamond.  But we all know what I think of white diamonds.

Colored diamonds like this one, however, are not valued for their clarity and internal fire.  They’re valued for their rich color variations, cut and luster.  A rose cut is perfect for colored diamonds, and I lurrrved this one as soon as I saw it!

Like most unique stones I order,  I’ll need to meet this one and get to know it before I come up with a design which suits its personality.

And I won’t leave it on the kitchen table, because that would be so stupid.

Stones · Studio

Rose cut diamond ring

Pretty, sparkly, shiny, new.  This is what I’ve done with this diamond.

.29 ct, 4.1 mm rose cut diamond ring
.29 ct, 4.1 mm rose cut diamond ring

The biggest issue in photographing jewelry is the difficulty of capturing the true tones and textures of such highly reflective and refractive surfaces.  The wrong light can make it impossible!

I photographed this piece in the morning light, which often makes things look a bit green. Can you see the green cast the light has given to the diamond?  I’ll need to reshoot this ring in cleaner afternoon light.


Personal Entries · Stones · Studio

Sarah’s pretty engagement ring

Sarah's ring
Sarah's pretty ring, and I just noticed a little schmutz on the stone. Oy.

When Sarah contacted me regarding having a custom ring made, one of her biggest concerns was the sourcing of the materials.  Recycled gold is readily available and I use it in pieces which can support its higher cost,  but her gem concerns were a murkier subject.

Like many, she knew of the unethical and eco-unfriendly practices of gem-mining, and wanted to avoid purchasing a stone which funded those practices.

While purchasing free trade stones or stones marked as eco-friendly seems like the obvious choice, it isn’t that simple.   The world of diamonds and gems is complicated and of dubious transparency,  and most of the worlds’ beautiful gems come from areas which are in turmoil, or where work and environmental practices are not what someone else might consider enlightened.  Additionally, there is no single international industry authority governing eco and free trade certification.

When I first started goldsmithing I wanted to offer stones of kinder origins, but after researching I came to the conclusion that there simply might not be such a thing.  Are there companies which do follow stones from the mine to the cutter?  I’m sure there are.  But there are also many, many companies who know they can offer stones with such certification for much higher prices, and they create the certification themselves.  How does one know the difference?  I haven’t figured that out yet. Much like buying free-range or organic products, there are not any industry standards and these terms can mean anything.

Many large gem companies selling stones guaranteed to be ethical, conflict free, and eco-friendly work the same way.  They offer stones with these certifications, but when you go digging they also own the companies which provide the certification.  For instance, while free trade is a common term,  “Free-Trade” is a term trademarked by the company which markets these gems, and they promise the stones have been overseen from the mining through the cutting to ensure ethical practices.  The gems are sold through only one dealer, and that dealer is….ready for it?  Free-Trade’s parent company, Columbia Gem House. While I wouldn’t accuse them of misleading the buyer,  they don’t seem to be answering to any governing body and I don’t know how to gauge the validity of their certification.

So, what can you do?  Find a reputable dealer who provides the country of origin for a gem, and then decide if you can live with that country’s mining standards.    You could buy a lab-made gem.  You could buy a gem with some sort of certification, and hope it means something.

Sarah decided that she wanted a garnet, and the option she felt most comfortable with was using one of the sangria-colored garnets my mother’s oldest friend,  Cynthia, brought back from India years ago.  Sarah felt a stone which was several decades old was at least not harming anyone or anything now, and she could live with that.  I admired that in her purchase she was trying to do right by the earth and others,  and I wish doing so was easier and more straight forward.

My mother is thrilled to know one of her stones is being given such a special use.

Sarah wanted a ring similar to the Simple Diamond Ring, but with the garnet set sideways.   While she felt she would not be wearing the engagement ring much after she was married, I urged her to let me change the bezel a bit, just in case she might want to wear it more than she anticipated.  We went with an angled bezel, which will provide her with a more comfortable fit when worn with a wedding band.

When Sarah saw the ring?  She said, “I don’t think I’ll want to take it off!”

I couldn’t have hoped for a better reaction!

National Geographic has explored this subject for years, and as an impartial observer their articles are a wonderful resource for those who are concerned about gem-trade practices.  One article, in particular, illustrates the circuitous path gems take from mine to market:  an article on the diamond trade here.