Multifaceted Talent

A portfolio of jewels by Bernd Munsteiner, the world's finest cutter of colored gemstones.

Bernd Munsteiner cups the chin of his handsome son Tom with affectionate disapproval. "You could have shaved," he chides, rubbing the young man's hip but scratchy stubble. This day is, after all, something of a milestone for the family: Tom is accepting an award in a prestigious competition, marking an unofficial passing of the torch from master- craftsman father to talented son. Whatever pressures are inherent to filling large footsteps and fulfilling parental expectations, one concern he will not have is brand recognition. Embarking on a career in gemstone-cutting with the Munsteiner name is analogous to one of the Fonda kids deciding to take up acting.

The Munsteiner dynasty is a relatively recent addition to a legendary 500-year heritage in Idar-Oberstein, a region in southwest Germany that is to the art of stone-cutting what Florence was to Renaissance sculpture and painting. It was in the 15th century that mother lodes of amethyst and agate were discovered in the mountains there; cutting mills were established along the streams of the Nahe river valley, with men lying flat on their stomachs over primitive tilted benches, holding the rough stones up to water-powered wheels for grinding and polishing. Commercial mining in the area was finished by the end of the 19th century (although panning for the unlikely nugget is still a tourist attraction), but the large German population that had emigrated to Brazil sent home from the New World rock crystal and smoky quartz, citrine and tourmaline, emerald and ruby. Today exotic raw materials from more than 50 countries are exported to Idar-Oberstein: fire opals from Mexico, peridots from Burma and Pakistan, garnets from Russia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. Skills have been handed down through 20 generations of cutters, drillers, engravers, setters, designers, and traders. Gems so dominate the local commerce that virtually every shop sign in town seems to bear a rude word; it turns out that Schmuck is German for "jewelry."

There was never any doubt that Bernd Munsteiner would follow in the career path of his grandfather and father, both of whom were trained in classic stone-cutting techniques that have not changed much since the Middle Ages, when facets were made possible with the invention of the horizontal cutting wheel. Born in 1943 in Mörschied, a few country miles from Idar-Oberstein, Munsteiner began an apprenticeship with his father at age 14. But when he enrolled at the Pforzheim Academy of Design in the Black Forest he felt limited by the familiar geometrical forms of jewels--rounds and ovals and pear shapes. "I started looking at nature's crystals with different eyes," he says. "The crystals don't want to be round." Stones have feelings? "Yes, of course," he affirms in a gentle tone that nevertheless brooks no argument. "I try to find out what the stones want to be."

The 1960s, when Munsteiner began to ply his trade, were a time of percolating creativity in costume jewelry--Jackie Kennedy was wearing Kenneth Jay Lane's faux diamond and colored-stone necklace; Trifari was at its height; everyone's mother had a drawerful of Miriam Haskell. But fine jewelry was derivative of the previous decade; precious and semiprecious stones were precisely cut, millimeter by millimeter, not hewn and slashed. Munsteiner revolutionized the lapidary arts with his "fantasy cuts," actually sculpting transparent free-form stones with strident, asymmetrical outlines and unique "ladder" grooves or graphic incisions to maximize the potential reflection and refraction. A piece of rock crystal, smoothed by nature on one surface but projecting jagged edges on the other, inspired his renowned Negative cut, in which geometric carvings on the underside of the stone can be seen through the flat, polished front. His Erotik design is a tapered marquise with longish slashes, obviously evoking the idealized female form, and his Symbolon is a sensuous, incised ellipsoid, almost demanding to be held as a talisman. Diamonds don't much interest Munsteiner (and the amount of diamond dust left on the cutting-room floor would more likely detract from rather than enhance the stone's value), but he did create the Spirit Sun cut for a small diamond that is sometimes used in conjunction with a larger stone; it has 16 long facets on the pavilion and matching facets on top, creating an intense white light.

Ideas take form in Munsteiner's head as he holds a rough chunk of quartz or tourmaline or agate in his hands, imagining its life underground for more than 200 million years. (A white edge on a piece of agate means it was in the sun for one million years--a prehistoric tan.) He studies color, fire, purity, even the inclusions that he declines to see as flaws. "I call them structural variations," he insists. "They have nothing to do with my fascination with a stone, especially if you need a loupe or microscope to see them." Sometimes he holds a special tourmaline an inch or so above his worktable and drops it to hear the sound. In every stone he senses a message about perspective, movement, or light. "I can start work only if I have a philosophy," he says. "It comes like it comes."

The man now known as the Picasso of gems was once viewed as the anti-Christ by his colleagues. "Idar-Oberstein is tradition-bound, and he was ridiculed," says James Alger, a gemstone dealer in Bedford, New Hampshire. "When I first started in the business, I heard, 'Don't sell to Munsteiner--he only wrecks the stones.' " Working in relative obscurity, Munsteiner deflected the kind of reproach that every pioneer encounters. Eventually he found a benefactor in the jeweler H. Stern, who exhibited his work at the company's stores in Brazil and on New York's Fifth Avenue. It wasn't until the '80s that Munsteiner was widely acknowledged as a virtuoso. Now he's conferred the status of an ambassador on his home turf, and the inevitable inferior imitations of his unique cutting style, from as far away as Thailand, have their own sobriquet: Clonesteiners.

For 25 years, Munsteiner has made an annual pilgrimage to Brazil in search of raw material. "I need to see the crystal in the mine," he says. "That's the beginning of the story, when it comes out of the earth." A traveler to such remote regions sometimes becomes an Indiana Jones manqué, navigating alligator-inhabited rivers and snake-infested mine shafts with bodyguards watching out for banditos. ("You have to have the right friends," Munsteiner says circumspectly, "and they have the guns.") It's a frustrating endeavor: Only five percent of a mine's output offers the quality he demands, and it's rare to find superior clarity and color in stones large enough to become his table- or wall-mounted sculpture rather than jewelry. The Smithsonian Institution is currently negotiating to exhibit Dom Pedro, his masterful aquamarine obelisk of more than 10,000 carats. The stone weighed almost 60 pounds in the rough and took six months to carve, during which time Munsteiner barely slept. "One little crack, and it would have been ruined," he states, still shuddering at the thought. "I couldn't even drink wine."

Munsteiner lives and works 20 minutes outside of Idar-Oberstein in a building he fashioned with his own hands, as improbable a sight in the village of discreet and conventional homes as a Mother Goose shoe. (Locals are known to tell visitors, "You can't miss his house--it looks just like his jewelry.") There are circular staircases and walls of rough-hewn rocks; even the floor of the garage is paved with multicolored ceramic tiles. The atelier next-door is now guided by son Tom, who has created variations on his father's themes, such as Magic Eyes, with tiny spheres that look like Champagne inside the stone. Father and son employ several other craftsmen, who are responsible for various stages of production: grinding with diamond powder on a copper or steel wheel, polishing with a different material for each type of stone, always with water because if a crystal gets hot it will explode. There is a limited harvest: fewer than a thousand stones a year, sold to jewelers all over the world.

A designer who uses a Munsteiner must be able to enhance and protect it but defer in some ways to the hegemony of the gem--a superstar supported by platinum or gold. "The ego isn't involved," says Steven Kretchmer, a designer in Palenville, New York, who used his patented "tension setting" for a ring with Munsteiner's 1.35 carat Context-cut diamond. (With Kretchmer's tension setting there are no prongs, no bezels; the stone is held in place by compression of heat-treated alloys and by the structure of the ring itself.) "Munsteiner loves stones; he breathes, eats, and sleeps them," says Kretchmer. "He is into optics, translucency, and technology, whatever it takes. And his gemstones offer new explorations of design. Sometimes his approach is geometric, sometimes it is more organic and random. I can complete his fantasy or utilize the shape within my own fantasy. But when it comes to mounting I must let the stone speak. Otherwise it is not a design, but a contradiction."

Few faceted stones present the challenges of a Munsteiner. "I may have one of his stones on my bench for a long time before I proceed, trying to make the right decision," states New York designer Deborah Aguado. "Crosscurrents of color in a particular green tourmaline of his made me feel I was skin-diving. It was as if I'd been led into a distinct fissure or shaft of color, something of its own mystery revealed in Bernd's cutting that inspired me." Aguado considers a jeweler to be a fine mathematician and an engineer as well. "The gemstone is important, but the entire piece is noticed. There should be gesture in goldsmithing so the maker can be identified. My work has a signature. That I've chosen to use a Munsteiner stone in a given piece makes it all the more unique."

"Most jewelers cannot work with his stones," confirms Patricia Faber, co-owner of the Aaron Faber Gallery in New York, where Munsteiner's work is sold. "Just as a marble sculptor says he is only showing the form in the rock, Munsteiner explores the rough for the best way to show the properties of the mineral, but he is dealing with light too. The stone is so demanding, and too much metal competes with it."

One who can definitely step up to the plate is Munsteiner's other son, Jörg, a goldsmith based in Lugano, Switzerland. (The creative family includes Tom's wife, Jutta, who is also a goldsmith, and Bernd's wife, Hanne, who handles the finances.) Munsteiner's extended jewelry family includes two Germans whose friendship and prolific use of his gems date back more than three decades. "Gemstones are made by the gods," states Michael Zobel of Konstanz, "and the piece of jewelry must be special enough for them. I heat the metal until it melts, and as it cools the natural crystallization comes to the surface. It makes the jewelry a living thing." Stuttgart jeweler Günter Krauss often looks at the rough that Munsteiner brings back from field trips, anticipating what he'll want to use. "I try to incorporate the rocks in a more peaceful form," he says, "and they respond well." Krauss says he is unintimidated because of a mutual "blind understanding" with his friend. "It creates energy between us. I try to make something equal to the stone."

With Munsteiner breaking the mold, other Idar-Obersteiners have been inspired to innovative stone-cutting, sometimes abandoning unrelated work. Dieter Lorenz was a child psychologist. But he was lured into the family's gem-cutting business as a designer; later he picked up his father's tools and started to carve. He prefers to work in matte black onyx, which is made by cooking gray or white agate with sugar, or rutilated quartz from Madagascar and Brazil, sometimes known as "angel hair" because of the inclusions of rutile crystals in natural suspension within the rock. Another native son, Hans-Jürgen Druglat, has done Munsteiner-esque carving as well as combinations of different colored gemstones that fit together like a puzzle and can be taken apart and worn by two people.

The man who inspired much of the competition is, at age 57, still pushing the edge of the envelope with his designs, although he now limits himself to just a handful of pieces a year. "I never focus from the point of money," Munsteiner says. "I don't know where my next client is, and I have never taken an order in my life.

"I am happy for this."


American Gemstone Cutters

The United States never had a lapidary heritage akin to the Germans; only a handful of art schools taught rudimentary techniques. "It was a journeyman's education," says gemstone dealer James Alger. "All the creative work was done in nonaccredited workshops. The emphasis in schools was on traditional gem forms and more innovative metalwork." Francis J. Sperisen, a cutter working in San Francisco from the 1920s to the '70s, was the first American to challenge convention: His Lens cut, developed at the start of World War II, was considered radical because it distorted rather than refracted light as it passed through a stone, but he fathered a burgeoning new métier here.

"In America, a group of disparate artists figured out how to do this work on their own," says Lawrence Stollerof Bend, Oregon, former president of the Gem Artists of North America. "Germany has been influenced by hundreds of years of passing down traditions. The people who've sprung up in this country have none, so they have unique concepts, styles, and approaches. There was no cross-pollination until recently, when we decided to form an organization to support the gem arts in this country." Stoller partnered with Glenn Lehrer of Larkspur, California, in creating a 450-pound golden rutile-quartz behemoth, now on display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Lehrer, who prides himself on a "propensity for the unconventional," has worked on some exotic materials, including red "emerald" beryl from Utah. Many of his pieces reflect his desire to create "symmetry in motion"--a somewhat subjective goal. "One person might look at a stone and see an angel in flight," he says, "while another would see hummingbird wings."

There is some friendly rivalry, some misplaced hubris and self-promotion among GANA's 30 or so members, but also a good deal of support. These are, after all, artists who have often had to invent their own tools, so little was known or shared about technique. "Some of the things I've used to make tools would probably amuse you," says Larry C. Winn of Grand Junction, Colorado. "Coconut shell does a pretty good job of finishing." The son of a geologist, Winn had a job making housings for aircraft engines in the early '80s, but by 1989 he was carving stones, and he aims to make them dance with brilliant light. His Synapse is a square cut with a dimpled gridwork surface; his Cosmos has eight scalloped edges, like the flower for which it's named, with multiple concave cuts that intensify the sparkle. "My work is intricate and flashy," he says. "I'm trying to draw people into the stone." Though he skips traveling to Brazil and Africa for the tourmalines he favors, preferring to buy from dealers, he has a bit of adventure when prospecting near home: Colorado's Mount Antero is above the timberline, where tools have been known to hum with electrical energy if a storm comes up and lightning once struck a friend's car, puncturing a can of Mountain Dew.

Steve Walters of Ramona, California, grew up around the family "tumbling" business, in which large hunks of stones like rose quartz and amethyst were crushed into smaller pieces, shaped, polished, and sold to the tourist trade. After working for a Beverly Hills jewelry manufacturer, he started experimenting with free-form shapes, actually feeling liberated by the lack of an American tradition. "There was no master carver standing over me telling me, 'Don't do it that way,' " he says. "So I followed my instincts."

Michael M. Dyber of Rumney, New Hampshire, was a plumber and welder repeatedly rejected at art schools because he couldn't do the prerequisite freehand drawing. On a trip to Italy he was inspired by the jewelry shops lining the Ponte Vecchio; he came back to New England to sell his one-off baubles. "When I wasn't making jewelry, I was fixing the sink," he says. "These skills fell into place one step at a time." Some of his most dramatic pieces are carved in ametrine, a bicolored quartz from Bolivia with amethyst and citrine in the same crystal. His signature cut goes by the name Dyber Optic Dish: a polished hemisphere that is either concave or convex and optically expands or compresses whatever is seen through it. It was one of these dishy ametrine pieces that made Dyber the first American to take the grand prize in the competition for the German Award for Jewelry and Precious Stones, Idar-Oberstein.


Source Box

The Germans

Atelier Munsteiner (Bernd And Tom Munsteiner)
Cutters/Designers.
Stipshausen, Germany.
By appointment only;
49-65-44600; fax 49-65-448511.

Hans-Jurgen Druglat
Cutter/Designer.
Oberwörresbach, Germany;
49-6785-1202; fax 49-6785-17403.

Gunter Krauss
Designer.
Stuttgart, Germany;
49-711-297395; fax 49-711-296993.

Lorenz Edelstein Design (Dieter Lorenz)
Cutter.
Idar-Oberstein,
Germany;
49-6781-43937; fax 49-6781-46702.

Michael Zobel
Designer.
Konstanz, Germany;
49-7531-25962; fax 49-7531-15983.

The Americans

Aaron Faber Gallery
New York, New York;
212-586-8411; fax 212-582-0205.

Ajs Enterprises, Inc. (Larry C. Winn)
Cutter.
Grand Junction, Colorado;
970-523-0815.

Deborah Aguado
Designer/Goldsmith.
New York, New York.
By appointment only;
212-865-7596.

Michael M. Dyber
Cutter/Designer.
For information, visit Web site: www.dyber.net.

Jfa Designs (Jean-Francois Albert)
Designer.
Irvine, California;
800-621-7082.
www.jfad.com

Ladyfingers Jewelry
Carmel, California;
831-624-2327; fax 831-624-0915.
www.ladyfingersjewelry.com

Lawrence Stoller Crystalworks
Cutter/Designer.
By appointment only;
541-388-1721; fax 541-385-0629.

Lehrer Designs Studio (Glenn Lehrer)
Cutter/Designer.
Larkspur, California;
415-461-2212; fax 415-461-8252.

R.W. Wise, Goldsmiths, Inc. (Richard W. Wise)
Designer.
Lenox, Massachusetts;
413-637-1589; fax 413-637-8275.
www.polygon.net/~rwwise

Schneider Design Studio (Mark Schneider)
Designer.
Long Beach, California;
800-452-5804; 562-437-0448;
fax 562-437-0593.

Steven Kretchmer Design
Designer.
Palenville, New York;
888-746-4753; 518-678-0304;
fax 518-678-0307.

Steve Walters
Cutter.
Ramona, California;
760-789-1620; fax 603-853-7503.

Aimee Lee Ball covered invisibly set jewelry in the May/June 1999 issue.