Paths to Excellence

Although I don’t do competition faceting, people often ask how they can improve the things on which competitions are judged, mainly meets and polish. What I think they’re really asking for is a map of the pathway to excellence.

We get good at whatever we measure. So, the first step is to define what “excellence” you’re measuring. If this is a contest, how is it judged?

The first time I heard the expression “faceting competition”, I imagined a row of guys sitting behind hot-rod machines, waiting for the start-whistle to see who could finish cutting a design first.

If you’re measuring speed, you want an accurate clock. But, faceting competition isn’t about speed; it’s usually about precision, meets, and polish.

So, the the important thing is to be able to measure – or at least compare. And, this is the real trick in faceting: We don’t have a “polish meter” or an electronic digital “meets tester” to just measure the polish or meets and give us a score – or tell us how to improve.

This means the first challenge is the faceter’s ability to detect the things they want to improve. And, assessing quality of meets and polish is a whole skill in itself. There are specific tools and techniques, and it takes time and practice to become proficient with them.

The main beginner mistake with oxide polishes is – too much polish on the lap. And, the main beginner mistake with quality control is – too much light on the stone (or facet). You don’t need or want a 100 watt bulb to check your stone. Your retina will thank you for being gentle.

Lighting a stone so a facet is in full-reflection of a light source can blind us to the finer features we’re trying to detect on the facet. This Ametrine looks fine from this angle:

ametrineBut, if we shift the angle just a bit (away from the glare), we’ll see there are actually some pretty ugly scratches on it:

faceted ametrine
Blinding glare also obfuscates facet junctions. It can make the glaring facet appear longer than it is, resulting in under-polished meets. Or, it can make the adjacent meets appear shorter than they are, resulting in over-polishing them.

The second common mistake made by newer faceters is poor magnification. This includes low-quality, cheap-o loupes, dirty optivisors, and poor loupe technique. Make sure you get a good-quality loupe like a nice Belomo 10x. Keep optivisors clean. And, learn the right way to hold and focus the loupe.

Nobody can create sharp meets or crisp polish by making corrections based on an image like this:

how to facet gemstonesIt’s important to learn how to focus the loupe well – and to know where you have it focused (surface or inside the stone). Many a faceting hour has been wasted chasing “scratches” like these:

garnet faceting

Rutile needles INSIDE faceted garnet

Deciding what to measure, and getting good at measuring it is almost half the battle of moving toward excellence. Then, comes the discipline part…

My Dad was a NASA engineer. So, I grew up enjoying things like music, photography, martial arts, firearms, aviation, and later, faceting. In each of these disciplines, all of the top professionals I know have three things in common:

  1. They never get bored with the fundamentals. In fact, they remain fascinated enough with the small details that they will repeat them almost infinitely – and NOT in a rote manner, but with rapt attention and full care, every time.
  2. They approach that infinite practice of fundamentals in a serious and very structured way – but also an enjoyable one. They have the skill of finding (or installing) playful novelty in every repetition. The best instructors of these disciplines might even talk about “disguising repetition” – both for their students and in their own practice.
  3. They manage to do the first two things through the third: They self-assign challenging projects – from the experimental to the repetitive. And, if you examine the works of any artistic master carefully, you will find the evidence of this.

Competition faceting is a good excuse to commit to such projects. But, it’s not necessary (or desirable) to wait for a competition to apply the approach. Masters become masters by applying the approach – by holding the competition (with themselves) – all the time.

Start with a metric a metric to focus on. It can be time, polish, meets – or something more complex, like best presentation of bicolor material. Every step and aspect of the art lends itself to detailed, playful – and repetitious exploration. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Given a design to cut, how small can you cut it?
  • How quickly can you cut it?
  • What are the different possible ways to sequence the design, both in cutting and in polishing?
  • How does each way of sequencing affect the final precision?
  • How does each way of sequencing affect the time required to do the cut?

It’s easy to come up with lots of experiments. And, if you do them with curiosity, you’ll progress very rapidly. No matter the discipline, all the best performers I have ever met – and all of the artists I’ve ever studied – used this approach to achieve their excellence.

“Excellence is the Result of Caring more than others think is Wise, Risking more than others think is Safe, Dreaming more than others think is Practical, and Expecting more than others think is Possible.” ? Ronnie Oldham

May you care, risk, dream, and expect more. And, may that bring you the excellence you desire.

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