Jean-Noel Soni is the mastermind behind Top-Notch Faceting. Jean creates award-winning, precision cut gemstones that are ethically-sourced, cut by hand, and created without the use of computer-aided design . In his words, the unique facets in his gemstones are “all figured by man.” I had the opportunity to take a peek at his notebook and the degree of detail and geometry that goes into every gemstone is remarkable. Speaking with Jean, it’s clear that he is incredibly knowledgeable about the materials he sources, and is passionate about his process and unique perspective on the industry.
Jean-Noel Soni’s interest in gemstones began at an early age. Raised by his mother, a collector of antique jewelry, Jean was surrounded by intricate vintage trinkets as well as his mother’s talented jeweler friends. His introduction to gemstone cutting started in 2009, taking a once-a-week class at the Randall Museum in San Francisco. The curriculum was solely in cabochon cutting, or stones that are polished and shaped without facets. Jean’s interest in gemstone cutting took off. Jean states that cabochon cutting is very precise and this experience aided his understanding in creating the dimensions for a stone.
Since Randall didn’t offer classes in facet cutting, Jean decided to take matters into his own hands. Saving money to spend on gem cutting equipment every few months, Jean turned to how-to books in gemstone faceting, including a vintage German book his mother owned from 1896. At this point, it seemed clear that gemstone cutting was Jean’s calling. Jean picked out other books from the library, paying close attention to the detailed diagrams, illustrating interesting facets and techniques.
More or less self-taught, Jean’s work is precise and thoughtful. He strives to create heirlooms from gemstones with the understanding that the material is finite. Never creating the same stone twice, Jean takes the needed time to design each stone. “For me, I really enjoy the challenge of taking whatever shape is presented to me and changing that into a gemstone. It can be challenging depending on the shape of the stone.”
Browsing through Jean’s instagram he is clearly prolific. “I love to work. I love the challenge and the ritual.” He was kind enough to send us a few before and after shots of stones, as well as a few shots from his studio. The transformation of a rough stone into a gem is quite magical and even sculptural.
“I use an older faceting machine. By machine, it is only a motor that spins round grinding wheels in different grits, horizontally. Each facet on every stone is ground down in finer and finer grits until each is polished. The trick lies in keeping all the facets at the proper depth and keeping symmetry. [This is] all done by eye and hand. There is also a whole other slew of things that go into cutting a gem including orientation of the crystal, dopping (attaching) the stone to a quill with wax so it doesn’t fall off and polishing, which is it’s own science by itself. I do not use any computer programs for my work at all. The materials are all very different and I feel that computers can only account for so much. Besides it’s more fun to figure out the stones with my own head.”
I asked Jean about his views in the gemstone industry and appreciated his honest and critical approach. He mentioned that often in the industry, gems are cut for optimal weight, rather than precision cutting, which brings out natural beauty of the stone. “In the commercial gemstone cutting industry, it’s business as usual.” Jean notes that in the industry, people source cheaper materials rather than the quality of stone, but notes that a few people, such as himself, are searching for high quality products.
Jean prides himself in his ethical sourcing, saying the best way to ensure that a stone is ethical is to work small and stay local. Jean works directly with miners, traveling to places as diverse as Romania, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Sri Lanka. His stones are vibrant, clear, and untreated. Some of his favorite stones to work with are garnets and zircons. Every once in a while, Jean will find a zircon stone with a phenomena called double-refraction, which creates an almost double-vision effect. “You’re essentially watching the molecules vibrate.”
Please join us at NextFab Studios for a discussion with Jean-Noel Soni about his practice on September 24th, from 5-7PM.