Exhibitor Spotlight

Gemstone Q&A: Gary B. Wilson

Leland blue & variscite gemstones from Gary B. Wilson | Source
Bead Fest Philadelphia is just around the corner (kickoff is August 16!), and we’re beyond excited to explore the inspiration in this year’s Expo. If you have yet to experience a Bead Fest Philadelphia Expo, it’s basically a jewelry-lover’s paradise where you can shop nearly 200 unique exhibitors, learn in educational demos, meet new creative pals and even create jewelry for just $5 in the Beadalon Inspiration playground!

We are honored to welcome back one of our fan-favorite exhibitors who never fails to WOW everyone with his one-of-a-kind stones, cabochons and focal beads–the wonderful, Gary B. Wilson! We had the opportunity to interview Gary about his experience with selecting stones, evaluating a stone’s quality and how novices can be savvy shoppers while selecting gemstones and findings for the first time.

Let’s talk stones with self-proclaimed rockhound, Gary B. Wilson! 

How did you get started in this business?

“I began collecting stones along the beaches of Michigan as a small child, first Petoskey stones in lower Michigan and then all the great materials that the Keweenaw Peninsula’s Copper Country had to offer. I was so enthralled with the Michigan stones from such a young age that my parents bought me a complete lapidary set-up when I was just eight. I was on my way in business!”

Where do you acquire your stones? Do you find them yourself? What’s your favorite region to find stones?

“I acquire my rough stone from a diverse array of miners, dealers, and sometimes estates. The materials I hunt or have hunted myself are the Leland Blue, Petoskey, and other Michigan stones. The Tucson gem show in February is of course a huge opportunity to buy great rough material from people from all over the world.”

Lapis lazuli gemstones from Gary’s booth at Bead Fest Santa Fe

Do you cut all the stones you sell, or do you buy some already cut?

“I cut almost all the cabochons I sell from rough material, which can be in big hunks or sometimes in slabs. I then decide what shapes and sizes I want to cut and always want to maximize the stone’s pattern and ultimate potential for beauty and utilization of good material.”

Say I’m a beginner jewelry artist and I’m about to purchase gemstones for the first time. What resources would you point me to in order to get started learning about stones?

“Beginning jewelers interested in buying stones are smart to go to a gem and mineral show and walk around and see what interests them. Get an idea of what you like and how the stones are priced. Ask the vendors questions—we are happy to help and be informative! Another great way to get familiar with the stones and the options out there is to take a jewelry class from a reputable artist and teacher (such as the talented Lexi Erickson) who uses a variety of stones in their work.”

How do you go about cutting a stone to leave a natural surface? How do you select what surface to leave?

“What do you do to make it more settable? I like working with natural surface stones, when that surface and texture is interesting. These are more difficult to shape, with more contours to deal with. I basically look at the rock and decide where to make the first cut and then just start carefully shaping the sides. Certainly, my natural surface stones can be more challenging to set, but many jewelers choose them for their uniqueness and the interesting natural textures left intact. The talented Richard Salley (who also teaches classes) handles the natural surface stones beautifully, and sets many of them in his work.”

Designed by Richard Salley using snow scene agate from Gary B. Wilson

What are some stones that have the most interesting natural surfaces?

“There is an array of drusy minerals that are natural surface. I leave natural surface tops on some azurite, cobalto calcite, malachite, chrysocolla, spessartine garnet, pyrite, quartzes, koni calcite, and hematite.”

How does the color of a stone affect the price? What are the most/least expensive colors?

“In my business and the semiprecious stones I cut and sell, color itself doesn’t determine the value or price. However, it is often the deeper, richer, or more vibrant colors in any given material that sell the best and those cabs are a bit pricier than their paler counterparts. Contrast within the stone plays a part too. In some materials, lighter, more pastel colors are often the most sought after pieces. Willow Creek Jasper or a stone like citron chrysoprase are examples.”

What’s important in a cabochon?

“Lots of people have heard about the 4 C’s (cut, color, carat, clarity) for faceted stones: How do they relate to cabochon cuts? In many of the stones I cut, capturing pattern and “scenery” within a single cabochon is important to value and appeal. Looking at the material and understanding the best way to cut it to bring out the best in it, and orientation of the stone’s pattern is key. The actual cut of the cabochon is extremely important, too. If a uniform or certain shape is the goal, such as an oval, a round, or a cushion shape, that shape should be smooth and perfectly uniform with the dome on the cab also uniform, unless a free-form or natural surface stone is the goal. This takes practice, and patience!”

Gary’s boulder opal cab & ocean jasper | Source

What stones would you say are the easiest to work with? What makes a stone easier or harder to set?

“Some stones are easier for me to cut than others. Some of the more challenging ones are Sonoran Sunrise and Psilomelane, which are more difficult to polish. Materials like native copper are labor intensive to cut, but it’s one of my favorites. For jewelers, more contours and hard angles and tricky shapes are more challenging to set. The stones I sell are on the whole quite jeweler friendly, though.”

What stones are durable enough for wear? Give us some examples.

“All of the stones I cut and sell are durable enough to wear, but some are more recommended to avoid putting in a ring or bracelet that are on the softer side. Some of the natural surface stones can be a little less durable too, making them better worn in a neck piece than say a ring or bracelet. Overall, my collection of stones are absolutely meant to be set by jewelers, (or wire wrapped, or beaded with) and worn. Stones in the quartz family are the most durable of what I cut a lot of, such as the jaspers and agates. However, many of my customers set my softer stones. One should just be aware of this, and know that certain stones may not hold up as well in a piece of jewelry that could be bumped or knocked more. Customers shopping in my booth can certainly ask us!”

Trends in gemstones: What’s popular? What’s selling?

“Trends don’t affect my cutting or business much. I cut whatever I like and find interesting, and if I think it’s beautiful and/or cool, chances are some of my customers will too. Some customers gravitate towards different color families than others, some like working with daintier pieces, some like earth tones and chunkier pieces, some like bright colors, and so on. For the vast array of stones I cut, my variety along with the variety of people’s tastes and styles works out great.”

Plume agate & green jasper pendants from On The Rocks using Gray’s stones

What is your all-time favorite gemstone?

“OMG, my favorite stone…. I really can’t say, since I love so many. I have a special fondness for the Michigan stones that is lifelong. I also really love the agates and jaspers, and so many of the awesome fossils, and the list continues. I also get excited about cutting a cool material that’s relatively new for me, when one comes along. Stop by and ask, and I’ll gladly tell you what’s on the newer side or what I’m particularly excited about in my booth at a given show.”

Let’s all take a moment to give a round of applause to the incredible Gary B. Wilson!

What an honor it was to interview this ROCKstar about his endless experience with stones. If you’re currently on the market for carefully-curated cabochons and focal stones, Gary is the guy you need to talk to. Best of all, you’ll have the chance to connect with Gary in real life at Bead Fest Philadelphia, and shop his selection of beautiful pieces.

What was your favorite takeaway from Gary’s interview? Tell us what useful information you learned in the comments below!


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