Why only Australian Stones?
My name is Nick Austin Clifford, the owner of N.C. AUSTIN. Welcome to my new space which I’ll be using to write and articulate thoughts, ideas, and processes regarding my world and life as a jeweller. The instagram page is fine to use as a gallery of images and what not, but not everything can be communicated in a single image, so I felt the need for a place for more in-depth or ‘long-form’, if you will.
So, first topic, Australian gemstones. What’s the deal and why would I turn down every other beautiful gemstone in the world?
It was somewhere in the second half of 2019 when I first thought I’d like to explore the idea of using Australian gemstones exclusively. Let’s preface this by saying, for the previous 5 years I would use any gemstone available to me, much like every other jeweller in the world. Onyx, Turquoise, Tiger Eye, as well as very small Diamonds and Rubies were pretty much the extent of it. To be honest, mens jewellery doesn’t really venture further than that in terms of stones.
Anyway, back to the second half of 2019. I had the idea and there were two main driving factors which were pointing me in this direction:
- True Transparency: If I could source the material myself, I have full knowledge of it’s origin, it’s quality, and conditions of mining. Without going into it too much, mining practices in third world countries can somewhat be questionable in a myriad of ways, and if I can eliminate my work from that, why wouldn't I?
- Creative Control and Relevancy: I wanted to experiment and use material which was relevant to my own life as an Australian jeweller/purveyor of fine decorative art. A clear and clean vision that stands for something. To celebrate the beautiful gemstones we have in our own country, and to incorporate them in people’s sentimental jewellery is a beautiful thing.
Anyway, I quickly learnt the limitations of accessibility. Apart from already cut and polished Opals and Sapphires (the two national gemstones), the gem dealers had bugger all in terms of Australian material. The industry just isn’t set up to supply other Australian gems, perhaps there wasn’t any demand? From what I gathered, many Australian gem dealers/suppliers go over to Bangkok to buy their stock of loose stones as it’s one of the world’s main gem cutting hubs. If Bangkok don’t have it, you don’t have it. Not only did I want to showcase Australian gemstones, but I had this idea for the perfect cushion cut cabochon for a signet ring. This particular shape just didn’t exist in the commercial cuts (See Fig. 3).
So things quickly came to a halt. While roaming the halls of the jewellery buildings in the Sydney CBD, friends and associates that I respect highly in the jewellery business, were pretty much passing on their 2 cents (in a loving way)… “why would you do that”, “why would you limit yourself”, and “you can’t turn down what the customer wants” were the three generalised remarks that kept popping up.
Essentially you’re on your own if you want to do something that isn’t the traditional way, and it was clear that I’d have to source and cut the stones myself. It wasn’t until I met a particular person, that opened up a whole world of possibilities. This person was a very experienced gem cutter, who was/is incredibly generous with their wealth of knowledge in the field. From him, I learnt how to cut stones from a slab of rough. I instantly realised the true potential, and limitless possibilities. It was as if my eyes had been shown newly invented colours for the first time. If you have the machinery to cut and polish stones, you can achieve things others can’t. My own shapes, my own thicknesses, my own sizes. I was no longer in the hands of what gem dealers had in stock. I could create to my own imagination and experiment with materials that simply weren’t on offer. But I also realised the other side to it. Gem cutting is a whole other profession and craft. Most jewellers are not also gem cutters. So with complete freedom with choice of material came complete commitment to double the work. And it's demanding work too, as you're dealing with untamed nature, not all finished stones will be up to gem quality for use in our jewellery. I acquired all relevant machinery, developed my perfect cushion cut cabochon and completely built my whole catalogue around this item and it’s silhouette (see Fig. 4).
It was at this time when I fully immersed myself into gem cutting, that I became aware of the extent of what Australia has to offer in terms of all the varieties of gemstone material. I use South Australian Black Jade or Tasmanian Black Spinels instead of generic Onyx. The Black Jade comes in many shades of very dark green which are black to the naked eye. The Western Australian Tiger Eye and Tiger Iron are far more interesting to me in comparison to the commercial South African Tiger Eye. The blues and greens of Prase and Chrysoprase are far more vibrant than Turquoise. And the best thing is that they are all natural and no two stones are ever alike. I could show you 10 different Black Jade cabochons and they all have a different texture or shade. I source and collect Boulder Opal from Southern Central Queensland, Topaz and Agate from North Queensland, Garnet from Northern Territory, Sapphires from Central Queensland and Northern NSW, not to mention the long list of material sourced from Western Australia.
The funny thing is, I haven’t limited my palette at all. There’s so many beautiful gems that I will explore over the course of my life as an Australian Jeweller. At the present moment, we have created an impressive line of unique stone set signet rings for Men, and the next frontier is to explore the creative possibilities in bold pieces for Women. Yes, I am an absolute purist with a committed vision for what I’d like to design and create, but that scope is wider than you think if you don’t limit your own vision as an appreciator of fine jewellery. It's my job, and privilege, to showcase and create the most unique and rarely offered jewellery to you, my customer.
Thanks for your time, and welcome to my life as a jeweller.
Fig. 1 Slabs of rough Chrome Chalcedony and Tiger Eye on our sourcing trip to Western Australia.
Fig. 2 Chrome Chalcedony set in Yellow Gold. This stone was cut from the exact piece of rough seen above.
Fig. 3 Commercial shape cushion cut Onyx (Left), in comparison to our signature cushion cut Black Jade (Right).
Fig. 4 Some of our finished gems for The Mercator ring.
Fig. 5 Cutting Boulder Opal making sure to maximise the amount of precious Opal vein.
Fig. 6 'Australian Bloodstone' - A unique one of a kind variety of Quartz sourced from the WA Goldfields about to be set into a customer's gold signet wedding ring.