History of Lapidary in Australia – How it started…

Jack Stanley Taylor, FGAA (1920–1988) became known as the “Father of Lapidary in Australia”. He was a co-founder of the Gemological Association of Australia in 1945, and founded the first Lapidary Club in Australia in 1953. In a career spanning over 70 years, he amassed a personal gemstone collection of over 1100 entries.

History of Gem Cutting

Until fairly recently, the gem cutting industry was confined mostly to the European continent, although stones were cut by primitive means for hundreds of years in Ceylon, China and India. The best and most accurate cutting of gemstones was carried out at Idar Oberstein in Germany, and to a lesser extent in Holland.  But the processes were jealously guarded and passed from father to son as trade secrets.  Nothing was committed to writing.

In early times it is known that huge sandstone wheels driven by water wheels were used.  The operator was required to lie flat on his stomach and hold his stone to the wheel.  The expression, “to keep your nose to the grindstone” came from early gem cutting.  Old wood cuts show this process, and it appears to have been a most uncomfortable way to work.

Gemmological Association in Australia (1940s)

A Gemmological Association was formed in Australia about 1944 by three professional Sydney men.  One was Jack S Taylor. He, along with his father, and grandfather, were partners in a firm of Sydney retail jewellers.  

Jack wanted to learn more about the origins, the make-up and the scientific methods of testing gemstones.  Following enquiries to the Gemmological Association of Great Britain, it was decided to form a similar Association in Australia.  After several years of study, Jack passed all his examinations in Australia and became a “Fellow” of the Association; the first to be entitled to use the letters FGAA after his name.  Within a short time, all other states had Gemmological Associations.

However, Jack was also interested in semi-precious stones, and wanted to find his own stones by taking his family on field trips.  Prior to 1953 there were no Lapidary Clubs in Australia.

First Lapidary Club (1950s)

In 1953, Jack Taylor was interviewed on Radio 2GB Sydney.  Val Reeve (of Sydney) heard that broadcast.  Jack was seeking folk interested in the art of gem cutting and collecting, and called a meeting for the following week in February 1953.

My husband, Dick, and I attended this meeting in a small rented room in George Street, Sydney.  It was decided a Club would be formed called The New South Wales Lapidary Club and Jack Taylor was the first President.  In 1960 this club boasted 1,200 members.

It must be remembered, manufactured equipment for the various processes to club gemstones was not available for purchase.  Jack Taylor lectured, at first, giving us advice on methods necessary to achieve results.  Some men, including Dick, invented their own machines.  We visited other members’ attempts and the ingenuity was unbelievable. These were some of the first working cabochon cutting machines in Australia.  

Because of the large numbers of members joining the club and the minimal equipment available, members would practise on pieces of broken glass and potato until they felt they were ready to tackle real gems.  

At meetings, guest speakers gave us lots of information on where gem materials could be found, and we took copious notes.  No books were yet available.

The first Lapidary book available in Australia was the 6th edition (printed in 1956) of The Art of Gem Cutting, a paperback written in the USA by Dr. HC Dake.  This was most helpful, especially as it was illustrated.

Sydney Club Field Trips

Weather permitting, field trips were organised monthly.  Sydney environs are sadly lacking in gemstone. We looked forward to the long weekends when we could travel further afield to Kangaroo Valley, Braidwood and Oberon.  Easter and Christmas took us to the Granite Belt, Tamworth, Guyra and Oban, Inverell and Tingha.  On our annual holidays we joined up with others and went to Lightning Ridge, Belatta or even interstate.

There was no bottled gas, caravans or motels, so we used tents.  Some men, like Dick, became quite ingenious and converted a tiny Morris delivery van into a miniature mobile home where everything folded into its place.  “Reeve’s Canteen”, with a primus boiling a kettle was a ready supply of cups of tea.  A wireless (before the days of transistors) was installed too.  This was the era before plastics were invented, if you can imagine that.

Equipment

[In the April-May, 1957 issue of AUSTRALIAN POST OFFICE MAGAZINE, Dick wrote that ‘… Suitable equipment may be purchased for about 15 pounds.  The enthusiast who is prepared to spend more can buy a powered gem-cutting machine for 30 pounds.  Single wheels for sawing and polishing stones cost an extra 30 shillings each.  However, those who want to keep expenses to a minimum can cut and polish gems by hand, using sandpaper and carborundum powder.’

He continues, ‘… Members practise on pieces of broken glass and potato until they feel that they are ready to tackle real gems.  Stones for cutting can be bought, if desired, through the Lapidary Club.  Few self-respecting amateur lapidarists would do this, however.  They prefer to spend their week-ends and holidays outdoors scouring the countryside to find their gems.’]

I had a try at silver jewellery settings, hand-made and soldered by blow torch and bunsen burner.  There were no ready-made mounts or findings available for purchase.  I even made chains, but they were not very fine.

Northern New South Wales (1960s)

In early 1960, Dick was offered a promotion to Lismore.  His survey experience in Telecom (laying the Sydney to Melbourne cable) was needed to put in a television cable from Brisbane to Lismore.

Soon Dick was urged to form a club in Lismore.  The Lismore Gem and Mineral Society with 50 attending the inaugural meeting at the Lismore Art Gallery rooms was held in May 1964, with Dick presiding.  

The first President was Mr RE Reeve, FGAA (Dick) and I was their first publicity officer, said  The Northern Star, Lismore. In 1965 life membership of the club was conferred on us both, for the work we had put in during its first year.  [Dick and Val Reeve donated a showcase of minerals, gem stones and jewellery to the Richmond River Historical Society Museum, Old Council Chambers Building, Molesworth Street, Lismore.]

The following year, Dick was asked to speak at Murwillumbah and clubs were also formed at Kyogle, Casino, Mullumbimby and Evans Head.  Clubs already existed in Coffs Harbour, Armidale and Tingha.

Mrs Reeve, who was 82 [in 1997], remembers the happy times lapidary has given her.  “It was a marvellous hobby to have and the best of all my hobbies.  We made so many friends and had such great times.  It also took us to so many places.”

The founder of Lapidary in Australia, Jack S Taylor is now remembered as the FATHER of Lapidary in Australia.  Jack is especially remembered at every National Gem and Mineral Show (GEMBOREE®).  

—ooOoo—

Co-written by: Valerie J Reeve and Beverley Radke (Toowoomba Lapidary Club)

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