Carved Gemstones: Susan Margolis’s 40-Year Mastery

In June 2023, Susan had this Wyoming nephrite jade carving titled “Kelp” (= brown algae seaweed) exhibited at the Monterey Jade Festival in California. Photo by Ralph Baskin

Carved gemstones by award-winning artist, Susan Margolis reflect an extraordinary 40-year sculptural and industrial design background, which permeates and shines through her powerful gem carvings. Many of them feature elegant faces and figures intertwined with nature and fauna carved in cameo style or as full sculptures-in-the-round. Susan lives in Connecticut with her husband Scott, and is very close to her daughter, granddaughter, and son.

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Early Influences

Born in Durham, North Carolina, a move to Virginia at the age of five meant that both states shaped Susan’s first ten years. Early memories of hurricanes and sandstone formations on building sites compete with adventures with her brother, exploring outdoors and redeeming bottles found along the road for penny candy.

Susan’s mother was a bacteriologist by training and a craftswoman weaving and creating pottery with great joy. Susan remembers early influences from works by celebrated ceramic artist, the late Vivika Heino. Her father, a neuropathologist, worked as the Head of the Pathology Department in Virginia. The “Brown vs. the Board of Education” decision led to school closures and as tensions escalated at the college, the family moved to Vermont in 1963.

New England brought different cultural norms, seasons and activities including winter, camping, Outward Bound adventures, wilderness programs and finding wood to carve. Curiosity of how things were made, such as astronaut food, and close observations of birds and animals consumed her interests.

Susan working on enamel.

High School & Beyond

In high school, Susan focused on drawing, colored pencil and graphics courses, as well as working at the camera shop. She also learned to make stained glass and cast metal. She received a scholarship to Haystack on Deer Isle, which then led her to a four-year Rhode Island School of Design art program for glass (with artist Chihuly), sculpture, foundry work, and drawing, where she received her BFA in sculpture in 1976, after spending her senior year in the European Honors Program in Italy traveling, drawing, working in a foundry and a marble yard in Pietra Santa, and accumulating enormous experience in working with wood, metal, glass, marble and granite.

In 1976, she returned to the United States and moved to Oregon where she worked in a microfilming center and apprenticed at Altek Tool & Die Works. Susan spent three years as an Engineering Technician at the Oregon Department of Transportation while she worked on her wood carvings at night. She then earned her master’s in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design and worked as an industrial designer for the next 14 years. In 1998, Susan received her certificate of teaching in art and (later) in technology education, and for 20 years worked for both public and private schools in Connecticut and in the Bronx. She received three awards for her technology engineering teaching between 2006 and 2011.

In 1998 Susan entered the world of carved gemstones. It is her multi-disciplinary art background and experience that give depth and substance to Susan’s gem artwork, and it is those experiences that created the perfect foundation for her to blossom as a gem carver.

This face was carved on an Australian opal as a bespoke piece.

Lapidary & Carved Gemstones

Susan learned to cab from Kurt Patzlaff at the Brookfield Craft Center in Brookfield, Connecticut. She later had the opportunity to spend a week with the internationally acclaimed gem carver the late Ute Klein Bernhardt and learn how to carve gemstones. The workshop was held at the Dillman’s Art Center in Wisconsin. Ute introduced her to carving opal and other carved gemstones as cameos and in the round.

“I love to carve both in the round and cameo or intaglio. Each form has its challenges, and each requires a different approach. To carve gemstones in the round, light and color become the entire issue, as you are not carving a mass – you are guiding the eye with light. The form itself becomes secondary. In making cameos, the slightest change in elevation can suggest bone structure, character, watchfulness or an idea of a place. With intaglio, it is what isn’t there; it’s the absence of material that forms the subject matter.”

Elegant and powerful faces and eerie figures that pull in the viewer are carved on Susan’s carved gemstones. Twisted torsos, warrior faces, lions, seaweeds, and organic shapes are some of her themes etched on amethyst, tourmaline, opals, chalcedonies, jaspers and jade. Mesmerizing details in a wide-ranging color palette make her gem artwork stand apart.

Having studied in Italy, figures from the Greek/ Roman mythology is another source of inspiration for Susan. Cerberus is carved on an ametrine, 3”x3”
Photo by Jeff Scovil

Art Studio

Susan started compiling her tools and equipment arsenal for carved gemstones slowly, as funds allowed. She first gathered and cobbled together an old motor and 8-inch cabbing wheels, a 35K rpm motor and a 3/32-inch handpiece from Buffalo Dental. Later, she added a point carver and a 6-inch combo saw and four wheels from Covington. She also creates metal frameworks for her carvings to be worn as pendants. Often Susan works in metals at a local jewelry studio/school called The Guilded Lynx in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

More tools in her arsenal include drill presses, mini torches, a small programmable kiln, metalworking tools, stone chisels, mallets and a lot of jewelry equipment. She also has a 6-inch and 8-inch cabbing station, a point carver and two handpieces. Susan likes using both techniques “bringing the piece to the tool” and “bringing the tool to the piece” meaning that, there are times she uses her fixed arbor station and other times her handpieces.

Inspiration & Influences

The natural environment is a major source of inspiration for Susan’s carved gemstones. “The weather and the natural world are sources of constant renewal and inspiration. Just breathing air moving on a mountain brings out the best in a person. The seacoast makes one look minutely at the creatures that live on the edge of the vast oceanic wilderness,” she said.

Susan Margolis’s profile photo

“We look out over a small pond of reeds, turtles, fish, frogs and dragonflies. Hawks and herons hunt and cardinals nest. An otter once stopped by, deer rest and squirrels and chipmunks ply for nuts. I observe old trees succumbing to woodpeckers, and moss growing over granite, as I walk nearby. Each season changes your thinking processes.”

Susan also loves, seeks out and is inspired by mythology, folklore and origin stories from all cultures. This is reflected in her subject themes.

Susan’s Advice for Young Gem Carvers

• Seek out rock and mineral clubs near you. They are great resources and the people are willing to help with years of knowledge and experience to share.

• Save up and attend a lapidary workshop or jewelry class, if you can.

• Seek out gem materials at the source.

• Learn to identify rocks. Learn about fossils and petrified wood and the preservation of natural resources.

• Go to a local college and find out about geology courses. Look up petrology and find out about astronomy and chemical signatures that signify minerals.

• Find out about mining, minerals and economics.

• You do not need fancy equipment to get started with carved gemstones. If your family has a grinder or a sander, ask to use it or buy a wheel for grinding or wet/dry silicon belts.

• Try new technologies. If you are unsure of your direct carving skills, try creating a digital halftone, or laser-engrave an image and you will have guidelines for accurate carving.

• Whatever you make out of rock or gem material is going to last a very, very long time.

• When you change the shape of the rough, bring the best of your heart and mind.

Artists who have influenced Susan’s artwork include, “early NC craftspeople, the NH League of Arts and Crafts, Erling Heistad, George Greenamyer, Fritz Dreisbach, Dale Chihuly, Marc Harrison, Ute Klein Bernhardt and Deborah Wilson and carvers I met in Tucson, including Dalan Hargrave, Sherris Cottier Shank, Helen Serras-Herman, Naomi Sarna, Larry Woods, Tom Hay, Elizabeth Beunaiche (who organized the Manning House Show in the early 2000s), Lessley Burke of the Guilded Lynx Jewelry & Metal Arts Studio and many, many others.”

Daphne – a Naid nymph from Greek mythology is carved on ametrine from the Anahi Mine, Bolivia, as a sculpture-in-the-round with a bronze base
Photo by Jeff Scovil

Working on her Carved Gemstones

Susan’s work schedule consists of getting up early in the morning, working until 1 p.m., resting for a while, and resuming work from 3 p.m. onwards, every day when she can. Sometimes she works in metal which takes time away from carving.

She always works on several carved gemstones at one time. Each carving requires times of intense concentration and times of rest, while decisions about the next steps gel and thoughts and directions are processed. Several unfinished pieces still wait patiently for her to resume carving.

Does she first plan her project and then look for the gem material, or does the gem material provide inspiration and guidance? “It works both ways,” Susan said. “The design is sometimes suggested by the form of the rough when little needs to be cut away or the flaws can be incorporated. Other times, an idea suggested by inclusions or needles of rutile will give direction. Cameos can be dependent on the colors and thickness of agate layers. Right now, I am working with jade, designing both to maximize area and volume.”

Susan likes to photograph the material to help her think. Then, she draws directly on the material and sometimes makes wax mockups. She’ll draw to plan her settings later on. For her, drawing requires a different mindset than carving does.

Susan loves working on a variety of gemstones. She considers silicas the easiest to work with and would like to spend more time with tourmalines and beryls. She would also like to get better at keeping opal stabilized successfully and learn how to deal with cleavage in topaz. She has learned lessons the hard way. For example, Tanzanian feldspars tend to cleave after carving, kunzite loses color if left in light, Welo ‘chocolate’ opals fracture and jade teaches one how to deal with the orange peel – a lapidary term that refers to an unsuccessful sanded and polished surface on jade, leaving dimples on the surface.

Shows & Exhibits

Over the years, Susan has participated in many local and nationwide shows. Since she joined the Gem Artists of North America in 2003, she participated in several gem art museum exhibits with the group. Susan felt honored when the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art invited her to exhibit in 2008 as a solo artist. Many of her pieces are housed in personal collections. In June 2023, Susan had her Wyoming nephrite jade carving titled “Kelp” (brown algae seaweed) exhibited at the Monterey Jade Festival in California.

Two sculptures in nephrite jade from Roger Krichbaum’s jade deposit in the Yukon Territories, Canada, and their respective wax models. Photo by Susan Margolis

Susan participated during the Tucson gem shows in 2004 and 2005 in the gem artist show held at the Manning House and returned to Tucson in 2008.

As a teacher, she is used to demonstrating and encouraging people to think and work with different materials. “Working with our hands is a very good way to live this life, share the best in ourselves and have something to offer this world.”

This story about carved gemstones by Susan Margolis previously appeared in Rock & Gem magazine. Click here to subscribe. Story by Helen Serras-Herman.


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