There are only 13 professional gem cutters in the world. Bill Matheson is one of them.
The owner of DeCaterina’s Fine Jewelry in Sumner, Matheson, 37, has the keen knack of holding precious gems in his palm and, rather than concentrating on their flaws, sees instead the beauty within.
That beauty appears in a rainbow of colors, sizes, clarity and rarity. Take tourmaline, also known as the gemstone of the rainbow.
“I like this one because it can’t be duplicated in a lab,” Matheson said.
There are the brilliant deep-blue hues emanating from a rare sapphire. “If you took this outside, you wouldn’t believe how it reflects the light,” he said of its clarity. When he held up an emerald in the raw, it looks like green sidewalk chalk. But not to Matheson. To him, the emerald – as well as aqua, heliodors, morganite and goshenite – are all forms of beryl.
And if those stones aren’t precious enough, there’s always a girl’s best friend.
“I have diamonds in fancy colors, like greens, blues – as in the Hope Diamond – and yellows,” he said.
Matheson portrays a confidence and comfort that comes from spending most of his life around gemstones.
“I learned from watching my grandpa, from the time I was about 3 years old,” he said. “I’d watch him work in his lapidary for about eight to 10 hours per day. I looked up to him.”
He carries the memories fondly.
“I loved the smells in his shop as the stones were cut,” Matheson said. “They all smelled differently, like where they came from. And opals – I don’t know why – smell like the ocean.”
His grandfather and mentor, Bill Keller, is 87 and still cuts gems in Shelton, Wash. The two continue to hold a close relationship. “The skill was just inherited by me,” he said.
DeCaterina’s, which just celebrated its first anniversary, carries a variety of fine jewelry in addition to costume jewelry. But it’s the custom designs and gemstone cutting Matheson most takes pride in.
When a custom order arrives, Matheson gets to know the customer and designs pieces that reflect their lifestyle – or that of a loved one who may have passed on, he said.
The design begins with a sketch, followed by a hand-carved wax design. Next, the commissioned piece is dipped into ceramic slurry and baked overnight at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. With the wax burned off, Matheson refers to the piece as a “lost wax investment.” And from there, it’s cast in a centrifuge, which he likened to a “big wind-up toy.” The finished product emerges when the skilled craftsman applies heat from a torch to gold, heated until molten.
“You’re left with your piece of gold,” he said of the detailed process. “They’re truly one-of-a-kind.”
And that’s how he treats his customers, who he said are usually middle-class income.
“They can come in here and order a custom piece. Because I have little overhead and they don’t go through a middle man, they can come in here and order a custom piece for the same price they might pay at a mall jewelry store.”
They will also see a difference, he said.
“It’s like comparing a Kia to a Ferrari,” he said. “You can see the difference.”
“In Thailand, they cut about 15 to 20 a day because they’re paid for each carat,” he explained. “They’re cut for yield just to save weight.“
But quality, he said, is everything. “Once they see the difference in the sparkle, they generally buy. I cut for beauty.”
The trade isn’t easy to get in to.
“There’s only one gem school in the world, and it’s in Idar-Oberstein, Germany,” he said.
“But you can learn it on a hobby level all by yourself,” he said. “For a $5,000 minimum investment, you can teach yourself to facet – or cut – gems.”
While Matheson busies himself with orders, his industry peers encourage him to enter a yearly competition sponsored by the American Gem Trade Association.
“They’ve been bustin’ on me to enter it,” he said.
Competition or not, Matheson is content to continue giving his best.
“I love to create,” he said. “It’s a dying art.”
DeCaterina’s Fine Jewelry is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and is available at other times by appointment. It is located at 1202 Main St. in Sumner and can be reached at 253-826- 9211.