Meteorite Jewelry Making: An Introduction

Now that my garage is all set up I have room again to do jewelry. I know that I have mentioned it in passing, but in my youth I was a jeweler. I have done a few pieces each year for fun all my life. I am looking forward to doing a lot of jewelry in the future.

With meteorites my main focus it only makes sense to include meteorites in the pieces of jewelry. My philosophy has always been to use pieces of meteorite that would most likely be considered waste due to their size or quality. Pieces in other words that would not make a collection specimen.

The one thing about stone meteorites is that you are going to get mostly brown as a color. So I have been exploring the wonderful colors of gemstones I can mix with meteorite pieces. Below is a picture of some polished ruby crystals and some ruby cabs that I made. Ruby is a little harder, no pun intended, to work with. At 9 on the hardness scale it is one down from diamond. You have to use diamond pastes, pads, and disks to cut facets and polish ruby. A strange thing about the hardness scale is that the increments are not regularly spaced. It was sort of a pick 10 things that were gems or minerals and give them a number in increasing hardness. So corundum which is Sapphire and Ruby is nine. But, if the increments were spaced by more actual hardness the diamond would be something on the order of 40. It is that much harder than corundum. Stone meteorites have a host of minerals in them and all are fairly soft from a lapidary point of view. Except of course for the diamonds found in carbonaeous chondrites and urelites. But I can not imagine those types becoming jewelry pieces.

Several different colors and styles of cut ruby are seen here.

Some types of jewelry lend themselves to meteorite use more then others. Meteorites being what they are do not do well with washing and getting wet. So rings are really not great choices for utilizing stone meteorites. Unless they are worn occasionally for a special event. I have some rings that I will scatter pictures of through this article. Pendants and ear rings make good meteorite jewelry candidates. They are not in water and not handled much. Not used in work to be worn away like rings would.

The ring on the left has a large low dome cabochon of Sahara 99676 and on the right is a Moldavite cabochon.

I realize the entire subject of meteorites being used in jewelry is a topic of debate. But, after you cut a great amount of meteorite material you will get some pieces too small or too weathered for collection specimens. Both of these negatives for collecting can be positives for jewelry. Small pieces of something really common or inexpensive are never going to sell except in a jar as a bottle of small stone meteorite pieces. Weathered out meteorites are really low quality for the collector since no metal grains remain. That makes them nice for jewelry since there is little that can rust away in the future. They may be pretty stable. They also get harder and more homogeneous in color when they are weathered. That sometimes makes possible a higher polish and a more resistant surface. So my view is that I am saving some pieces from the scrap container and offering them to a different demographic. They will be interesting and conversation starting.

NWA 869 is in the ring on the left, a cabochon of Gibeon iron is in the ring on the right.

Some of the equipment I use for cutting meteorites will certainly find use in the jewelry production. All rocks cut sort of the same. But, making meteorite cabochons is very different from making plain slices. So here is how its done for all the aspiring lapidary artists in our readership. This and a couple other articles coming in following months are intended to replace the book I wrote called Tools and Techniques for Meteorite Preparation. I will not be printing any more of those. The book went into more detail on some things and showed the tools and machines, but I will try to share all the “secrets” here.

Some types of jewelry are beyond the scope of this article such as this Sikhote Alin necklace below. It requires a torch and a lot of knowledge about how to do silver soldering. After about 15 years of use it is still looking quite good and has never shown any rusting. Though this pendant is outside the scope of most individual’s manufacture the making of cabochons is not so let us get right into it.

You begin with your small piece of meteorite. It may be a broken up endpiece or small slice or a wedged slice that you can not easily sell. You need to create a flat back side. If the setting is closed by metal then you may not want or need to polish the back. After you have the flat back you can take an aluminum scribe and draw the shape of the cabochon on the flat surface. I just sharpen a length of aluminum wire about six inchs long to a point.The line may be a tracing around another stone you want to match or may be made using a template which is obtainable from lapidary supply stores. Normally, you would attach the rough stone to a dop stick at this point. This is a skill that must be developed with practice. Basically, you will take a dowel of wood or metal tube and with a candle or alcohol lamp melt dop wax onto the end of the stick. Once you have a blob on the end of the stick you have to attach it to the stone on the flat back. This is best done by warming the stone until it is too hot really to hold and hot enough to just melt the wax itself. I place the stone on a warming plate suspended over the flame. It is sort of a tripod deal that I can put my alcohol lamp under. But a candle works fine and holding the stone in tweezers works fine too. Just do not let the stone get sooted up or oily from the flame it will not stick properly. I usually heat the bar of dop wax over the flame until it melts and then drip a few drops or rub the melting wax onto the back of the stone. You will want to stay inside the aluminum scratch mark or you will not know where to grind. If you happen to cover it you can use your finger nail to push the wax back when it has cooled a little. Be careful you can burn your fingers on the hot stone or the hot wax. Once you have a little wax melted on the stone, reheat the wax on the dop stick and touch the dop stick to the wax on the back of the stone. They will weld together. After the wax has cooled a little but while it is still plastic, you need to adjust the position of the stone so that it is centered and square on the dop stick. You can mush around the wax to make it a better uniform shape if you need to.

     

     

The series of photos above shows the stages of cabochon grinding from small wedged unsalable slice to rough ground domed stone.

Now you grind the edge of the stone down close to your aluminum scratch line. If the setting is already made or the size is critical for matching, then you want to stop a little bigger at this rough grinding stage. You need to leave a small amount of material for fine grinding and final contouring of the bottom edge. The top of the stone may be way too thick and wildly shaped at this point. Your job now is grind it into the shape you want.

Here is where is gets artistic. You will have to visualize the height and curve of the dome that you wish to create. It may be a high dome. It may be a lower flatter dome. It may not be a cabochon. Perhaps you want to make a tablet shaped stone that is square with small facets. I made that type in the ruby ring shown below. To some extent it may be the amount of meteorite you are willing to grind off and how much you feel you wish to preserve of the material that determines the grinding you do. By rotating the dop stick in your fingers while pushing it against the grinding stone (or diamond disk) you will remove the unneeded material. With practice you will be able to get the shape quickly down near to your line. The stone at this point will have sides perpendicular to the base which is attached to the dop stick. You can begin to shape the top and the curve of the cabochon. Tilt the position of the grinding so that you are grinding down the sides near the top instead of the side edge. While always spinning the dop stick between your fingers remove the material as uniformly around the entire stone as possible. If the top is very irregular, say thick in one area and thin in another that is ok. You can go ahead and level it down to a little more than the thickness you want on the finished domed stone. Remember, you need to leave some material here also for fine grinding, sanding, and polishing.

Gradually, you will remove the material from the stone, You are creating the curve by changing the angle that you use and the area where you grind. You can slowly work your way in from the edge toward the center of the top. Finally, the very middle of the top will no longer be a tiny flat circle or oval but part of the curve. At this point in rough grinding you will likely have a surface that is not smooth but a series of many steps of different angles. That is just fine, you are going to smooth those away with more control using a finer grit grinding wheel or diamond disk. Rough grinding can be done on most stones with a coarse wheel or a diamond disk of around a 150-250 grit. I do not use coarser disks then that on meteorites because meteorites are not that strong and coarser wheels and disks bang the stone too hard during beginning stages of shaping. For the fine grinding stage I jump to between 400-600 grit diamond disks or fine grinding wheels. Oh, important thing I forgot, despite meteorites not liking water you need to use water at all stages of grinding and distilled water is best for the stone. If you do not, you will be living in a cloud of dust that is bad for you and the stone will get very hot. It may break but for sure the dop wax will get soft and the stone will likely fly away. It may strike the bottom of your grinding enclosure and break or chip. Regardless, of what else happens you will be reattaching it to the dop stick.

In fine grinding your motion will change. You will be moving the stone on the wheel randomly and gentler. The idea now is to remove all the little peaks from the stages of coarse grinding and making a smoother real curve instead of a curve of flat steps. You will grind for a few seconds, then dry off the stone and check it by holding it up to a window or light. Spin the dop stick in your fingers and see if the stone has the shape you want and that it is not flat in spots or off center or wrongly sloped to one side. Once you are happy with the shape and smoothness you are ready to sand it really smooth.

Sanding is another skill that you will develop with practice. You can use a sanding disk or sanding drum they come in many sizes 6-10 inches. You will have a wide selection of grit papers, disks, and belts to use on them. Some are adhesive attached some are held by tension or centrifical force. I sometime use them still for many stones, but for meteorites I do it by hand. The minerals are not hard usually and my hand way is fast and easy. But, it will take some practice to get the method.

I take a sheet of sand paper, usually aluminum oxide, usually around 600 grit. I lay a portion of the paper the size of my hand across my palm. I fold slightly the paper between a valley created by my three middle fingers. I then run the stone still attached to the dop stick up and down the sand paper valley. I spin and rock the dop stick while sanding so that every portion of the stone is sanded . This method works very quickly to smooths the stone to a semi polished surface with no remaining bumps or grooves.

Polishing is the last stage; if you have checked the size and it is correct for the setting. If it is not you can grind the edge slightly on the fine disk to trim it up. Make sure that this fine ground flat ring at the base of the stone will be conceded in the bezel or under the setting. If is is not going to be concealed you will need to sand and polish the edge. I often do not run the curve of the dome all the way to the base as a sharp corner. They chip easy when setting the stone and during handling. I often leave a thin band around the bottom that is square to the base.  Or on thin low domed stones I will roll off the edge and make it not so thin right at the edge. Another thing that is often done is to smooth off the square bottom corner completely by sanding it into a rounded corner. Then this can be polished if you want. Stones that are rounded off on the bottom corner are much less likely to chip during setting.

The black gemstones on the left are made from Thailand splashform tektite, in the middle are two small moldavite cabochons and on the lower right is a high domed gemstone made of Sahara 99676.

Polishing can be done by hand the same way I just described using film polishing material cut from a roll. Or it can be done using polishing compound on a felt or leather disk or with polishing pads. I prefer cerium oxide as a polishing compound on felt and leather. It is far less messy then red rough which is fine for polishing silver and gold but will stain the meteorite. Cerium oxide is also a quicker agent for most stones and gives a nice polish. It is among the least expensive of the polishing compounds. But polishing film is a no mess, no clean up at all, alternative. The rolls last a long time and they come in all grades of fineness. When it is finished being polished using the film the gemstone is done except for a wipe on a piece of cloth. If you use leather or felt on a machine you will have to remember to go slowly since the stone will get hot without water. You will probably have to use water at least enough to keep the cerium oxide on the leather a slurry. It is your choice. I just do not like the staining and clean up of the stones and use polishing films for meteorites. I do use leather with cerium oxide often for all tektites including Moldavite, for Libyan Desert Glass, and any other non-porous hard stone.

Once your stone is polished you are ready to remove the stone from the dop stick. You need to gently warm the stone once again and when the wax softens peel it from the back of the stone. If there is any residue it can be scraped off with a sharp single edge razor blade or lightly sanded away. Now you have to decide if you wish to polish the back of the cabochon. You could have polished it at the very beginning once you ground it flat and I often do. It prevents that fatal error right at the end like scratching the polished dome accidentally. But, it is easy to polish at the end as well. Since it is flat you can do it with sand paper and polishing material on a flat surface by hand.  If you choose to use power polishing equipment you will probably need to redop it using the domed side as the one you attach to. This is fine and can easily be done, but hand polishing of soft materials like meteorite is faster and easier and less risky.

I am sure there is much more that I could say about this. It is something that becomes clearer once you have done it a few times. It is pretty easy with meteorites and the work moves along quickly. With harder stones it takes much more time. I can make a nice cabochon out of meteorite in about a half an hour start to finish. But, a ruby with all the disk changes and the diamond paste changes in polishing may take two to three hours. There is also the much more difficult work at the beginning deciding where within the larger crystal to take the ruby gemstone from. I may have three or more cuts on the saw to get to the rough piece. Since I am using meteorite material already cut small I will at the most have one cut to reduce it to size for cabbing. I think anyone with even some simple tools can make a cabochon. There are even hand cabbing kits available. With no equipment required at all they work well. They include boards you hand hold with all the grits attached. Other boards with polishing material attached are supplied. You do the grinding and polishing by hand. But, you can make a nice stone.

After you have your gemstone you can set it in whatever type of setting and piece of jewelry you chose. Stock casting can be obtained from numerous sources. You can remove the stone from an old piece of jewelry and replace it with yours. Or you can make your own silver or gold piece and learn a few more skills along the way.

Here are a matched pair of gold rings that I made years ago. Each has had several stones in them over that span of time. I was never happy with either ring before. I am now happy with the NWA869 in the one on the left. The ring on the right has a natural untreated ruby. I cut it with streep facets forming the sides so it can be bezel set. Atfer all the stone changes the bezels are getting sort of messed up. I think this is the last change I can make before the bezel metal cracks.

Pieces of meteorite jewelry may begin appearing for sell on our website in the future as I get some made. I hope you will take a look and enjoy with me a part of my life I have come back to after many years of doing other work. If you decide to do some lapidary work I would be delighted to hear about it. If you run into problems I would be happy to give some answers if I can.

Until next month have fun, Jim

About the Author

James Tobin
The Meteorite Exchange, Inc. was born in 1996 with meteorite.com and Meteorite Times Magazine in 2002. Still enthusiastic about meteorites and all things related to them, we hunt, collect, cut and prepare specimens. We travel to gem shows and enjoy meteorites as much now as in the beginning. Please feel free to share any comments you have on this or any of our other sites.
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