Doug Menadue

Tell us briefly a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and where did you grow up?

A bit about myself, well... I was born and bred in a small, sleepy little coastal town in North Queensland called Bowen. I remember spending a great deal of time fishing off the local jetty that stretched out into the bay. Every day after school I'd jump on my bike and pedal down, usually not returning until after dark with a few fish in the bag. The freezer was always well stocked with fresh fish fillets.

When did you start fossicking and what is your earliest memory of fossicking?

Some of my earliest memories of fossicking involve going into the bush surrounding Bowen with my father looking for quartz crystals. I still have memories of holding these little crystals in my hand and oddly the smell of the bush is still strong in my mind from those times. I remember going to a creek and walking along the pebbly beach picking up worn nodules of jasper and agate. I remember a large wooden box that I had which was full to the brim with stones - ice cream containers full of amethyst crystals, quartz crystals, rocks with opal in them, fossils, jasper, agates, all sorts of stones that I had collected or been given.

Prior to gem cutting, you were a professional computer programmer and designer. At what point did you decide to start working with gemstones again and why?

I left my computer programming career of 20 years in 2008. For a while I had been feeling that deep sense of unease and impending change, that restlessness that can come upon one at any time in their life, that growing awareness that what you are doing presently is no longer fulfilling or enjoyable on a deep inner level. It no longer nourishes. I loved and still do love the art of computer programming but I wasn't enjoying what I was doing at the time and who I was doing it for. There came a point where I had to make a decision and I chose to make a change and to move forward rather then to stagnate and wither.

Like all significant, pivotal events in life, this one involved sacrifice. I had to give up a secure six digit paycheck and good career for a leap into the unknown. Naturally all my friends and family thought I was crazy but they did wish me well and supported me in my decision. Prior to this point I had taught myself to facet gemstones as a hobby and I found that this was something I really enjoyed. But now that I had made the decision, what do I do next.

It's funny how the Universe aligns and presents opportunities at these moments. I read by chance a little ad placed by a small gem shop in Mt Surpise, North Queensland looking for someone to help out during the winter tourist season for three months, taking customers out on their daily topaz digging tour to the claim on the nearby gemfields at O'Briens Creek and doing gemcutting in the shop. I couldn't believe it. I paid them a flying visit and got the job.

I came back to Sydney and asked my boss for three months off. He said 'NO!', you can have a month take it or leave it. I said fair enough, in that case my last day will be such-and-such. I still remember the expression on his face of stunned disbelief as I had told him what I would be leaving this comfy job to go and do. So I bought a kombi (if you're going to do it, do it in style) packed up my gear and off I went. Those three months turned into five years. I look back on that time as my 'apprenticeship' into the gem trade. I built and established my Bespoke Gems website during this time and sold my cut gems to people all around the world. Those five years were very rich in life experience.

What is your favourite stone to cut and why?

My favorite stone would probably have to be the silver and blue topaz from O'Briens Creek near Mt Surprise. This was the stone that I spent five years digging and cutting so I've got a soft spot for it. It always looks good and you can cut big gems from it. It's also stone that I have personally dug and have that connection with down to the point where I can probably tell you which bend in the creek a particular stone came from.

You have a wonderful collection of Australian roughs and work a lot with cutting Australian gemstones. Tell us a bit about your favourite fossicking area/s in Australia.

I probably didn't really switch onto fossicking until an 18 month trip around Australia in 2000. That trip turned into the adventure of a lifetime and gemstones became the 'treasure' that enriched the journey. As I travelled I would always keep an eye out for areas to fossick and some of the places I discovered were absolutely amazing.

My memories of the remote outback regions around Harts Ranges in Central Northern Territory are a standout. This is country that everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. I've come to realise that the lure of stones took me off the track into places I would never have otherwise gone and my memories of this are very rich and strengthening.

The other place that has deep significance for me are the topaz gemfields around O'Briens Creek near Mt Surprise. This is where I grounded myself after leaving my computer career. This is a beautiful outback landscape. You can camp on the banks of a freshwater creek and then spend the day wandering around a rugged and hilly pink granite country looking for 300 million year old topaz in the many creeks and gullys. There is something truly magic about all that time I spent there. Incredible memories and experiences.

You have recently worked on a custom gemstone cut for Courtesy of the Artist. What did you enjoy most about this collaboration between our artists?

What stands out is the willingness, openness and vibrancy of those involved and the gallery itself and its enthusiasm to try something new. The art of precision gemcutting, the skills involved and the myriad designs and possibilities available, is little known in Australia. For the most part, it has been my experience that many jewellers are not even aware that such a thing exists let alone how to work it into what they do and their business models.

Courtesy of the Artist has been like a breath of fresh air. There is a seismic shift taking place in the gem and jewellery trade in recent years and its far from over. A whole new wave and breed of jewellery designer is coming into awareness out there, tapped into the times. They are fresh, dynamic, invovative, enthusiastic and open to new creative ideas. They are up against the more established mainstream jewellers who, for whatever reasons, seem to be set in their ways and more closed minded then they realise.

I offer this new breed of jeweller and their clients an incredible wealth of possibilities and a vital edge that they can utilise in their work. They are freed from the boring, ordinary fare of poorly cut oval and rounds stones. They can now access a vast library of gem designs, have gems beautifully precision cut to their requirements and can work these into their jewellery creations in a way that hasn't been possible before. Personally, I think that precision cut bespoke gems is a great untapped resource just waiting out there to be noticed and used.

Knowning that pretty much every jewellery setting, ring, pendant or bracelet has a gem in the middle of it, it seems strange and baffling to me why a jeweller would want to go through all that hard work of creating something beautiful out of metal only to go and put an average looking gem in it. Why wouldn't you want to put the best looking gem you can into it?

I have also found that it is best to be at the front of these waves, to innovate and to put your stamp on things before others. That Courtesy of the Artist has taken the step to have their own gem design created for them embodies innovation and gives them an edge. Let your competitors think the thought, 'Geez, that was a good idea. I wish I had thought of that".

Tell us a little bit about your process.

Every stone has its own particular properties and personality and often work best in certain designs. Part of the skill of the gemcutter is knowing which designs to use for which stones. It's all about light and colour and how best to choreograph that intimate dance of light and colour so the gem comes alive, making it as brilliant, bright and colourful as possible and creating a scintillating play of facet patterns that is mesmerising and dazzling to the eye.

The actual process of gemcutting is all done by hand using a small machine onto which are placed varying metal grinding and polishing laps. There is a moveable mast which has an index wheel and angle settings to which the rough stone is affixed on a dopstick. We start cutting the bottom of the gem called the 'pavilion' and it is vitally important that we cut to the correct critical angles for that type of stone in order to maximise the light return and brilliance. Once the pavilion is cut the stone is then 'transferred' so that the top half or 'crown' of the stone can be cut. It's worth noting that on an average design like a Standard Round Brilliant, the one that most diamonds are cut in, there could be around 90 individual facets. I have cut stones with over 200 facets and these are hard work! Each of these facets have to cut and then polished.

This process can involve five or more different laps. Normally I start with a coarse 380 diamond grit lap to quickly cut down the stone to size and then switch to the 600 grit lap to do the fine cut. Then follows an extra fine cut to remove any scratches from the surfaces and accurately position the facets. Scratches are the bane of the gemcutter and need to be completely removed from the surface of the stone before commencing the polishing stage. Next comes the prepolish stage which is done using 3000 grit diamond. By this time all the facets are perfectly meet-pointed and everything should be looking pretty precise. Lastly comes the polish stage using 100,000 grit diamond and this produces the superb, glassy polish which is the hallmark of a well cut bespoke gem.

Images courtesy of Doug Menadue.