The Gem Transcends the Cut

Written by: Debra McCormick | Photography by Mark Steelman

     As humans, we are instinct-driven beings, gravitating often to beauty. We enjoy looking at perfect shapes and vibrant colors, which explains our attraction to fine gemstones. They are a significant component in the work of several award-winning gem and jewelry designers at Spectrum Fine Jewelry, a boutique located at The Forum in Wilmington. One of these designers is renowned gem artist Clay Zava. His relationship with Spectrum developed through a longtime collaboration with jewelry designer Susan Drake, who has been part of the staff for many years. Together, their united artistry has resulted in many national design awards.          

     As a gem cutter, Mr. Zava is a precision craftsman. Intricate care goes into creating a finished gemstone. The transformative process of gem cutting involves careful shaping and polishing and begins with a rough gem crystal to achieve a finished gem. Cutting a gemstone involves using a faceting machine, which has a grinding disk impregnated with diamond to create polished facets on the gem. The diamonds help rough out a shape on a gem, but it is the expert hand of the cutter that forms the perfect geometry of a gemstone.

     Zava believes it is not the number of facets but their precise juxtaposition that brings out the maximum beauty of a stone. Simplicity is the key. Symmetry, placement, and angle are carefully planned since each species of gem require a particular method of cutting. A good analogy for understanding this method is imagining two mirrors placed next to each other—turning one mirror half a degree creates what appears to be thousands of reflections. With this image in mind, one can then visualize the bright surface of, for example, an exquisite blue aquamarine stone.

     There are two particular styles of cutting that Zava uses the most. His finished gems are most often in his signature cut, called a pillow cut (an adaptation of the more commonly known cushion cut). The pillow cut is his bestselling shape and his favorite to make because, in his opinion, it is the prettiest. He describes the cut as adaptable to any gemstone, which makes it the most flexible and the most fun. Another one of his favorite shapes is the emerald cut because it allows him to express his own unique interpretation of this classic design.

     It is possible to view dozens of Zava’s gems at once by attending one of Spectrum Fine Jewelry’s Gemstone Roundtables. These private, invitation-only events are held three to four times a year for participants who appreciate beautiful things and enjoy having a good time. People who attend the upbeat two-hour event usually have an interest in learning more about different gemstones, or they are seeking the perfect stone to add to their collections.

     Owner, Star Sosa describes the Roundtable experience as “speed dating with the gems.” Not surprisingly, attendees often fall in love with certain gems, gravitating to specific colors and shapes while learning about the species and cut of each one. Zava has been a regularly featured gem cutter at these events, showcasing three to four months of his most recent work. “I enjoy getting feedback on the gems I cut, and I love watching people’s reactions as they view them,” he says.

     His interest in gems began as a child when he attended adult education classes with his grandmother, who was learning how to cut gemstones. He spent a lot of time with her, and together they would hike the mountains of East Tennessee. Their strategy was to go to mountains that had recently been strip-mined for coal; this allowed them to “rockhound” for fossils and other natural treasures. All of these activities helped foster what would become an avid hobby in gems. After earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, Zava decided to turn his hobby into a career.

     Zava views his work in a philosophical way. Having a background in anthropology, he notes how as humans we are attracted to color and are unconsciously drawn to particular gemstones because of our evolution. He explains, “We are one of the few creatures on earth who can see the broad color spectrum. Color and symmetry appeal to our primitive senses and gemstones have a way of invoking that gut instinct. It ties right into how we evolved.” Not surprisingly, Zava’s way of choosing rough gems is also driven by that primitive sense: “I have to have a gustatory reaction to a gem. If I want to eat a gem, then I know I want it. I want to work on it.”  Ultimately, he wants his work to be an unseen factor in the gem. He emphasizes that his ego is not imposed on the finished piece because he wants the stone to speak for itself, saying, “The gem should transcend the cut.”


To learn more about Zava gemstones or to request information about upcoming gem events at Spectrum Fine Jewelry, please contact the store at (910) 256-2323 or visit their website: