Romancing the Stone

By Beacon Staff

There are believed to be only 13 master gemstone faceters in the country. Kalispell resident Jack Gross is one of them.

The 81-year-old started cutting and polishing gems more than 20 years ago, partly as a way for his wife to have nice jewelry that he couldn’t afford otherwise. He went on to become one of the best competitive faceters in the world, placing near the top at international contests and achieving scores that earned him the highest distinction in the gemstone community: master faceter.

Gem faceting is the art of transforming a rugged, unassuming stone into a gleaming geometric piece of jewelry. It’s a process defined by the quest for perfection. Its practitioners, whether competitors or hobbyists, depend on patience, precision and the tenacity to overcome searing regret.

Gross labors over one gem for months, whittling away at microscopic layers for a few hours everyday. One miniscule mistake could mean having to start over.

“You either have a desire to make things perfect or you don’t,” he said. “To me there is a sense of satisfaction from making those (facets) meet just like the book says they’re suppose to. But if you get too wrapped up in it, it spoils the game.”

Frustration began spoiling the pastime for Gross a decade ago. After finishing dead last at a competition event, his affection for the craft finally cracked. He abandoned gem faceting all together.

Almost 10 years later, Gross is back sitting at his old workstation in the basement of his home near Foys Lake. His eyes are sapphire blue and his hair shines silver. His hands look like sandstone. His fingerprints have been worn down from years of stone cutting.

The spinning wheel and tools that make up his workstation are dusty, but not from lack of use. This past year Gross returned to gem faceting.

The International Faceters Challenge, a competition between gemstone cutters from all corners of the world, is held every two years in Australia. To be considered in the team competition, participating countries need five people to enter. The United States only had four, and that’s why Gross received a call a year ago.

“I know he had doubts at first of entering,” Gross’ wife, Betty, said. “I just hate to see a talent like that go to waste. When we found out they needed one more person to make up a team, I told him, ‘You’ve got to.’”

At the behest of his wife, Gross agreed. He returned to the basement and flipped on the little spotlights hanging over his workstation. The challenge was daunting right from the onset. First off, he found he has a harder time seeing these days.

“That’s a strike against me,” he said. “If you can’t see what you’re doing, you’re out of luck.”

He also found some of the knowledge he had acquired from countless hours of faceting seemed to have escaped him.

But none of this stopped him, and he sat down and got to work. He had less than a year to facet three world-class stones, and time was wasting.

Were it not for a rainstorm and a chance encounter, Jack Gross might never have discovered gem faceting. He also would not have the family he does today, with two children, two grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Blue and green synthetic spinels are seen with purple smoky quartz.

Just over 60 years ago, Gross was home in Oklahoma on furlough from the U.S. Air Force. With his military service almost over, Gross began making plans for the future. One place stood out in the young man’s mind: the Alaskan frontier.

“I was going to go spend my life prospecting for gold,” he said. “That was my intention.”

He spent almost all his money on a Jeep and necessary supplies. But before returning to duty, he planned a fishing trip.

It rained nonstop that day and the trip was canceled. Gross stepped out of the rain into a nearby local drug store and ran into a local guy he knew. The man escorted Gross to one of the store’s booths where a group of people was sitting. That’s when a chance introduction changed Gross’ life.

“He took me back and introduced me to a group of young ladies sitting in a booth, which included the most gorgeous thing I ever laid my eyes on,” Gross said. “I already had the Jeep and all the equipment to go back to Alaska. But that was all sold to buy an engagement ring.”

Jack and Betty celebrated their 60th anniversary in November. Betty, 78, still remembers that original twist of fate as vividly as her husband.

“It’s kind of weird when you think back on it,” she said. “Amazing that 60 years has passed. Sometimes it just seems like yesterday. Now we have all these memories that we can go through.”

Those memories include moving to Kalispell in 1956, when “the side streets were still dirt roads.” Gross was a wildlife biologist for years and taught at universities across the West before settling down with Betty in Kalispell. The Grosses bought a mining claim on a piece of land in Southwest Montana and Gross became a “rock hound.”

“It was strictly a mom and pop operation,” he said.

The Grosses soon discovered a section rich with sapphires. Straight from the earth, the gemstones were rugged and far from resembling shiny pieces of jewelry. Gross wanted one of those stones made into a nice sapphire ring for Betty, but he found out how much a faceted and polished gem can cost. Then a friend told him, “Why don’t you cut one yourself?”

There was a local club of faceters in Kalispell at the time. Gross began showing up regularly to gatherings and learned the craft. The hobby stuck, and he went on to be the editor of the U.S Faceting Guild newsletter for years. He helped develop improvements for faceting machines that are used nationwide today, according to a longtime member of the national guild.

There’s an old saying that sticks in Gross’ mind.

“You’re not a master faceter until you make every mistake in the book and then learn how to work your way out of it.”

When he returned to faceting last year, he realized the painful truth in that statement.

“It was pretty stressful (in the beginning),” Gross said.

Using the old equipment he had customized over the years, Gross worked tirelessly faceting and polishing the three stones to be entered in the international competition. Each stone had certain requirements for facet sizes, shapes and dimensions. His old mastery slowly returned and soon he had turned two gems into seemingly perfect shiny geometric jewelry.

Gross was down to one final gem, and that’s when a problem arrived.

The stone was not cutting clean and little chunks were showing on the surface that looked like alligator hide. He slowed his cutting down to a snail’s pace, but still the chunks showed. He tried everything he could think of but nothing was working. He began to panic.

“I was getting desperate,” he said.

That frustration that had caused him to quit faceting years ago returned. But Betty, as always, encouraged him, and the old master came through.

Gross followed a hunch and tried something he had never thought of before as a “last resort,” and “it worked like a charm.”

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he said. “A lot of people have this problem and they just give up.”

Gross submitted his three finished stones last month. He will find out how well he did in a field of 60 faceters in March.

Regardless, he has no plans to give up faceting. He still loves the craft. He’s even agreed to start teaching it to a friend.

“It’s good to see him getting back into it,” said Keith Wyman, a former president of the U.S. Faceters Guild who lives north of Seattle and knew Gross when he was the newsletter editor. “Jack’s a great cutter and a heckuva guy.”

Betty is also happy to see her husband back cutting stones.

“He’s just got a mind like that,” she said. “He likes to tinker.”

She wears a homemade sapphire ring that perfectly proves it.

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