A lapidary (lapidarist, Latin: lapidarius) is an artist or artisan who forms stone, minerals, or gemstones into decorative items such as cabochons, engraved gems, including cameos, and faceted designs. The primary techniques employed are cutting, grinding, and polishing. Carving is an important, but specialised technique.
Hardstone carving is the term used in art history for objects produced by the specialised carving techniques, and the techniques themselves. Diamond cutters are generally not referred to as lapidaries, due to the specialized techniques which are required to work diamond. In modern contexts a "gemcutter" is a person who specializes in cutting diamonds, but in older historical contexts it refers to artists producing engraved gems such as jade carvings and the like. By extension the term "lapidary" has sometimes been applied to collectors of and dealer in gems, or to anyone who is knowledgeable in precious stones.
The etymological roots of "lapidary" is in the Latin word lapis which means stone. The term evolved from lapidarius meaning "stonecutter" or "working with stone", into Old French lapidaire, thereon to mean "one skilled in working with precious stones" in 14th century.
In French and later English, the term also means a treatise on precious stones that describes appearance, formation and properties particularly in terms of "powers of stones" as believed in medieval Europe. These powers included the belief in the ability of stones to prevent harm, heal ailments or offer health benefits. The word appeared as an English adjective in the 18th century.
The earliest known lapidary work likely occurred during the Stone Age. As people created tools from stone, they inevitably realized that some geological materials were harder than others. The next earliest documented examples of what one may consider to be "lapidary arts" came in the form of drilling stone and rock. The earliest roots of drilling rocks, a lapidary method, date back to approximately one million years ago.
The lapidary arts were quite well developed in the Indian subcontinent by early 1st millennium CE. The surviving manuscripts of 3rd century Buddhist text Rathanpariksha by Buddha Bhatta, and several Hindu texts of mid 1st millennium CE such as Agni Purana, Agastimata and Ratnaprakasha are Sanskrit treatises on lapidary arts. They discuss sources of gems and diamonds, their origins, qualities, testing, cutting and polishing jewelry from them. Several other Sanskrit texts on gems and lapidary, have been dated to post-10th century suggesting a continuous lapidary practice.
According to Jason Hawkes and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, archaeological evidence suggests that trade between Africa and India, in products from lapidary arts, was established in the 1st millennium CE. People of Deccan regions of India and those near the coast of East Africa had innovated their own techniques for lapidary before the 10th century, as is evidence by excavations, as well Indian and non-Indian texts dated to that period.
Lapidary has been a significant tradition in early Mesoamerica. These were made from shell, jade, turquoise and greenstones. The lapidary products were used as a status symbol, offerings and during burials. The Aztec used string saw, reed and bone drills for their lapidary arts.
Most modern lapidary work is done using motorized equipment. Polishing is done with resin or metal bonded emery, silicon carbide (carborundum), aluminium oxide (corundum) or diamond dust in successively decreasing particle sizes until a polish is achieved. In older systems the grinding and polishing powders were applied separately to the grinding or buffing wheel. Often, the final polish will use a different medium, such as tin oxide or cerium(IV) oxide. Cutting of harder stones is done with a diamond-edged saw. For softer materials silicon carbide, garnet (emery) or corundum can be used in place of the diamond. Diamond cutting, because of the extreme hardness of diamonds, requires the use of diamond tools. The cutting, grinding and polishing operations are usually lubricated with water, oil, or other liquids.
There are other forms of lapidary work, beyond cutting and polishing stones and gemstones. These include: casting, faceting, carving, jewelry, mosaics (e.g. little slices of opal on potch, obsidian or another black stone and with a clear dome (glass or crystal quartz) on top. There are lapidary clubs throughout the world. In Australia there are numerous gemshows including an annual gemshow, the Gemborree which is a nationwide lapidary competition. There is a collection of gem and mineral shows held in Tucson, Arizona, at the beginning of February each year. This group of shows constitutes the largest gem and mineral event in the world. The event was originally started with the Tucson Gem and Mineral Society Show and has now grown to include dozens of other independent shows.
A specialized form of lapidary work is the inlaying of marble and gemstones into a marble matrix, known in English as "pietra dura" for the hardstones like onyx, jasper and carnelian that are used, but called in Florence and Naples, where the technique was developed in the 16th century, opere di commessi. The Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo in Florence is completely veneered with inlaid hard stones. The specialty of "micromosaics", developed from the late 18th century in Naples and Rome, in which minute slivers of glass are assembled to create still life, cityscape views and the like, is sometimes covered under the umbrella term of lapidary work. In China, lapidary work specializing in jade carving has been continuous since at least the Shang dynasty.