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A gem of a carver.

Keller, Peter

FOR THOUSANDS of years, man has enjoyed the art of stone carving, also known as lapidary. Five thousand years ago, the Chinese began shaping .jade into mythical animals, and later the tradition was carried on by the Greeks, Romans, and other cultures around Europe.

In more recent times, the art of Carl Faberge--the Russian court ,jeweler to Czar Alexander III--has stood out. The tradition of stone carving exists in China today, with massive amounts of jade and other materials being crafted in distinctly Asian styles. Western works, such as that of Faberge, are much more limited, with most of the pieces coming from Idar-Oberstein, a city in Germany.

Harold Van Pelt and his wile Erica are among the finest gem photographers in the world today, yet it is less well-known that he has been pursuing another art--stone carving--for almost 40 years, indeed a rarity here in the U.S. The premiere exhibition of his life's work, "Gemstone Carvings: Masterworks by Harold Van Pelt," is on view through May 31, 2011, at the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, Calif. This is the first time that the full body of his work has been displayed in one place.

Van Pelt employs quartz, rock crystal, or agate--a banded variety of quay. These me the same materials employed by gem carvers since ancient times due to their beauty, durability, and availability. Hundreds of hours go into working the stone down to paper-thin walls, bringing out the gorgeous natural quality and colors of the agate and the transparency of the rock crystal.

Peter Keller, president of the Bowers Museum, had a chance to catch up with Van Pelt and discuss his craft.

Keller: Van, I've known you and Erica for over 35 years.... I remember the first piece I saw; Erica showed me back in 1976. I was impressed when I saw a faceted egg [even though] I thought to myself that everyone has those. Erica smiled and twisted it and it was a hollow faceted egg and I was in love with your work from then on.... [When] did you start [carving]?

Van Pelt: ... In the late '60s we used to buy slices of agate and quartz crystals at the Tucson show and other places. [We had] a flat slice about an inch thick of agate, kind of a dull color. I started by making a tray out of it that was hob low on the inside [with] the natural rind left on the outside, and this was probably our first lapidary endeavor.

Keller: That's kind of like the Chinese tradition where they take a piece of jade and retain the rind, but that first carving was out of a piece of agate and most of what you have done, Ks far as I know. has been largely containers that arc made out of quartz or varieties of quartz such as an agate. Why did you choose that material?

Van Pelt: It's available. There's a lot of quartz from this country, from Arkansas [to] California mines ... It was reasonably priced, so you didn't have a large financial investment. Agate, of course, has always been available from Brazil and that's a beautiful colored, large stone. The hollowing, a lot of people have done containers, [but] they didn't hollow them [or] make them thinner and ... three dimensional.... So, we decided we should be doing that and we made the equipment to do it.

Keller: You actually manufactured your own equipment?

Van Pelt: ... In those days you couldn't buy a lot of the tools [like] you can now and so we made them--converted wood working equipment into doing stone carving. Keller: Like the lathe?

Van Pelt: ... The lathe was a metal lathe from 1925, and we converted it into stone work. It takes a very slow motor and very large tool post motor to turn [the material] very slowly ... while you carve it, and we converted the steel lathe ... to a rock lathe.

Keller: Given your background and your phenomenal expertise in gem photography ... an agate tray isn't quite the same scale as a hollow egg or vase or many of the things you have done. What inspired you? Is them any culture?

Van Pelt: Erica is German, so, in probably the late '60s, we started going to Staldt and were able to see some of the great carvers there and how they function and how they use the stones and that's probably a primary inspiration. They have to make a living at it, so they can't spend the time that we take to get the details and finishing on the pieces of the quartz that it takes to really get a good finish.

Keller: Are there other cultures? You go to Venice [to see] the Italian carvers [and] the medieval goblets or containers....

Van Pelt: We have a European background and we're on the European style....

Keller: Does Faberge have anything to do with that?

Van Pelt: Not really.

Keller: I saw your first egg and thought Faberge right away.

Van Pelt: Yeah yeah, well he was ... everyone assumes every egg is inspired by Faberge. The first egg we did [had] a couple hundred facets, and they were all up and we did several of those and they turned out very well.



Keller: I remember the first one I saw.... The thing that impressed me the most, besides the fabulous hollow, was that you go one step further, and how thin it was. How thin were those walls--a couple of millimeters?

Van Pelt: Three millimeters, three or four millimeters.

Keller: In carving that, I would be so afraid of the last couple of [times that I had to polish] those facets--and having the whole thing shatter in my hand. Is that a problem?

Van Pelt: ... That happens. I lost some pieces that [had] hundreds of hours [already] put into them. I lost them by mistake. You just have to go slow and you have to be careful and you [need] to have safeguards. All your tools have to be covered so [they] can't hit it and break it. You have to measure constantly to make sure you're not getting too thin. You can't let the tool abuse them or chip them. It's tough with thick pieces. The larger they are, the more difficult.

Keller: That's interesting. Now, I remember a story many many years ago that you were working on a crystal skull, a human skull--it was very thin, and you were [quite] close to completion and it shattered. Is that a true story and what went through your mind ...?

Van Pelt: I was shocked. I couldn't believe it. For three days I couldn't tell Erica what had happened. I ... wasn't able to calm down for probably weeks. I just got too thin and I used a tool that was too heavy and too abrasive, but at least I've learned what not to do there....

Keller: That's a hard way of learning.

Van Pelt:... When you break something you've spent hundreds of hours on, you are mighty careful the next time.

Keller: Now I remember--and I think I saw a very similar pair in the Light and Stone exhibition that Mike Scott had from Idar-Oberstein--a pair of crystal candlesticks that you did.... How long did those take, do you remember?

Van Pelt: [They] probably took three or four months, half a year total, maybe. In between, we had to stop and make a living and run the house. That was probably a very early project [in the] early or mid '70s. We had made many trips to Europe and we had taken many photographs in museums of silver candlesticks, looking for the ideal shape that would render in rock crystalline quartz--and we did several hundred of these, actually. I still have pictures someplace of all of them .... We would photograph the ones finally that we thought had potential for different shapes and different stem versus base and so on, and we finally settled on one that seemed to be ideal, and that's what we duplicated.. that silver design. Very early on we made spoons out of agate, very very thin and very delicate; they were Russian silver spoons [where] we altered some of the design to give them more shape, but they were very nice because the agate was exceptional and we made a series of those.

Keller: Now how did you decide, after you finished the spoons and the candlesticks, what the next project would be? Did you know right away or did you wait? ...

Van Pelt: Well, after you [complete a project] you want to do something more complicated the next time [just] to see if you can.... Hopefully it turns out that [it] will be more interesting when it's done. When you start these, you have an inspiration on the design [and] on the sketch, [but] you have no idea what the end result will be....

Keller: So, things evolve as you carve?

Van Pelt: Not really, because you don't know what you have until you' re done and the parts are assembled. Some things we've done have maybe 50 different parts and there's no way of knowing what they will look like until ... it's too late to change anything.


Keller: I've often heard that a sculptor knows exactly what the sculpture is going to look like and all he is doing is taking a rough piece of rock and releasing that sculpture from the stone. Is that true in your case as well?

Van Pelt: I never thought of it that way. I mean, the marble people say that about their work but I don't see it that way. I know what I'd like.... Hopefully, most of the time, you are amazed that it's [as] good or better than you thought it would be--and, of course, you've got to live with the piece for years to really understand it and know how well you will like it.

Keller: Which is your favorite piece? Do you have one?

Van Pelt: Hard to say. The bigger, larger pieces are probably better, but there's some nice little ones, too. I don't know; I never thought about it.

Keller: ... Do you want to discuss the agate chair you are making? How long have you been working on that and what inspired you?

Van Pelt: It was started about 30 years ago. We dropped it for many years because we didn't know how to proceed. It's fairly well finished now. We still can't agree on what to do about the upholstery.

Keller: You're worried about the upholstery? The carving is done?

Van Pelt: Yep, the carving is done and it all has to be assembled, of course,--and it's a takedown; everything comes apart; so it's a complicated procedure.

Keller: ... You also made a pair of jade lampshades if I remember correctly, or ... was [it] the entire lamp? ...

Van Pelt: ... It was a ... lamp made out of slices of jade with the light inside because it's dark British Columbian jade.... It's dark and not that pretty until you put a light behind it and then it is quite exceptionally green. It's more of a decorator piece; it's not really much of a carving piece.

Keller: Of all of the pieces I've seen you do, Van, the one that I think ... would be most difficult would be the base you did with the spiral flutes. Is that something that really isn't that difficult if you have it on a lathe? Did you do it on a lathe?

Van Pelt: Yes, it was done on a lathe. It can be done by hand--but [that's] very difficult. The lathe is much better because you get precision of the design and of the swirl. In the late 1800s, there was a German in England who wrote a book about decorative carving. Mostly they were using hardwood and ivory and he had all these techniques in the book on these special lathes that he had, that he made, that would do this type of thing with the tool post grinding away as you rotated it. So, I got ideas from the woodcarving and the wood lathe and adapted them to the stone carving and ... we were able to get the precision and the sizing right that way.

Keller: So, was it any more difficult or any less difficult than the rest?


Van Pelt: Once you get the initial cutting and the rough done, the finishing is a very long process. [It] takes longer than the initial carving--the ... fine grinding and the polishing.

Keller: Once you're done with that, you add metals and you use mostly gold [and] also semi-precious or so-called semi-precious stones like aquamarine or tourmaline. Is this something you do yourself?

Van Pelt: The gold work we have done by goldsmiths.... The only thing we do is large pieces of metal. We'll make [pieces] out of brass--we shape the brass and then we'll have it plated or, if it's smaller work or delicate, we'll have it done by goldsmiths.


Keller: Now I've heard a rumor ... that your daughter Connie's stocking hosiery container, a brand called Leggs, was how you came up with the egg-shaped package and to open it that way.

Van Pelt: Yes, it's hard to get a perfect egg shape and this was a plastic container that this product came in that was ideal. All we did was copy the silhouette and then enlarge it to the size of the quartz we had and that way we were able to get a perfect shape on the egg. Of course, when you facet it, you have to start with a smooth contoured design.... You then put [it] on a faceting machine.... So, on the lathe first to get the contour and then it has to be smoothed out. After the outside is done, you do the inside and of course you ... have to be very careful when you're hollowing out the inside because you don't want to lose it after all [that] time.

Keller: Is rutilated quartz any more difficult to work with than clear quartz? I know that you and Erica are very big on rutilated quartz and I've seen a lot of it in China these days....

Van Pelt: [It's] about the same. A funny thing happens when you' re done.... If there are mille crystals--a mineral composed primarily of titanium dioxide--in the quartz, the end comes out the surface of the finished carving. For some reason, with time, the ruffles work their way out and you get burrs all over it from the ruffle, either with changes in temperature or pressure or something. The rutile comes out and forms a burr on the surface. So, this is an anomaly that happens, but it rutilated many times.

Keller: ... What is your background? What got you into photography and then into the carving?

Van Pelt: Well, I went to photography trade school when I was younger and they say you are the world's greatest photographer and you are going to go out there and make millions of dollars.... It took me five years to realize I didn't know anything and that it was very difficult to make a living at this trade. So, I tried several phases of different commercial endeavors. [Ultimately, I started photographing] furniture, [but that] just happened by mistake, [something I simply] walked in on--[but] I was able to come up with innovations in the taking of the photographs that were different than what had been done. We were able to start a business and finally able to make a living that way. We'd already been in the commercial end of the home furnishings photography for 10 or 15 years before we started in the gems and minerals. We started going to Tucson in the early '70s and, of course, that's a great show for all types of stones, rocks, jewelry. That was the set up; it was this one hotel. It's nothing like now.

Keller: ... What is your next project?

Van Pelt: I don't know. Sometimes you see designs in wood or silver that you think would render in rocks, but I really don't have a plan. There are some unfinished projects that I should [complete] and some jewelry, some necklaces and so on that I should probably finish.... It's hard to say.

Keller: What started you though, what was your first gem or mineral photograph? ...

Van Pelt: Our main beginning of the photography was in 1972 when Ed Swaboda and Bill Larson at the Queen Mine in Pala hit the gorgeous tourmaline blue caps. It was a major, world-famous discovery. We had already known Ed--we photographed something for him--and he was able to bring all of these by before he sold them, so we got to photograph most of them before they were disbursed all over the world. That was really our beginning because everyone wanted photographs. Bill and Ed were partners at Pala; shortly thereafter that they had a disagreement and broke up and went their separate ways.

Keller: The two of them ... put you on the map as a world-class photographer?

Van Pelt: It was absolutely the talk of the world at Tucson. It was early '72 and some of them got in shows in early March. The photographing started in '72 and then he sold some of the pieces and some of the collectors came by and had us photograph the pieces for them.

Keller: Now, have you seen any relationship between the beauty of these minerals and gems and the carvings that you do? ... Is it just that you like beautiful things?

Van Pelt: You've got to be of major financial resources to collect world-class minerals--especially now. In the old days, you could start with a few thousand [dollars] and now it takes millions.... That's why we carve quartz and agate ... because it used to be--and still is--[available at] a fairly good price.

Keller: It also lends itself to large containers. Historically that's what it was used for.



Van Pelt: There are certain minerals that only come in a certain size.

Keller: ... In the Shaanxi Provincial Museum [is] an agate ruton or wine cup that was found in a Han Dynasty tomb 2,000 years ago, very similar to what can be found in Persia or Roman times. A good friend of mine, Don Peterson, had a piece commissioned--through Erica, actually--to duplicate this cup. Since then, you took it upon yourself to improve on that down to the gold work and do research on exactly how it works. Do you want to talk about that at all?


Van Pelt: In the carving business, you have to carve to a price because very few people will pay the amount of money it takes to do it completely and properly, and so our change in the design was to get a finer detail in the nose and eyes and ears and also to hollow it out, as the original, I am sure, was. We still don't know where the original came from by the way. [It] is in [that] museum in South China, but some people think it came from Greece and [others say] from Asia, or from Europe. So, no one knows.

Keller: The world was the Silk Road; they would trade all over, basically from Beijing to Xian....

Van Pelt: ... Erica and I were in China in 2005 and we went to the main museum in Shanghai and saw the old jade there that's 5,000 years old. We were blown away with the absolute quality of this jade--machine turn, cuts, and ties of exquisite design, and simple and plain, [absolutely] gorgeous. We never knew anything like this existed because there's nothing in Europe like it, so these guys were doing fabulous machine work on stone some 5,000 years ago. It's unbelievable--and to see this in a museum, and [to think that] no one has seen [any] books on it.

Keller: You've had your pieces on display at museums all over the world.... How many pieces have you done?

Van Pelt: Well, counting everything, probably over 70, but some of them are repeats or variations of repeats or the same design made out of different materials.... We're lucky to finish one or two pieces a year.

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Title Annotation:Museums Today; Harold Van Pelt
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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